The Most Expensive Bottles of Wine Ever Sold
For many, the thought of paying $50 for a bottle of wine is akin to lighting banknotes on fire. Wine is, after all, just fruit juice. How could the fermented liquid of the humble grape possibly justify such a price tag?
One might just as easily argue that $50 for various shades of paint brushed onto canvas is also a ludicrous expense. The big difference here is that few people — even those who could never afford a Vermeer let alone a Kinkade — would argue that artwork is overvalued. It is, after all, the utmost example of creative expression.
But to the avid wine connoisseur, there is little difference between an original Dali or Degas and a Lafite or Margaux. The latter two names are not artists in the accepted definition of the word, but their creations are meant to last for decades and perhaps inspire future generations. They just happen to be bottles of wine.
In truth, art and wine share much in common. Those who make each say it’s their life’s pursuit. And, those who buy each say it’s their life’s pursuit. And both customer bases are willing to shell out gobs of money to get their hands on it.
But how much, exactly? Well, art wins the price tag game here, but rare vintage wine is not far behind — think hundreds of thousands of dollars for single bottles. And just like fine art, the fine wine world is full of swindlers.
Before we unveil some of the most expensive bottles of wine ever sold, let’s take a quick lesson in wine volume measurements (it will come in handy). A single bottle of wine contains 750 ml of liquid, or 25.4 ounces. The industry standard for a single glass of wine is 5 ounces, so a bottle contains roughly 5 glasses.
There are many different sizes of wine bottles, and some have really cool names. You’ll find a few in the pages to come. So, shall we crack open some bottles?
2010 Williams Selyem Westside Road Neighbors Pinot Noir (California)
Size: Salmanazar (9 liters)
Price per liter: $22,778
Year sold: 2013
That’s a pretty penny for a really young wine, especially since it was purchased only three years after it was made. (As you’ll see in the ensuing list, most gaudily expensive wines are decades, if not hundreds of years, old.)
But a wine does not necessarily have to be old to be rare. In this case, the bottle size was what the industry calls a Salmanazar (named after an Assyrian king), containing nine liters of wine, or 12 standard-size bottles. That’s 60 glasses total, at some $3,416 a pop. Few wines are bottled in this size format, so indeed it is a rare find.
And the proceeds went to a good cause: helping the children of Texas. This pinot noir was purchased at a charitable auction for the 2013 Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo by a group of generous wine lovers. As for the product itself, the winery said that while 2010 was a difficult harvest, it was an exceptional vintage.
1992 Screaming Eagle Cabernet Sauvignon (California)
Size: Imperial (6 liters)
Price per liter: $83,333
Year sold: 2000
Screaming Eagle is referred to as a “cult wine” for its low production and diehard fanbase — people willing to spend upwards of $7,000 for a single bottle. Or, in this case, $62,500.
In 2000, the Napa Valley Wine Auction had a banner year, raising $9.5 million. That was due in large part to the purchases of Chase Bailey, a top executive at Cisco Systems at the time. He and his wife, Susan, spent more than $1.7 million in total on several lots. The most impressive — or insane — purchase was an Imperial (6 liters) size bottle of Screaming Eagle Cab for a cool half million.
Before we move on, it should be noted that the first two expensive bottles on our list technically shouldn’t even be on the list. That’s because while they were sold, the sales were to benefit charitable causes. Had they been auctioned or retailed for profit, they might have commanded more money. Such as our next wine…
1947 Cheval Blanc (France)
Size: Imperial (6 liters)
Price per liter: $50,729
Year sold: 2010
This beauty of the Saint-Emilion region is often considered one of the best Bordeaux wines ever made, so it’s only fitting that it would fetch the highest price ever paid for a single bottle, albeit an enormous single bottle (6 liters). That works out to some $38,046 per standard-size bottle.
An anonymous buyer paid more than $300,000 for it at a Christie’s auction in Geneva in 2010. “This wine is undoubtedly one of the greatest Bordeaux of all times, not only because of its rare quality but also due to its extensive life span, as it could still be kept and enjoyed 50 years from now with no problem at all,” Michael Ganne, a Christie’s wine specialist, told Reuters before the auction.
What makes this wine so impressive so many years later is that the winery itself didn’t think much of it to begin with. The chateau describes the 1947 vintage as a “happy accident of nature,” according to a 2008 story in Slate. Winemaking was not as sophisticated then as it is now, meaning barrels were often lost to spoilage and subjected to the effects of bad weather, and some were too sweet or acidic. But somehow, through the magic of who-knows-what, this wine ended up aging better than almost anything before or since.
1787 Lafitte (France)
Price per liter: $208,600
Year sold: 1985
In what is arguably the most famous wine auction ever, publishing magnate Malcolm Forbes purchased a 750ml bottle of 1787 Lafitte (now Chateau Lafite Rothschild) at Christie’s in London in 1985. At the time, it was by far the most expensive wine ever purchased.
It was a bottle in the purported Thomas Jefferson cache that allegedly was found in an old Paris apartment building in 1985 during renovations and subsequently purchased by German music mogul Hardy Rodenstock. He claimed to have bought more than a dozen of these Jefferson bottles, all from various premium Bordeaux wineries and all etched with the winery name and the initials “ThJ.” The world’s foremost expert on old wine, Michael Broadbent, had personally authenticated these wines before they were sold.
Over the next several years, more of these bottles would be sold and some consumed. And the fraud rumors and accusations only grew with each high-end purchase. (The Jefferson bottles are famously the subject of a 2007 article in The New Yorker and the 2009 book “The Billionaire’s Vinegar.”)
Marvin Shanken, the publisher of Wine Spectator, was outbid by Forbes for the initial Jefferson bottle. An anonymous businessman from the Middle East bought another one. Then in 1988, billionaire Bill Koch purchased four Jefferson bottles from two different merchants, spending a total of more than $300,000 on the wines. Koch would eventually sue Rodenstock on fraud charges, cementing the idea that the wines were fakes. Still, the question remains unanswered.
1787 Margaux (France)
Price per liter: $282,667
Year sold (er, broken): 1989
If you’re not supposed to cry over spilled milk, what do you do over 202-year-old wine? In this case, file an insurance claim, then curl up into the fetal position and weep your heart out.
That’s what a wine dealer named William Sokolin did in 1989 after clumsily bumping into a serving tray while holding a bottle of 1787 French Bordeaux from the Margaux winery during an ultra-exclusive wine-tasting dinner in New York City. The story sounds like a whopper, but it did in fact happen and has become known as the “Most Expensive Wine Never Sold.” Sokolin told the New York Times that he was not drunk, just overly excited about showing off the bottle he had acquired from a British wine merchant to the guests at the Bordeaux event.
“I wasn't going to sell the wine that night,” he told the Times in 1989. “It was a power play in a sense. Where am I going to see this opportunity again? I am not invited to Chateau Margaux on a daily basis. There are three or four moments in a lifetime that are important. I thought that was one of them.”
Sokolin had valued the wine at $519,750 after purchasing, and insuring, it for $212,000. The vaunted price tag was somewhat justifiable because the bottle purportedly belonged to Thomas Jefferson, widely regarded as America’s first wine lover. Many people had reservations about this provenance, but other Jefferson bottles had already been sold at auction, so there was a market for these wines whether they were real or not. And for good measure, Sokolin was able to cash out the insurance claim for $212,000.
1869 Chateau Lafite (France)
Price per liter: $311,963
Year sold: 2010
Several factors make this sale one of the more fascinating.
First, the sale was estimated to fetch a mere $8,000 at a Sotheby’s Asia auction in 2010 but ballooned to $233,972. Second, while other, larger bottles have gone for more, this Lafite is a standard 750ml bottle. And lastly, unlike the provenance of other 19th century wines, this bottle came directly from the cellar of the chateau, so there’s no questioning its authenticity.
Lafite has something of a cult following in Asian countries, according to a story in Wine Spectator about this auction. “This was the hottest wine town [Hong Kong] and the hottest wine of the moment creating the excitement,” Robert Sleigh, head of Sotheby’s Asia wine department, told the magazine.
It was also the first Lafite cellar auction ever held in China. The winning bidder has remained anonymous, although was apparently so enamoured with the purchase that the person scooped up two more bottles of the same wine after the auction, spending a total of some $690,000 on the three wines.
1907 Heidsieck (France)
Price per liter: $366,667
Year sold: numerous
We couldn’t possibly end a story about wine without a little bubbly, and a lot of intrigue.
The year is 1916 and Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia, is awaiting a shipment of Europe’s finest wines. Meanwhile, World War I is in full tilt and German U-boats are patrolling any and all waters. The tsar has commissioned a Swedish freighter to deliver the goods, but it never arrives. Instead, the ship is sunk off the coast of Finland by a German sub.
Fast forward 82 years and an expedition to the sunken vessel recovers some 2,000 bottles of wine. Lo and behold, many were perfectly intact and had barely lost any volume to seepage (apparently wine corks like cold salty water).
Since then, many of these bottles have gone up for auction, some selling for as much as $275,000 each.