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Explainer

You’re Getting Divorced and You Both Want the Wine. What Next?

Sound advice on how to protect your wine collection

David W. Brown By July 21, 2022
illustration of husband and wife glaring at each other holding wine
Illustration of husband and wife glaring at each other, contemplating splitting their wine collection and other assets. Illustration by Adam Nickel.

A fine, cellared wine might endure for 20 or 30 years, but marriages, statistics say, do not. 

When divorces get ugly, aggrieved spouses can go for the jugular, and for serious wine collectors, that means the 1,000 bottles in the dark room kept at 55 degrees. How then does a wine collector protect the integrity of his or her cellar when the day comes to split the assets? Who keeps the wine in the divorce, and how is it decided?

It can get ugly

To understand how a wine cellar might fare in a divorce, Daniel H. Stock, a divorce attorney in New York City whose firm specializes in divorce and family law matters points to the bitter, drawn-out divorce between octogenarian billionaires Harry and Linda Macklowe, two New York City billionaires. The couple came to common ground on dividing up the yachts, the vacation homes, and the apartment overlooking Central Park. The billion-dollar art collection, however, proved impossible to divide. Who would get the Picasso, the Rothko, the Warhol? For that, the couple went to war.

Years into the negotiation, a judge finally decided that enough was enough, and ordered the collection sold at auction

For high-value wine collections, the same thing can happen. It might be, says Stock, that one party says to the other, “Listen, you’re a Burgundy freak, so why don’t you take the Burgundy, and I’ll take the Bordeaux. Mine is worth a million dollars more than yours, so let’s draw up an agreement and I’ll pay the difference.”  

But it depends, because the law differs depending on the state in which the couple files for divorce. 

Here’s how it works — and what not to do

Most states, says Stock, follow a doctrine called “equitable distribution,” which simply means fair is fair. During divorce proceedings, the court can consider evidence and call hearings to decide the most evenhanded way to split property accumulated during a marriage. 

Using New York terminology, the courts divide property itself into two categories: separate property and marital property. 

When considering property, says Stock, the courts draw two lines in the sand. “The first line is the day you said, ‘I do.’ And the second line in the sand is the day you say ‘I’m suing you for divorce.’ Anything in between those two lines is considered marital property.” That is what is divided up during divorce proceedings — usually split down the middle — and is legally defined in most states to be any property at all, including real estate, stocks, bonds, Pez dispensers, comic books, doll houses, wine collections, or single wine bottles.

Separate property, says Stock, consists of anything acquired before the marriage, anything declared to be separate property in a prenuptial agreement, or certain things like personal injury awards or life insurance proceeds.

Whether marital property or separate property, wine collections, of course, can be deeply personal in a way that stocks and bonds are not, and corrosive discussions can ensue. “It might be more likely that what happens is the husband says, ‘Listen, I sat at my grandfather’s knee in Tuscany while he taught me about the difference between these grapes, and you’re going to get one bottle of this over my dead body. I want the whole collection. If you got a problem, see my lawyer,” Stock continues. 

If an impasse is reached, and things go on for too long, he explains, the presiding judge is likely to order an expensive collection to be sold at auction, with the money divided evenly.

If a judge does make such a call, the person with the keys to the cellar might decide, fine, I’m just going to drink the good stuff before my estranged partner can get their grubby hands on them.

That, says Stock, is a very bad idea. He’s seen it happen before.

“You can get in trouble for drinking the wine or for selling your wine if you do it after the divorce has started,” he says. The court automatically issues asset restraining orders once divorce proceedings begin. “The minute the lawsuit is started, these automatic orders basically say, ‘Don’t touch anything.’ And if you do, you’re violating a court order.”

“It might be more likely that what happens is the husband says, ‘Listen, I sat at my grandfather’s knee in Tuscany while he taught me about the difference between these grapes, and you’re going to get one bottle of this over my dead body. I want the whole collection. If you got a problem, see my lawyer,” Stock continues. 

Is the wine worth fighting over?

According to Melissa L. Smith, the founder of Enotrias Elite Sommelier Services, for a wine to have value in a divorce, the wines must have value on the market. Though there are many ways to appraise a cellar’s value, her firm uses proprietary software to inventory a collection. “From there I look at current market value, auctions, and any other pertinent information that has to do with bottle condition,” she says. Thematic collections can really help to market a collection, she says, but it really comes down to the demand for the specific bottles. 

For appraisals done before papers are filed, she says, “Someone may have a massive collection of California Cabernet, but if it isn’t one with a proven return on investment, it’s better to just throw a massive steak dinner and invite all of your friends over to open the bottles.”

Before things get too nasty, a wine collector facing the loss or dissolution of his or her cellar should consider that the wine in question might not be worth all that much.

“Most people have a vastly overinflated idea of how much their cellar is worth,” says Keith Wallace, a board member for the National Wine School. He is frequently called as an expert witness in litigation and divorce cases that revolve around wine collections.

One reason for these overestimations is that collectors aren’t storing their wines as well as they think they are. Heat and light kill wines, and in his experience, too many collectors use their cellars as entertainment spaces. 

When evaluating collector-grade wines, he looks at several things, the first of which is whether the wine is counterfeit. 

“Most fakes are pretty fake,” he says. “The paper is never the right paper, and how they affix it to the bottle is also a telltale sign. If someone’s using a glue gun, it’s pretty obvious after a few years. Most people making counterfeits just need it to be good enough. People already want it to be real so badly.”

To check the integrity of the wine itself, he removes the capsule and examines the condition of the cork, its level of deterioration, and how much wine has pushed through. The cork, he says, reveals “almost everything you need to know.” He also studies the ullage — the headspace in the bottle between the cork and the wine. The greater the space, the greater the chance of spoilage.

One reason collectors so often overestimate the value of their cellars is because they collected the wrong things. These days, most collections he evaluates come from Boomers going through late-in-life divorces and litigation. 

“They didn’t collect a lot of Bordeaux,” says Wallace. “The amount of California Petite Sirahs I’ve seen in cellars that should have been drunk like 30 years ago? Why do you think your Stag’s Leap is still going to be good?”

Low collection valuations are good for the collector’s financial penalty in the divorce, but are often bad for the ego. 

Wallace’s advice for collectors? “Open those bottles, man. It’s not worth anything when you’re dead or lose it in court. One of the great ways of actually preventing a divorce — and this is definitely as much marriage counseling as I have — is to drink your wine.”