Robin Butler on Twitter

February 2013

It is my business to try to cater for the needs and preferences of a broad cross section of wine drinkers and collectors, so while I may have personal preferences, it is my job to put my foibles to one side.  Nevertheless I have to be knowledgeable about a wide range of antiques, just as it is the job of a wine merchant to stock wines that may not be to his or her personal taste, but be fine examples of their genre. 

February got off to an exciting start when I was invited by the head buyer to visit the recently-opened and by far the most prestigious wine shop on the planet.  Hedonism Wines, in Mayfair, keeps a stock of over 6,000 wines including an breathtaking array of vintages of Chateaux d’Yquem, Lafite, Petrus, and many others.  There is an enormous selection of Whiskies and Cognacs, and perhaps more amazingly, a huge variety of large format bottles from double magnums (4 bottles) up to a 27-litre bottle of classed growth claret! 

 Quite when someone will broach an imperial (8 bottles) of vintage port, I will leave to you to surmise, but just looking at these large bottles was extremely impressive.  And how to decant a very large bottle presents a serious dilemma to its owner; the last thing needed is for a small jolt to disturb the sediment.  Consider for a moment how you would pour such an enormous volume into decanters (because you would need several) without tipping it to and fro?  Whatever, the answer, a visit to this amazing shop is heartily recommended - and they do have bottles of good wine from £15

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One thing which amuses and amazes me in equal measure is people’s taste in decanters.  As a general rule, men tend to prefer plain decanters while women prefer something decorated, be it a shapely profile or cut decoration, or even a combination of these.  Is one better than the other?  Plain or cut is a question often encountered.  Perhaps we should first ask why so many antique decanters had cut decoration.


From today’s perspective, artificial light levels in 19th and early 19th century homes were considerably lower than they are now.  The nearest we approach such dimness is when we have a power cut and have to light candles.  Is light from a single candle sufficient to assess wine in a decanter?  By holding a decanter directly over a candle (but not too close, of course) does allow sediment to be seen as it rises into the neck when decanting, but light from candlesticks on a dining table does very little to display wine well.


Two occurrences in the late 18th century changed the way wine was seen.  First, the introduction of argand oil lamps which gave a much brighter light than candles - 6-8 times brighter according to Thomas Jefferson when he visited Europe.  They were fueled by whale, colza or olive oil, and proved only partially successful, but lighting was greatly improved by the introduction of kerosene lamps in the mid-19th century.  Second, steam-driven cutting tools allowed glass houses to produce cut glass on a commercial scale and with great precision.  It was the cutting of glass into prisms, flutes, stars and ‘diamonds’ that gives glass its sparkle.


The refraction of light by the numerous facets of cut glass decanters together with brighter lights enabled wine to be seen to maximum advantage. It occurred at about the same time as a connoisseur interest in fine wine began to take hold.  One particular form of cutting which first appeared around 1800, and became popular from c.1820 was the star-cut base.   Its refractive qualities threw light back and upwards through wine most successfully.  I hope the image shows how this really is the case.  


So I return to the question - plain or cut decanters?  Personal preference of taste may play a part, but as in so many facets of antique wine accessories, those living 150 - 200 years ago applied logical thinking to design with clever results.  I used to think the ideal decanter was completely plain, but maybe I am rearranging my prejudices in this respect.

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I am very aware that my stock/inventory has been lacking one category; I have found no good wine funnels to buy for a considerable time.  I have had two funnels tucked away in my ‘Miscellanea’ section, as a friend would have said, ‘since God was boy’, and in an endeavour to move these on I have marked them down in price very substantially.  They now represent excellent value. 


It is extraordinarily difficult to find good antique wine funnels, because as utilitarian objects they often became damaged - particularly around the tip of the spout. 18th century funnels are lightweight and devoid of much aesthetic appeal which runs counter to what one would expect from Georgian silver.  They very seldom arouse my enthusiasm.  By contrast, early 19th century funnels are often good quality, but even they, although more robustly made than their earlier counterparts, are often in poor condition. I think I see 30 - 50 examples I would not want to offer you, to every one that I could recommend - and that is without taking the price into account. However, by a quirk of fate, several good to wonderful examples have come my way in the past few days - and more are on the way!  Watch this space!  I am starting a separate category on my website very soon.


During this past month, there was a country auction with a collection of 14 wine funnels.  Most were good, but they sold for what I considered silly money - much more than I would have offered them to you - so I came away empty-handed.  I am considerably happier with what I have bought elsewhere - which is surely the ideal position in which to find oneself!

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