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Articles, May / June, 1998

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The Storage and Handling Nightmare

    I recall getting an email not too long ago from someone complaining about his string of bad luck with damaged older bottles of wine,   things bought in the aftermarket some fifteen to twenty-five years after release.   My initial reaction was quite simple, although unexpressed.   WHY are you surprised? 

    The handling, distribution and storage of wine is one of the biggest scandals in the wine field.  Too many distributors and retailers just do not care.  Too many consumers do not know the difference between damaged and pristine bottles.    As time goes on, I have become increasingly incensed over these issues, especially as the price of wine escalates. Importer Kermit Lynch once wrote that "a little heat damages wine a little; a lot damages it a lot."  To which a careful consumer can only say, "amen." And to which too many retailers and distributors seem to say "Yeah, so?" 

    I sometimes, over the last few years, have seen people posting notes on wines I know well.  The notes bear no relationship to the wines I have drunk.  The difference?  Storage.  Some wines are especially vulnerable.  For instance,  1982 Bordeaux, the ultimate commodity and trophy wines,   have been passed along from person to person so often in the aftermarket, that I would not buy them any more.  I distrust their condition until I taste them myself and am proved wrong.

    Let's see. How many ugly stories can I tell you?  Well, there's the retailer  who presented me with a case of 1986 Chateau Margaux with all the corks pushed up.  The day I arrived to pick it up was an experience that explained why.  There was a sudden hot spell outside, but the store just opened the doors.  The interior was hot and sticky. I would bet it pushed over 85 degrees.  When confronted about the pushed up corks (a classic sign of heat damage),   I was told blithely that it was "no problem. The wines are fine.   They were shipped that way. Maybe they were filled too high at the Chateau."    Another store, along the same lines,  liked to cast itself as THE prestige place in the region.  But it lost all air conditioning for about a week during a brutal summer when the temperatures pushed near 100 almost every day.  Bathed in light, with machinery inside, the interior may have been even hotter.   Think they sold off the wine at a discount or made full disclosure?    If you answered "yes,"  I have this bridge I would like to sell you.

    Then there was the retailer who cheerfully explained to me his store's shipping policy in the summer. Oh, we always ship second day air in the summer, especially to the Southern tier states, he said.     Uh.....Do you see any problems about sending wine into serious heat?     Apparently not. That second day air  must be a cure for everything.  Of course, no shipment of wine could ever be stuck in the back of a metal truck after it gets off the plane, could it?  And that metal truck couldn't become a veritable furnace by the end of the day in direct sunshine.....could it?

    Another retailer stores all his wines standing up in direct sunlight and under the heater.  Any problems with cooking the white Burgs like that?  Nah. He claims he has high turnover. I guess that is why there is dust on some of the bottles......

    Still another retailer had a load of expensive, rare vendange tardive Zind-Humbrechts on the shelf in direct light, no temperature controls.   In the back, they actually had a cooler.  It was 75% empty, but the thought of moving these rare wines into the cooler apparently did not occur to them.

    Still another did not even bother to install air conditioning on the ground that their climate was moderate. Then, one year, as anyone but a fool could have expected, there was a brutal summer.  Guess the rest.   Think they told their customers?

    An auction house has sold me and friends a few too many wines with poor levels and oxidized contents.  They do not even deign to describe the wines if the levels are in the neck.  Think there might be a problem with, say, eight year old Bordeaux with a level already so low that it is near the base of the neck?  They don't.   Not even worth a mention. 

    That auction house also saw no problem in ground shipping wine in transitional weather.  I am the crank for caring and complaining.  Let's be clear here:  you need a margin of error.  78 degrees may not sound too deadly, but it is enough to make some fragile wines leak, I think.   In particular, remember that temperature fluctuations can be wild and those alone can cause leakage. Overnight it could be 50.  Twelve hours later, 80. And that process can be repeated several times in the shipping process.  Also,  temperatures can be different in the back of the truck than in the ambient air, as pointed out above, and as anyone who has ever left a car on a bright, sunny day knows.    Direct sunlight can make certain areas unusually hot. Steel trucks can magnify heat.  You can't just hope things work out.  You need a margin of error if you are shipping, and the slower the process, the more time on the ground, the bigger the margin of error that is needed.   If you care about the wine, these are the thoughts that run through your head, but obviously our auctioneer friends don't much care.  

    The auction houses are high risk places, in general.  As noted above, retailers are hardly perfect, but at least if you act promptly, grab the wine when it  hits the store, and make sure you take NO risks in shipping, you have a fighting chance if the bottles look good to start with.  The auction houses are different and more dangerous, however, because the wines come from who knows where.  The auctioneers often don't know, although they try hard to make you THINK they do.  They claim they make investigations into provenance, but often, especially with smaller lots, the investigation consists of saying to the seller, "Did you store well?" and accepting the answer. The answer, even if true,   fails to deal with issues such as whether the wine was purchased from the winery or bought in the aftermarket ten years after release, and so on.    In addition, their stock in trade is older wines.  It can in some respects be harder to determine when these wines have been damaged just by looking at them.   Also, any that are damaged have their defects magnified by age.   That is, a wine that was stored fairly warm for a year may not show much damage if drunk a week later.   But the same wine, especially if it has slightly leaked, drunk twenty years later may be a tired, oxidized mess.

    How do retailers and auctioneers get away with this stuff?    A lot of people have no clue as to what pristine bottles taste like.  There is nothing like a trip to a country of origin to open one's eyes.   Even without a lot of travel, if you drink enough you  will suddenly begin to come across huge bottle variations from storage.  Not too long ago, I opened a slightly damaged bottle of 1986 Chateau Mouton Rothschild. The level was low--although not so low that it would have bothered our auctioneer friends--and I suspected it was going to show some problems.  Considering how tannic and big this wine is, the oxidation and warm storage it had somewhere along the line may have actually helped it along a little. In pristine condition, it is hardly approachable.  Yet, while several people liked it nonetheless, it bore no resemblance whatsoever to the pristine bottle I had had not too many months earlier.  By the end of a long evening, instead of still developing, it was fading and tiring.   A good tasting bottle?  Yes.   A good bottle?  No.  Clearly damaged.  Would that make you happy at some $300 per bottle?

    But they don't really care.   I can count on one hand retailers I really like for storage issues these days, and/or who I at least trust to tell the truth.   Some seem clueless, some seem venal.    Many just refuse to spend the investment in dollars or time necessary to protect the wines.  More searching investigations might put auction houses out of business.    Most sellers just like to avoid the whole issue.

    Solutions?  There are some.  YOU have to be more active.  First, examine the bottles more carefully. Make sure the levels are good, especially for younger wines, that there is no leakage, and no obvious defect otherwise.  Sometimes, I find it useful to twist the lead capsule. This is not a foolproof test, but if the capsule twists you can be more confident there has been no leakage inside that you cannot see, since the wine tends to cause the capsule to stick.   Admittedly, some wineries glue those capsules down  pretty well.

    Second, complain long and loudly, and repeatedly.  STOP buying questionable bottles.  Let a retailer know that you are walking out of a store because it seems to you that storage conditions are unacceptable.   Send the junk back to the auction house as unacceptable.  Make them take it back.   And finally, learn what pristine bottles are supposed to taste like.  Knowledge is your first defense.

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Copyright Mark Squires, © 1998 all rights reserved.