Have You Been Paying for Damaged Wine?


The unseen scandal in the wine business has nothing to do with sulfites, lead or alcohol. It is the brazenly negligent way wine is treated before it gets to market.

In more cases than anyone would like to admit, wine is shipped and stored at excessively high temperatures. As a result, it has often suffered heat damage long before it gets to the consumer’s carefully temperature-controlled cellar. Even some very expensive wines are handled in this cavalier manner.

Consumers who fret over the acid and pH of a wine might want to worry instead about more mundane-sounding details--such as the route the truck driver took when driving the wine to market. Or the conditions in the warehouse where the wine was stored.


An apocryphal story: To impress his guests, a winemaker excuses himself to run off to the winery down the road. He draws a sample of a newly made wine into a decanter and runs it back to his house, pouring with ritualistic fervor. One of the guests gags and says the wine isn’t very good. The winemaker agrees, then adds, “But then, it doesn’t travel very well.”

A true story: At a high-class Texas restaurant, a Napa Valley winemaker ordered a young Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from a colleague’s winery--wines he was particularly familiar with. He found both wines were “cooked”--evidence in the aroma showed that both had been badly shipped and/or stored in Texas’ hot climate.

Wine is a living product that requires careful handling. I have tasted many young wines that were great soon after bottling. Tasted later, especially far from the winery, the wine clearly had suffered from poor storage or shipping.

Here are some facts:

* Many small, under-funded wineries do not store their bottled wines (called “case goods”) in cool surroundings.

* Most of the warehouse storage space that wineries lease lacks refrigeration.

* Virtually all wine shipped in the United States is transported in unrefrigerated trucks--unlike beer, which is almost always shipped cold.

I have actually seen pallets of wine sit outside a winery for hours--right out on concrete or asphalt pads, in the middle of summer--waiting to be picked up by a truck that has no refrigeration unit.

Overseas wine shipping is an even worse problem. Air freight being out of the question because of price, the next best method is to transport the wine in shipboard containers equipped with refrigeration units, called “reefers” in the trade. When the refrigeration units are on, wine is kept cool enough to protect it when the ship passes through equatorial climates--such as the Panama Canal, in the case of European wine shipped to the West Coast.

But few importers routinely ship wine in reefers. Wine is generally shipped in what are called dry boxes, which hold about 50% more wine because there is no insulation to take up space.

An executive at one Los Angeles-based wholesaler says his firm now asks that all imports be shipped in insulated containers, and that the refrigeration units be turned on “when conditions get extreme.” But, he admits, “Who knows if they turn them on?”

This executive says that for expensive wine, his company demands that refrigeration be used. The additional cost is minimal: “It works out to less than $2 per case,” he says.

Shipping inexpensive wine refrigerated is too costly: “When we’re paying $20 FOB for a case of wine,” the Los Angeles wholesaler says, “shipping cold kicks the price of the wine up too high.” (The cost to ship a case of wine from Europe to the United States refrigerated is approximately $10, including all taxes. According to the wholesaler, refrigeration charges run between $1 and $3 per case.)

A spokesman for Hoyt-Shepston, a large customs house brokerage in San Francisco, says three companies regularly use temperature-controlled containers to import wines to the West Coast: Kermit Lynch, a Berkeley importer and retailer; Chalone Inc., which imports the Bordeaux wines of the Rothschild family, including Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, and Wilson-Daniels of St. Helena, which imports Domaine de la Romanee-Conti, among other prestige brands.

Other firms import in reefers selectively. Generally, say customs-house brokers, they are smaller importers.

Alan Sobczak, general manager for Kermit Lynch, says it would be gambling to hope that a mere insulated, unrefrigerated box would be treated properly on board a ship. “We take no chances,” he says. “We ship cold 52 weeks of the year because that’s the only way to insure proper transit of the wine.”

He says all of Lynch’s wines are shipped cold, even those that sell for less than $10, and that the container’s refrigeration unit stays on until the container reaches Lynch’s temperature-controlled warehouse.

Prestige importers aren’t the only ones who are careful. There are some large, well-funded Northern California wineries that ship to Southern California direct from cold warehouses, on pallets forklifted into a truck that drives south overnight and delivers before the sun is up.

Wineries cited by wholesalers for taking such precautions are Beringer, Mondavi and Gallo, among others. And some wine producers (Angelo Gaja in Italy, to name just one) insist on having everything shipped to the United States in refrigerated containers.

But when it comes to wine shipped by truck to the South or Midwest, the situation is suspect in the eyes of at least one Napa Valley winery executive, who asked for anonymity.

“We ship in insulated trucks, but we don’t ship in refrigerated trucks because it’s expensive and they’re so hard to get anyway,” he says. “They’re mostly used to ship fresh produce. “But the real problem comes when a trucking company wants to send us a truck that isn’t even insulated.”

For short trips, high temperatures may not be fatal to wine. “Once you get it to a certain temperature it tends to stay at that temperature,” says the Los Angeles wholesale spokesman. “The capsule may get warm, but the liquid stays cool.”

He adds that if a wine suffers from “bottle shock” during shipment, often all it needs is a few weeks of rest for it to recover.

Moreover, some wines are harder to ruin than others. Tough reds such as red Bordeaux, red Rhone and California Cabernet seem relatively resistant to poor storage and shipping conditions.

But white wines, as well as the fragile reds made from Pinot Noir grapes, may take a period of months to recover from poor shipping. Some bottles simply never recover, especially if temperatures stayed high for days.

And what about sparkling wine? I have a feeling that Americans’ taste for French Champagne has partly been formed by poorly shipped wine. Champagne-drinkers have come to think of the off-flavor caused by oxidation merely as an interesting “yeasty” or “toasty” character. I have had some of these same wines in Europe and found them fresher and more delicious than when I taste them here--in short, lacking that “toasty” flavor.