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A case of bottled-up anxiety

Times Staff Writer

It was our housekeeper who first spotted the tiny grains of what looked like black sand in the corner of our kitchen floor.

“Termites,” the pest-control inspector said when he came out the next day. “We’ll have to tent and fumigate the entire house.”

“What about my wine?” I yelped.

I have a 1,200-bottle cellar next to our laundry room, and I love walking in every night and picking what I want to drink with dinner. When we fumigated for termites 12 years ago, I decided -- after considerable research -- to individually double-bag and seal every bottle and leave them in the cellar. As near as I could tell, all the wines -- and the people who subsequently drank them -- emerged unscathed.

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But that bagging process had taken three days of nonstop work in my 56-degree cellar, and at the end, my back, fingers and wrists were in agony. This time -- older and busier, already fighting a sore neck, a bad back and a bad elbow -- I just couldn’t face the prospect of another marathon bagging session.

So, how to protect my wine?

Friends suggested moving the wine temporarily into a temperature-controlled facility. But my bottles are individually racked, with an identifying tag on each space so I know exactly where each bottle is. If I took all of them out, I’d have to devise a system to keep track of where each bottle was in each of 100 cardboard boxes, then carry the boxes up two flights of stairs, transport them to the storage facility and back, carry them back down the stairs and then find each bottle and put it back in the same spot it was before.

That was my idea of a nightmare.

The pest-control inspector insisted the Vikane gas wouldn’t penetrate the corks and capsules of the bottles. But he wouldn’t guarantee that in writing. I called another fumigator. He offered the same termite diagnosis and at my request, he wrote on his fumigation proposal, “Stored wine will not be effected [sic] by the fumigation process.”

He also had Dow AgroSciences, which makes the Vikane gas, send me a letter, which said that if the original “air-tight seal is intact

That made me feel a little better, but I decided to double-check with the top fumigator in Napa Valley, figuring he’d have a lot of experience with termites and wine cellars .

“I’ve done thousands of fumigations,” he said. “No one has ever bagged or moved his wine, and no one has ever had any problems.”

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But no fumigator would give me the name of any satisfied customer with a wine cellar. So, still nervous, I called virtually everyone I knew -- friends, sommeliers, winemakers, collectors, merchants -- who might have some insight into my problem. None of them had been through fumigation or knew anyone who had. All assumed my wine would be fine. But all said if they were in my shoes, they’d move all the wine out anyway rather than take a chance.

Still unwilling to face that gargantuan task, I decided to leave the wines in place, unbagged. Then, on the Saturday before the Monday fumigation, temperatures soared into the mid-90s. With a tent over the house, it would probably be 20 or 30 degrees hotter inside. What if my wine cellar cooling unit broke down? What if the fumigators made me turn off the cooling unit? What if they said the cellar door had to be open for two days so the gases could circulate everywhere? My wine would be ruined. But we’d already made our motel reservations and bagged all our food, medicine and various other items, in accord with the fumigator’s instructions. We had 30 large, taped bags full of stuff in the kitchen, bathrooms and pantry. We couldn’t live like that until the heat wave abated, and we didn’t want to unbag and then rebag everything.

I decided to take two cases of wine to a friend who volunteered to hold it for me. I packed up a dozen of my best bottles -- a 1961 Latour, a ’75 Petrus, an ’89 Haut-Brion, an ’89 Hermitage La Chapelle from Jaboulet, a ’90 La Tache, a ’67 Yquem, two Marcassin Chardonnays and my favorite Barolos. I also packed up an assorted case of everyday wines that I had multiple bottles of so I could later drink those alongside identical bottles left in the cellar during the fumigation. That way, I could compare them and see if the stay-at-home wines had been damaged, either by the poison gas or by the heat.

Fumigation day

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The night before the fumigation, I called Jean-France Mercier, the man who designed and built my cellar.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “Even with the cooling unit shut off, given the cumulative cold in all those bottles, the temperature wouldn’t go much above 68 degrees, which wouldn’t hurt anything.”

“But what if I have to leave the cellar door open during the fumigation?” I asked.

“Then you have a problem.”

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On fumigation day, the weather forecast was for 101 degrees. I was in a near panic. I’m not into cars or boats or art or fancy clothes, so my cellar, though modest, is my biggest indulgence and one of my greatest passions. No matter what Mercier said, I could just envision my wine bottles exploding under the pressure of that sustained, withering heat.

I decided that if the fumigators told me I had to turn off the cooling unit or leave the cellar door open, I’d postpone the fumigation and hire someone to move the wine, no matter what it cost. Fortunately, the fumigator said neither step would be necessary, though the cellar door would have to be opened twice, briefly.

“When we take the tent off tomorrow,” he said, “we put on masks and come in and open all your windows and doors so we can set up fans to blow all the gas out. We come back Wednesday with meters for a final reading to be sure it’s safe for you to move back in. Both times we’ll have to open your cellar door for a few minutes.”

I took a deep breath and left the house to check the family in to our local Holiday Inn.

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I didn’t sleep well either of the next two nights. I had a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. Everyone’s assurances notwithstanding, I knew that I was taking a big risk. I should have postponed the fumigation and moved the wine. Surely, God was going to punish me for my stupidity, and when I returned to the house on Wednesday, I’d be greeted by the smell of hundreds of gallons of free-running grape juice and the sight of glass shards everywhere.

On Wednesday I was parked in the driveway, my heart in my throat, 40 minutes before the fumigators showed up.

After they said the house was safe to enter, I stepped gingerly inside, sniffing frantically. Nothing. I walked downstairs. No wine or glass on the floor. I looked at the thermostat attached to the outside wall of the cellar. The readout said it was 57 degrees in the cellar.

I yanked open the door. Everything looked and felt fine. It was cool. No breakage. No protruding corks or leaking bottles. I heaved a huge sigh of relief and said a silent prayer of thanks.

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That night, I drank a bottle of Beaujolais from the cellar. It tasted like Beaujolais. Now it was time for the real test -- comparing bottles left in the cellar with those I’d taken out. Over the next couple of weeks, I took matching pairs of a white Burgundy, a California Pinot Noir and two Italian reds to different restaurants with different friends.

Each time, we tasted blind. Each time, some tasters slightly preferred the fumigated bottles, some slightly preferred the bottles I’d taken out of the cellar, some made no distinction. But we all agreed that the fumigated wines did not appear to have been damaged -- at least not in the short term -- and we all attributed the differences to bottle variation and/or individual tasting preferences.

In fact, a sommelier I know -- tasting the two bottles of 2000 Chassagne-Montrachet, Les Caillerets, from Bernard Morey -- pronounced the fumigated bottle “more floral, more elegant, more typically Chassagne” than the bottle I had removed from the cellar before fumigation.

Gee, maybe I should have my house fumigated every year.

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David Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@latimes.com. To read previous “Matters of Taste” columns, please go to latimes.com/shaw-taste.


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