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On provenance, shipping and harmful temperatures


I don’t usually recommend or even mention specific for-profit schemes in the wine industry (and Lord knows, everyone’s trying to figure out how to create a viable company these days). But I got a press release the other day for something called eProvenance, a French-based company that claims to have discovered significant problems in wine shipping, wherein as much as 7 percent of wines (which would exceed the percentage of cork-tainted bottles) moved around the world suffer from being exposed to temperatures exceeding 30 degrees Celsius (86 F) for long enough periods of time to effectively ruin the wine.

eProvenance says their business goals “are to improve the distribution channels and share best practices, as well as provide the ability to verify and communicate the high-quality provenance to consumers.” To all of which I say, amen.

The truth is that poor shipping is the dirty little secret of the wine industry. This is something that all people who deal with a high volume of wine understand all too well. And I don’t think the average, or even the above-average, consumer has the slightest idea of how damaging temperature extremes, particularly heat, can be to that expensive bottle of wine.

I myself used to not understand it, until one day when I was talking with a noted collector, T., who lived in Southern California but had a vacation condo in Hawaii.  (This was back when I wrote the Collecting Page for Wine Spectator and the nation’s leading collectors returned my phone calls in exchange for the ego trip of seeing their names, and sometimes pictures, published in that magazine.) T. flew out to his condo, opened a few bottles, and found something wrong. He checked, and, sure enough, the power had briefly failed — it was just a matter of hours — but it was long enough, he told me, to kill his wines.

Of course, you and I might not have detected anything wrong with wines that had experienced a few hours of temperatures above 70 degrees, but T. was known for the sensitivity of his palate. On the other hand, there is little doubt that a wine that has been in the back of a UPS truck all day long during a summer heat wave (when the temperature inside that metal oven can soar above 130 degrees) will be effectively baked. (When this happens, I ask the winery to re-send me new wine to review.)

The eProvenance people drew up this chart of a shipment that went from Bordeaux to Brazil.


Basically, you want the line to be near the green zone. Anything above the green zone is too hot; as you can see, there’s a lot of line above the green zone.

I’m not sure that there’s ever going to be a solution to this problem. Even if wineries the world over stopped shipping their wine during their warm season — which is obviously not going to happen — they might be shipping it into someone else’s warm season. Even with companies like eProvenance, it’s likely that tens of millions of heat-damaged bottles will continue to be bought and sold around the globe. And with hot places like India, Hong Kong, Singapore and the Emirates now developing a taste for expensive French and California wines, imagine how much more extreme heat those Lafites, Harlans and Crystals are going to be exposed to.

The funny thing about all this is to imagine a rich “collector” who shows off his latest trophy wine at a dinner party. Nobody likes it, and for good reason: it’s baked. But no one is secure enough to admit it, so they all ooh and aah about how fabulous it is. The lesson? Res ipsa loquiter: the thing speaks for itself.

  1. Our first vineyard designation came shortly after we started, in 2001, with a Pinot Noir from our valley vineyard. A lovely wine, but our vintner came up a bit short on cash. Sooo, he offered 12 cases in lieu of payment for the grapes. We thot about it, knew he wasn’t going to have any money in the foreseeable future, so agreed to the swap. “S” was slow in complying with the payment in case goods, but finally, July 1st, he had assembled all his case goods at his beach home garage overlooking Cayucos. The “never hotter than 70 degrees” was 104 that day, and all “S”s case goods became toast…ruined. He asked if we still wanted them, but after taking a random bottle out of each case, I didn’t need any more convincing. So, we ate our losses…not much fortunately, but I really would have loved 12 cases of that wine, with chocolate and mild toast among the very lovely berry flavors, light, elegant, wonderful to drink. Your point, Steve, is well taken, and we learned a very valuable lesson early on: heat kills.

    As for the 130 degree UPS truck, we ultimately stopped requesting any wines in July thru September, due to the heat issue. If the French study showed 7% spoilage, Paso in summer, especially out here in the boonies, is a pretty good place not to have wine sent to. Our personal roasted percentages used to be much higher. Routes are pre-ordained…I asked…so you cannot request an early morning delivery, and we are one of last routes on the day. Moral: if you know incoming wine is going to be heat challenged, simply don’t buy then. Also, as many have painfully found out, carrying your purchases around in the trunk of your own car is a great way to ruin a fun filled buying and acquisition trip, if you are somewhere in California in the middle of a hot summer. We routinely now carry summer acquired wines only inside the car, as I am certain most other folks do.

  2. Larry: Excellent points. The situation is even worse, if you think about it, when it comes to stores. Say you buy a bottle of wine in the middle of the winter. But when was it shipped to the store in a UPS truck? Maybe the previous September when the temperature was 114.

  3. People in the wine industry hate this topic. Baked wine is something that we all have had to deal with. Since I live in wine country I’ve learned to hedge my bets by driving to and buying directly from the producers. Lucky me, but what if you don’t live near your favorite producers and have developed a taste for wines on other continents. My predilection for French, German and Italian wines is risky business. Of course the same could be said of any food purchase these days. You pay your money and you take your chances.

    In the eighties I worked as a sales rep for a small importer. When we would receive containers from Europe the wines on the outer wall of the containers often showed less well than those towards the middle. The ride from our warehouse to the buyer was never made in a refrigerated truck. Sadly, the few token changes that have been made in the business of transporting wine have done too little to protect the consumer from heat damaged wine.

    Bravo eProvenance! I hope they meet their business objectives and other distributors follow suit.

  4. AJ, too many people think wine is like canned soup, which a few hours of high temperature won’t affect. It’s not. Wine is a perishable food, more like fresh fruit than canned soup.

  5. Off the subject of shipping, but on the issue of storing, I had an interesting experience as I dropped off our newly “almost” released Cerro Prieto Merlot and Paso blend( Paso Bordo/ 85% Cab & 15% Syrah)to my favorite physician friends at the local hospital/ office suites. To my surprise, one of my favorite physician friends asked, “Exactly how am I SUPPOSED to store this wine?”. I was going thru the litany of “store at 56-64 degrees, serve at 70-72(for our wines), and decant 10-15 mins. before serving.”

    Her surprised retort, “Really?” kind of surprised me, because this woman enjoys good food and great wine, and is generally very knowledgeable. Same thing happened when I dropped wine off at a colleague’s office…no real sense of how to store wine. I have just assumed all these yrs past that folks who really enjoy wine would know how to store it, especially since most, I would think, have wine coolers of some sort. Could it be that I have been laboring under a false imression?

  6. I think the wine media has not done a good job advising people on storage. On the other hand, we’re told that something like 90+ percent of all wines are consumed on the day of purchase, so maybe it doesn’t matter.

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