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.