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.
I am not generally a fan of words such as “new,” “improved” and “revolutionary” when it comes to consumer products. When something is described as “bold” I wince, and see mental images of advertisers trying to manipulate shoppers into buying something they don’t need. But in the case of the Boisset family’s approach to alternative packaging, all these terms are entirely justified.
(Disclosure: I know and like Jean-Charles Boisset, who runs the family’s California ventures, including DeLoach.)
Boisset yesterday announced the debut of Fog Mountain, an organic Sonoma County line of wines that will come in 750 ml. PET bottles. The company also stated that from now on, all Boisset Beaujolais Nouveau (including Mommessin) shipped to the U.S. — some 25,000 cases — will be in PET. The letters stand for “polyethylene terephthalate,” a thermoplastic polymer resin packaging that reduces solid waste by 90%, and is estimated to have a 50% smaller carbon footprint than a traditional glass bottle. Where a standard case of glass bottles can weigh 40 pounds or more (consider some of those steroidal bottles of Cabernet), a case of PET containers clocks in at 22 pounds, representing a potential saving in transport fuel costs and a resulting reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. PET bottles also are 100% recyclable.
Two years ago, Boisset introduced yet another new form of wine packaging with their French Rabbit line of varietals that come in “Tetra Paks” — octagonal-shaped, 1-liter polyethlene pods, sealed with screwtops, that reduce packaging waste by 90% compared to the standard wine bottle. A container of French Rabbit (which is biodynamically grown) weighs only 3% of an ordinary bottle.
Everybody in the wine business these days seems to be talking green this and green that, but Boisset is putting their money where their mouth is (so to speak). Good for them.
P.S. Please read my other blog at Wine Enthusiast’s Unreserved.
When will California wine give up its addiction to crack, oops, I mean Styrofoam?
For an industry whose every press release touts something green/organic/biodynamic and environmentally-friendly, whose representatives are usually healthy and tanned and wouldn’t dream of polluting anything, who themselves probably recycle, there’s something schizy, if not outright hypocritical, about the widespread use of polystyrene packaging for shipping wine.
You know polystyrene by its trade name, Styrofoam. It’s that bulky white stuff microwaves and CD players come packaged in. If you have a problem getting rid of a few chunks of it, try multiplying that by the tens of millions of pieces that wine is shipped in.
It’s the wine industry’s dirty little secret.
Styrofoam is awful stuff for the environment and for us. Most curbside recycling companies won’t accept it because it’s bulky and fills up landfills. The processes both of making polystyrene or burning it in waste dumps pollute the air and create large amounts of liquid, gas and solid waste. Styrene, its active ingredient, is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the EPA. The ill effects of chronic exposure are well-documented. If that’s not bad enough, Styrofoam is made with petroleum, and its manufacture releases hydrocarbons into the air, causing pollution and playing havoc with ozone levels. Styrofoam is often dumped into the environment as litter. When it breaks into little pieces, they can choke animals and clog their digestive systems.
There are non-damaging, ecological, truly recyclable alternatives to this stuff. It’s not my job to recommend any particular products, but suffice it to say the industry knows what they are, and of tests suggesting they’re as effective as Styrofoam.
The Wine Institute — the industry’s leading trade association, a powerhouse not only in California but in Washington, D.C. — has the power to do something about this situation. Wine Institute has long been criticized as a tool of big wineries, a charge that may be more in the perception than in actuality; but perception is reality. Politically, Wine Institute would do it itself a favor by coming out in favor of something the big wineries are perceived not to like.
When John DeLuca, who fought and won many battles, led Wine Institute, he declined to take styrofoam up as a cause. Both he and his successor, Robert Koch, were and are well aware of the contradictions of a pro-styrofoam policy. But we all know more about styrofoam’s toxicity than we did ten years ago. Mr. Koch’s tenure so far has been remarkably devoid of conspicuous accomplishment. He could do worse than to vow to push styrofoam out of the California wine industry. In one stroke, he would burnish Wine Institute’s green image, and send a signal that he is not entirely the captive of big donors — that he is, in other words, willing to put his money where his mouth is.
PS: Check out my Wine Enthusiast blog.
A few days ago, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger signed a new bill into law, SB 607, that permits home winemakers to enter their wines in competitions and judgings.
Believe it or not, until the new law went into effect, it was illegal for a home winemaker to enter her wine in an amateur winemaking competition (of which there are an increasing amount in the country). The bill’s authors, Sen. Patricia Wiggins and Assemblywoman Noreen Evans, both Santa Rosa Democrats, noted that even though the old law was not widely enforced, if at all, “the growing legions of home winemakers did not deserve to have an arcane section of state law hanging over them.”
Under the old law, Californians were permitted to produce up to 200 gallons of homemade wine per year without a license, but it was illegal for the wine to be served to others, or to be moved from where it was made — which, technically, made entering the wine into home winemakers’ festivals against the law. The new bill was passed unanimously in both houses of the California legislature.
Good for Wiggins and Evans. The ban on entering homemade wine in contests was just one more dumb leftover of this country’s post-Prohibition policy regarding wine, but it’s hardly the only one. How about the arcane laws that apply to the interstate shipping of wine, including consumers’ right to buy wine anywhere in the U.S. and have it shipped to their homes regardless of what state they inhabit? More than three years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states are prohibited from making it illegal for consumers to buy wine directly from wineries located outside their states, the battle still goes on in individual states, as the wine wholesaler and distribution lobby uses its clout to stymie direct-to-consumer wine shipments. According to Free the Grapes, a pro-consumer group, such shipments are still prohibited in Alabama, Arkansas, Delaware, Kentucky (where it’s a felony), Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee (another felony state) and Utah (felony).
(Incidentally, most of these states voted for Bush in both 2000 and 2004. Anyone see anything in that?)
In addition, the blogger Tom Wark, over at his fermentation website, has done a great job reporting on the situation in other states, such as Illinois, where a new bill just went into law that seems directly contrary to the spirit, if not the letter, of the Supreme Court’s decision. That law prohibits Illinoisians from buying wine directly from out-of-state merchants (as opposed to wineries). As Wark sardonically notes, “the real bottom line here is that Illinois consumers just got bent over…”
What will it take for America to allow the free movement of wine in this country among adults? Following the May, 2005 Supreme Court decision, I asked that question of Ken Starr, who led the impeachment proceedings against Bill Clinton but who (partially) redeemed himself by being lead counsel for the free shipping side in the Supreme Court case. Starr replied, “My crystal ball is as cloudy as anyone’s, but I’ll predict all fifty states…will in fact move to some form of non-discrimination system within ten years.”
If he’s correct, we still have a good seven years to go.