A customer goes into a wine shop to get the latest vintage of his favorite wine. Last year he drank a case of the dynamic and pure 2006 Domaine X and got hooked. So when he gets that call from his wine salesman that the 2007 vintage is in, he rushes in to buy another case. That night, with his lovely leg of lamb, he opens a bottle of the 2007 Domaine X. His first reaction is that there is something wrong with the wine. It barely has any fruit; the acid is high-toned and is sticking out on his palate. There is a mass of tannin and the finish is acrid. The food makes it more palatable, but all in all, it is a disappointment. The customer has lost faith in the wine merchant and will never buy from him again. He is actually considering returning the case.
Pretty scary scenario. Also, pretty common. You would be surprised. So what exactly happened? Having twelve years of experience in retail, I’ll tell you: Wine shop owners, managers and salespeople generally have no idea how much damage is done to the wine during the cross-Atlantic trip or in the trip across the USA.
Most consumers are aware that European wines come here on ships in containers and most of them are refrigerated. In the wine business we call them “reefers,” and some customers must think we are the biggest potheads the way we constantly talk about them. But they are a good thing and in increased demand.
In the 1970s, when iconic importers such as Kermit Lynch and Robert Kacher started shipping wine from Europe, reefers were just starting out and did not exist on the grand level they do today. It is amazing to think how damaged the wine was that came over here in the 1960s and 1970s and how no one knew. Today it is better, but not perfect. There is still a significant chance for heat or cold damage due to the long trip and all the different transfers the wine makes. The process, if you break it down, is ridiculous and is very risky with your wine.
Most French, Spanish, Austrian and German vignerons have naturally cold cellars, but as soon as the wine leaves the cellar, all bets are off. Typically it is put in a non-reefer truck, as reefers cost more in Europe. They can sit in a hot port, unrefrigerated for a long time, waiting to be loaded. And when the wines are finally put into the shipping containers, that doesn’t mean the reefers are turned on right away, either. That costs money. They can lie around the docks that way for a while as well.
After all that, the next worry is vibration. The oceans are not that calm. This isn’t the Hudson River, where you can land a 747 if you really need to. It is a bumpy ride that can expose the wine from a little to severe vibration, which will render the wine inexpressive upon arrival and for several months after that.
Even if the wine is not permanently damaged, it can take months for the wine to recover from an international trip. Three weeks is a good rule of thumb for a cross-country USA trip.
This explains what our customer experienced with the 2007 Domaine X. Did he know? No. Did anybody in the hierarchy of the store know? No, and if they did, would they really want to kill a sale right there and say, “Come back in six months and then your wine will be ready to drink”? “Trust us. Ya got to believe us.” Frankly it’s a dilemma and a shame that this type of dishonesty happens, but there really isn’t a way out of it. It’s up to the ethics of the retailer or restaurateur. Restaurants used to have the luxury of storing wine in their cellars until it was ready. Not any more. These days, wine lists contain tons of great YOUNG wines that are probably affected by some sort of trip damage.
Another small question to address is how much the overseas trip actually affects the ageing of wine. I shot an e-mail to David Schildneckt, critic for the Wine Advocate and an extremely passionate and excellent wine writer. In his expert opinion, based on tasting and comparison, a wine’s evolution might fast-forward three to six months due to the trip overseas. David admits this may be a slightly unfair observation, as most buyers, even in Europe, are not drinking directly from the grower’s cellar.
But here is the real shocker. David says most other forms of transporting wine are even more damaging than the reefers on an overseas trip. What?
Most wines delivered from the West Coast come by rail, and that is a bumpy, hot, unprotected ride. The price for a train or truck reefer going cross-country is much more than one coming from overseas. Even wine from Europe is likely to be transferred by rail once it arrives. Then the destruction starts from intense vibrations and variable temperature conditions. David says he has seen wine from California railroaded to the Midwest that has been so devastated during the trip that the ink has been torn off the labels. Imagine what goes on with the wine that is inside that bottle.
What is the retailer’s responsibility? What is the importer’s responsibility? What is the wine writer’s responsibility? It’s an interesting ethical debate, and what is so fascinating about it is who gets screwed in the process. I started with the consumer because he is the first to get screwed. Unknowingly too. The typical wine drinker does not understand or even care to understand the complexity of shipping wine. Is it the retailer’s responsibility to educate the customer at the peril of losing a sale or many sales? Is it the importer’s or wholesaler’s responsibility to notify the retailer? An importer/distributor typically will call a retailer or restaurateur to say a wine is in, but NEVER do they add it should be left alone for three to six months due to travel shock. They want that sale too. No one in this cash-flow business wants to sit on inventory. Especially inventory they know they can sell as soon as it comes in. Get it in, get it out.
So what can the customer do?
1) Ask your retailer questions. Have you had this wine since it has arrived at your store? When did it arrive? Is it as open and expressive now as it should be? Questions like that will inform the retailer that you are an interested customer and they will be frank with you, if for no other reason than they will know that you are knowledgeable and will fear losing your business if they mislead you.
2) If you are thinking of buying a case of a particular wine, try a bottle from the retailer where you are going to buy it. Better to make a mistake on a single bottle than a case.
3) Try to deal with well-respected retailers who ask the right questions of their suppliers to ensure that they are receiving wine in good condition.
Wine storage and transportation is a complex subject, and I hope this has made people more aware that the trip does indeed kill the wine, even if it is for a short time.