Bottle Shock - Not Just a Movie


Everyone knows that wine is supposed to be kept at a cool steady temperature. This is why wineries and your own wine cellar are temperature controlled (or at least a cool steady temperature). Alas, the same can not be said for all of the steps in between. Whether we are talking about carrying wine across the Equator on a ship, or across town in your car, wine is subject to bottle shock.

I am known for testing conventional wisdom when it comes to wine, so it will surprise few of you to learn that I once conducted an experiment to ascertain the veracity of bottle shock. Aspen, Colorado, which was my home for 30 years, has a large annual wine event. I used this opportunity to conduct my little test.

In 1990 Kermit Lynch wrote "Adventures on the Wine Route"
in which, among other things, he advocated shipping wine in refrigerated containers.

I contacted winemakers I knew would be at the event and had them overnight bottles of wine to me, in styrofoam shippers, months in advance. Once the show was getting set up I had the same winemakers grab a bottle each of the wines they would be showing. These wines came from their distributors in Denver and had just made the four drive in the summer. This was before Kermit Lynch taught the world the importance of refrigeration, so the truck was not cooled.

We tasted the wines blind. Across the board the wines that had been sitting still in ideal conditions in my house for several months, beat out the just transported wines. The winemakers were surprised, they all to the one, had said there would be little to no difference.

In 1990 Kermit Lynch wrote "Adventures on the Wine Route" in which, among other things, he advocated shipping wine in refrigerated containers. Before the book he may well have been the only one to do so. After the book, and to this day, more wine is shipped in reefers, but far from all.

Let's follow a hypothetical wine coming to your home in the US from a winery in Argentina. The wine is bottled and stored, either in a large wire container or a small cardboard box. Either way, the wines on the outside are subject to more temperature change than those on the inside. Once the wine is stacked on a pallet it gets loaded into a shipping container and trucked, without refrigeration (I have never seen any wine shipped refrigerated from Mendoza). It has a 24 hour drive to Buenos Aires across the pampas and the blazing sun. If it goes the other way it has to drive over snow packed passes into Chile. Either way, it is going to be heated and cooled repeatedly.

Once the wine gets to the dock it will sit, often for days or weeks, waiting for the ship, customs and pretty much anything else that can go wrong. Once the container is finally loaded on the ship, position matters. The container may be in the cooler, more protected hold, but the hold is small and there is a greater chance it is out on the deck. Again, containers on the outside of the stack are going to be subject to more temperature extremes and fluctuations than those in the middle.

What do you think the odds are that it will taste the same
as it did in the winery, all those many weeks, months or even years ago?

The ship now has to cross the equator, which is not only hot in of itself, it means the seasons have reversed. What started as an increasingly warming trip will now be increasingly cooler. When the ship finally docks and unloads, at least three weeks have passed since the wine was in the nice cool, stable winery. Now we get to do the hurry up and wait thing in reverse, and more days or weeks may pass before the wine leaves the docks.

The same unrefrigerated container is now hauled by truck, usually for several days, to the distributor's nice temperature controlled warehouse, where it may or may not get a chance to rest. Sooner or later it is hauled, hopefully but not guaranteed, in a refrigerated truck, to the store you are going to buy it at. Now some of the wine gets unpacked and shelved, and some may stay in the back. Hopefully not too close to the beer cooler vents. Here the wine may sit for as long as a year or more.

When you go to buy the bottle of wine, it is usually sitting on a shelf, exposed to light, and temperature. Hopefully the sun doesn't come in the windows and bake the wine for a few hours a day. This is something to keep in mind when you are shopping. Now you take the bottle home, sitting in your back seat or worse, your trunk.

Since this was not an expensive wine you are planning to put in your cellar, chances are you will opt to pop the cork that very night. What do you think the odds are that it will taste the same as it did in the winery, all those many weeks, months or even years ago? Anyone who has ever visited a winery knows that the wines taste best at the source.

Wine is resilient.

So what can we do to break what seems to be an inevitable cycle? Working backward from the consumer end, actually quite a bit. As a consumer, don't buy wine to drink that night. Plan ahead and let the wine settle at your house before you drink it. Ideally store it in a cellar or controlled environment for a month or more. For those of you in small apartments with small collections the solution is simple and inexpensive. A camping cooler will give your wines a dark, stable place to rest.

Driving a few blocks from the store may not do the wine much harm, but what if you are much further from where you buy the wine? I use the camping cooler trick in my car, especially when I am driving hours from a winery to my house. You don't need ice in the cooler (although in some cases it will help), it is just a way to minimize the extreme heat and the temperature fluctuations.

Refrigerated containers are obviously the answer on the road and ship, but they are expensive and have to be plugged in, or consume diesel for days on end. What I would do as a wine producer (as I have pitched many times to financial backers) is to ship the wine in bulk, either in FlexiTank bags or stainless steel tanks) and then bottle the wine at the destination. The larger volume of wine greatly reduces the the risk of damage to the wine, not only because it is harder to heat up such a large mass, but also because cyclonic action keeps the wine moving in the container so that none of it is near the walls all the time.

Wine is best at its source, but it doesn't have to be. Don't get me wrong, I regularly advocate for wine tourism, but wouldn't it be nice to be able to enjoy the same flavors at home? Wine is resilient. It will snap back to a large degree, but it will probably always shows some signs if it has been shipped or stored less than ideally.

Chances are that the wine you are planning to enjoy tonight could be just that little bit better, if the bottle was not shocked.

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