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james laube's wine flights

Is There a Way to Measure (and Beat) the Heat?

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Dec 5, 2007 12:58pm ET

The jury is still out on whether there are ways to determine whether a wine bottle has been exposed to excessive heat somewhere between leaving the winery and its final destination, be in a wine shop or your home.

In a letter to the magazine in the Dec. 31 issue, a reader claims that there’s no way to apply temperature-sensitive strips to wine bottles, or cases, since, the writer claims, glass is a “notably poor conductor of heat and cold.” If a bottle of wine were put in an ice bucket it would feel cold on the outside yet still be warm, he writes. Moreover, if a wine were to reach 85° F on the outside, that doesn’t mean the wine is that hot, although it might be.

Yet I remain hopeful that there are better and safer and cooler ways to keep and ship wine in transit, just as I remain optimistic that the industry will find a solution for flawed wine closures, namely corks.

On the subject of wines being exposed to excessive heat in shipping, Larry Chase says his company is on it and, as an anecdote, he relates a story that sounds incredible. Yet if it happened, it would rank among the best cooked-wine stories I’ve heard.

“I just finished reading your article on how to beat the heat in Wine Spectator magazine and would like to let you know our company, PakSense, is trying to solve the problem you described. We currently have five wine companies using our label for quality assurance.

“The PakSense label is small, about the size of a sugar packet, and inexpensive. It can measure the temperature of what is inside a carton or pallet and not just the air temperature.

“I heard a story last year from a California specialty wine company regarding why they were no longer shipping in the summer. It seems a delivery truck driver in New York decided to stop off for a drink as he was making his rounds during one July afternoon. When he finished his drink, he went outside and found a SWAT team surrounding his truck. The wine inside the truck had become overheated had been popping the corks which a passerby had thought were explosions or gunshots.”

The PakSense label can also track when and where the temperature extreme occurred as well as flashing an amber light to show an extreme has occurred, Chase claims, extending an invitation to visit his website, paksense.com.

Curious if anyone’s heard of or tried this product, or thinks it’s practical or would work. I’d happily pay for this service for a case of wine that might cost $600 to $1,200.

Hugh L Sutherland Jr-m
miramar beach, fl —  December 5, 2007 4:22pm ET
The best way now to beat the heat is to have the wine shipped only during the cooler months. My problem is buying wine from local wine stores where you have no idea how the wine has been treated. You need to trust him but he is not responsible for the distributor. Perhaps we could prevail on the wineries to ship only during safe times. I ran into another entirely difference problem at the other end of the spectrum. I ordered a case of Oregon PN and had it arrived with the corks pushed out. It turned out that the UPS orders from Oregon goes thru South Dakota and the wine had frozen during the trip.
Brian Ormiston
Hinsdale, il —  December 5, 2007 4:52pm ET
The Paksense label might offer a solution but it's probably pricy. Printing ink technology being what it is these days might be the answer. The new Coors beer label is printed using Chromazone ink customized to the application. I'm sure there is a way to reverse the process and have a carton label change colors when there is a big chance in temperature.
Fred Brown
December 5, 2007 8:18pm ET
James,

I'm with you on willingness to pay for peace of mind on wines that are $50 and up (or even $30 and up). I've had very bad luck here on the East Coast buying California and Oregon wines that were clearly cooked during shipment. It is a real pain to have to return them, especially if they have been sitting in my wine cooler for a year or more.

Good luck returning a bottle you've been aging for 5 to 10 years!
Kirk R Grant
Ellsworth, ME —  December 5, 2007 10:40pm ET
Why has no one mentioned the responsability of the distributors? Why are the distributors not using temperature controlled trucks? Heck...some distributors are still not using temperature control in their warehouses....I think it's time for the "middle man" (sorry ladies) to step up and care for the product that he is distributing....
Alan J Kamen
Altamonte Springs, FL —  December 6, 2007 12:23am ET
I live in Florida and purchase wine from New York and California. I have it shipped "next day/hold for pickup, call upon arrival" and go to either UPS or FEDEX and pick up the package myself. That way it doesn't sit on the truck all day before it's delivered. Granted, it adds $5 to $6 to the bottle cost but I am assured of proper temperature wine because most wine shops ship late afternoon.
Michael Wesson
TX —  December 6, 2007 8:19am ET
Fred Scherrer (Scherrer winery) ships chocolate chips with his wine. If the chips are melted, your wine got too hot... If they are not, enjoy your chocolate chips in moderation. Pretty ingenious if you ask me.
Fairway Inc
December 6, 2007 10:29am ET
Kirk,What kind of pressure would you use to make the distributors change bad practices. Their customers are the restaurants and the retailers. Individually they can bring only insignificant pressure. If an individual retailer tried boycotting a distributor, they would lose business to other retailers who didn't boycott. Some distributors have stepped up, but not all.
Larry Schaffer
Central Coast —  December 6, 2007 10:36am ET
You are touching on the tip of the iceberg with this issue. It's really quite sad that a winery can spend up to 3 years crafting a wine and putting it in the bottle exactly as they want it to be just to see it ruined by numerous factors from that point forth. Forgetting about 'faulty' corks for the time being, wineries have very little control over what happens to their wines once they leave their doors.

If they are shipping to wine club members, they seem to be able to control this better by holding off shipments until the weather appears to be okay to do so. Even then, though, once that wine is gone, they cannot control the types of vehicles the wine will sit in until it gets to your door . . .

When it comes to shipping to retailers or distributors, this is often handled by a third party that does not have the same vested interest in ensuring the wine shows up in 'pristine' condition as the winery.

And when it comes to sitting on retail shelves or in restaurants, I think we can all agree that some do a better job of short / medium / long term storage on premise than others . . .

The mere fact that this is being discussed here is evidence that 'knowledgable' wine consumers are already aware of this issue and therefore take transportation into account when purchasing. But what about the vast majority of wine drinkers who simply pull a bottle off the shelf of 'you name it' retail store, bring it home, and find the bottle just isn't good but without realizing why? THIS is where the industry does itself a disservice by not controlling the issue better . . .
Jack Cooper
WI —  December 6, 2007 11:48am ET
Maybe this is addressed in other blogs, but I seem to have a much higher percentage of problems with Pinots from California, than I do with Cabs, Merlot, or Zins. Nearly a third of purchases of Pinot from local wine shops turns brownish almost immediately upon pouring, and I usually store them for 3-5 years before opening. My storage system is excellent. Anyone else have this particular problem?
John Wilen
Texas —  December 6, 2007 1:28pm ET
In a perfect world, wine would get the attention that a $3.00 gallon of milk does. Because milk is a very nutritious medium for microbial growth, it spoils very quickly if not handled properly after collection. Worse, many pathogenic bacteria can also grow in milk. Because the stigma of failure is so high, modern dairies now do an excellent job in ensuring that milk is safe and relatively stable once it leaves the dairy. (Look at the shelflife extension that has been achieved today with milk, if purchased though the supermarket in comparison to doorstep delivery.) This has been achieved through improved processing extension of the chill chain right through to the home fridge (if the shopper does not take too long to get home), and more hygienic packaging, for supermarket purchased milk. Solving the wine distribution problem deserves the same attention.
Randy Sipe
Stillwater, MN —  December 6, 2007 1:34pm ET
I am a sales rep for Vinifera Imports. I can proudly say, we take this issue very seriously. Not only do we pay extra for safe shipping but our warehouses are temperature controlled and our delivery trucks are air conditioned. We are vertically integrated and have our own distribution system because it is important to us to control the quality of our product at every stage of handling. It is expensive to air condition several large regional warehouse to 55 degrees F all summer but it is a cost we are willing to bear to insure the quality of our wines.
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  December 6, 2007 6:19pm ET
On the American side, almost all of my expensive wine now comes directly from the winery, 2nd day air( no trucks through ND). The responsible wineries are now only shipping when the temp is below 75 degrees at both locations. Today, I won't typically pay more more $20 for an American wine in a retail outlet. I've witnessed too much abuse. Wine is to easy to get as above. However, Europe is a different issue. I have seen containers of wine and other materials come onto the docks at Charleston,SC were the insides of the containers are 120+ F. The containers may then still set on the dock in the sun for a couple of days before being sent out again. No one knows what those expensive Brunellos or Bordeau's have been through regardless of what Randy from Vinifera says. Like everyone else it's "buyer beware". In 2003, during the searing heat of a summer day , I watched as one of the big Burgundian exporters seal an export container setting on a rail car headed for the coast to be shipped to the USA. I commented that the wine would be ruined before it got out o country due to the heat. He said most American's wouldn't be able to tell and just say it was good.
Dan Kosta
December 6, 2007 6:38pm ET
Good points here. In the direct shipping world, you could take it a step further: The unfortunate reality is that the best shipping material for protecting your wine is the worst material for protecting the environment. I am astonished that packaging suppliers have not developed a practical, green, biodegradable substitute to foam shippers with the same insulating qualities. Pulp's insulation ability is not up to par. We'll keep waiting!
Jay J Cooke
Ripon CA —  December 7, 2007 1:15pm ET
I would think this blog is going to hurt some retailers. I will now follow Sandy's lead of not purchasing wine over $20 from a retail outlet. I also agree with Dan's comment. I recently received a shipment from Kosta Browne in perfect shape. I know that protecting their wine is the highest priority but someone should be able to provide a biodegradable substitute.
Eric Otness
Houston, TX —  December 7, 2007 3:22pm ET
A viable biodegradable substitute may not be available yet, but I often re-use and donate my shippers to those (retail and otherwise) who re-use them. I wonder whether it would be cost prohibitive to have the consumer return shippers to the wineries via return labels. They don't weigh anything -- they are bulky, so there may be some inefficiencies there -- but I would be happy to pay to return them to the wineries for re-use if it meant I wouldn't be charged for a new one next shipment. Heck, Dan -- I would even be happy to ship you all of mine right now for free if it would get me off the waitlist and you would return them filled with wine! :)
Mr Tom A Hughes
Keller, Tx —  December 8, 2007 12:54am ET
At the end of October I told various wineries to start shipping wine I had purchased through the summer. My UPS man stopped by and I told him he would soon be delivering some wine to me again.He told me I wouldn't believe how much wine he had delivered through the hot Texas summer. He pointed out the truck was not air conditioned and the sun roof over the package area worked like a convection oven. He said it got hot enough to melt wax candles in his truck.I agree with Eric about the foam containers. They are the best, but I feel guilty putting them in a plastic trash bag and setting on the curb. At least they don't blow up and down the street like peanuts always seem to.
Gene Keenan
san francisco —  December 12, 2007 3:58pm ET
To Dan Kosta's point; I wish wineries would offer a cardboard shipping option in addition to the regular styro. I live in San Francisco and 99% of the time a styro is a waste. There is no easy environmentally friendly way for me to dispose of styro shippers. I realize this would add handling cost providing multiple packaging options but i would be willing to pay these costs in order to avoid styro.

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