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Reefer Madness

Posted: Nov 3, 2006 1:19pm ET

I think it is scandalous for wine importers not to use refrigerated containers when they are shipping. It only costs a few dollars a case more, and it is the best way to maintain the quality of the wine. Yet some continue not to use “reefers,” and wines are literally cooked in transit. In the hot summer, bottles of wine in a metal container can be boiled. They may as well put them in an oven.

A case in point is what happened with a recent release of the 2001 Pio Cesare Barolo in shops of the Liquor Control Board of Ontario. Forumites on this site started a thread on Oct. 29 saying that they found leaky bottles of this excellent red, which they bought through the Canadian wine-and-spirits monopoly.

My office in Tuscany made some calls to Pio Cesare, the LCBO and the importer. The LCBO's manager of quality services, Leonard Franssen, confirmed that about 250 cases of the Barolo were shipped by sea container this summer from Europe without temperature control. Apparently there were no reefers available at the time, and the wines were shipped anyway. LCBO retailers have so far reported leakage in 20 cases, Franssen said, and an investigation of the problem is still underway.

It's not 100 percent positive that the unavailability of reefers was the cause of the leaky bottles of Barolo. (Franssen added that the LCBO's policy is to ensure that non-reefer containers are shipped way down in the hold, and he noted that the shipment passed visual inspection on arrival.) The problem could also be due to bad storage somewhere else in the distribution chain. But it certainly can be said that it was not a good idea shipping the wines without temperature control in the middle of the summer. It can’t help the wines!

The wine left the cellars of Pio Cesare in perfect condition, according to Pio Boffa, whose family owns the winery. (For the U.S. market, Boffa said, importer Maison Marques et Domaines guarantees the use of a reefer container for shipment of his Barolos.)

I hope wine producers, importers, distributors, retailers and restaurateurs learn a lesson from this most recent example of bad shipping and storage practices. Fine imported wines are expensive, and they (hell, all wines) deserve to be treated properly!

David Nerland
Scottsdale —  November 3, 2006 8:41pm ET
Maybe they should take a lesson from DRC and Wilson Daniels in shipping. I think the real problem is the wholesalers. As many others have said, beer is better cared for by wholesalers.
Fred Brown
November 3, 2006 8:43pm ET
James,Thanks for making the point, this is the only way to force change. I hope that the issue makes it into print in WS magazine, as well as in this blog.
David Lobe
Toronto, —  November 3, 2006 9:27pm ET
This is interesting James. I live in Ontario and was loading up on the recent 2001 Barolo release and had intended to buy a bunch of the Pio Cesare but noticed that the fill levels were similar to a wine that was close to 20 years old. They were bottom neck to top shoulder for almost everyone. Needless to say I moved on to the Paolo Scavino which had perfect fill levels. I can't believe that this type of ignorent disregard for the customer is still tolerated. It's too bad that I have few other options for my wine purchases....
Bob Golbahar
Los Angeles —  November 3, 2006 10:01pm ET
James,We got pressured all summer long to take allocations for some wines when it was 100+ degrees, thankfully take got the message!!! When are you in L.A.? Best, B.G.
Jason D'antonio
Toronto —  November 4, 2006 7:35am ET
The problem with Pio Cesare's Barolo is far more widespread than the LCBO has come clean on. A friend visited one store in which there were problems with all 12 cases available, and a couple other stores I frequent also had the same problems. I'm sure that almost the entire shipment suffered.In addition, our friends in Quebec had the same problem with the Pio Cesare Barolo that was made available via their monopoly, the SAQ. Many leaky bottles were found, although a few forumites have tasted a couple bottles and the wine was fine.There has been a few ideas tossed around, such as heat damage, overfill, etc, but ultimately you have to question the provenance of the wine.There were no problems with the 2001 Pio Cesare Barolo Ornato or the 2001 Pio Cesare Barbaresco, however.Generally speaking, the LCBO does a good job with storing/shipping wine, as I haven't come across many (any) cooked bottles over the years, but they really dropped the ball on this one.
Glenn S Lucash
November 4, 2006 9:24am ET
James...maybe you can comment in a future blog the pros and cons of purchasing older wine from a retail store. I recall reading in WS that an editor found a rather great bottle of premier cru burgundy in a retail store in Mexico City in a bin of rejects and oddballs at a fabulous price. I believe they had it with lunch and it was fine(?). Sitting in a warm store for so many years can't be very good for the wine or consumer especially if the cost is rather high and the risks are great. I know it is impossible to purchase wines knowing the exact provenance except with such auctions as the Park B.Smith one coming up soon.
Dale Harrison
Toronto —  November 4, 2006 6:01pm ET
Outrageous. What we need is a Wall of Shame posting board for such wholesalers (and the retailers that deal with them) to protect buyers. Who ever heard of such reckless behaviour in any other category of luxury goods? Proper shipping and storage would add what % to a bottle of $50, $100 or $500 wine? Do they think that fine wine consumers won't spend a few extra sheckels to ensure proper shipping and storage, or is this just petty greed? Outrageous.
Joseph Romualdi
Woodbridge, Ontario, Canada —  November 4, 2006 9:07pm ET
Jimmy Red, will cooked wines always display a leaky cork? I hope so. I buy most of my wines from the LCBO, and this Pio Cesare issue has got me doubting how cautious they are when shipping and/or storing the wines they buy from abroad. What signs does a wine show if it was frozen? Will a frozen wine's flavour change as dramaitcally as a cooked wine?I spend enough money at the LCBO as it is, and I don't want to find out years later that the provenance of my wine was compromised while in the care of the LCBO.And thanx again for all the great info you've provided us regarding the 2001 Barolos. Excellent work.
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  November 4, 2006 11:45pm ET
I unfortunately got suckered by the pio barolo at a nice restaurant I was attending with a friend of mine. Yuck!!!.. had to send back 3 bottles. Damn shame.. Big fan of the house too.
Bruce Nichols
Naples, —  November 5, 2006 6:03pm ET
Surpirse, surprise. Isn't this only the tip of the proverbial iceberg? Surely this isn't an isolated case and what about the wholesalers and ultimately the retailers, how many of these treat their wines the way consumers treat their purchases and expect them to be treated? Until the entire supply chain stops cutting corners on shipping and storing their - our(!) wines with the respect and care they deserve, I'll continue to seek out the small, quality oriented merchants who follow the wines from the vineyards to the shelves. It may cost me a $1 a bottle premium, but that is an "investment" I am happy to make.
Anthony Clapcich
November 6, 2006 10:33am ET
Imagine this: After re-financing your home to buy a case of Haut Brion 2005, you learn that your case has been boiled in a box car! What steps can be taken to "correct" the situation? Does the retail consumer have any rights or legal course of action? Is there any way to truly protect your "futures" investment?
Brian Manning
December 5, 2006 9:00pm ET
How do you know if your wine has been shipped properly or not?

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