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Standup Wines

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jan 9, 2009 1:37pm ET

The other day, tidying up my wine cellar, I came across a bottle of Elk Cove Pinot Noir La Bohéme 2006 standing vertically on the counter. I had brought a bottle home after really enjoying the wine when I tasted it last May. I had placed it upright, meaning to enter its information in my cellar database and get the bottle into the wine cellar so it would be available for future reference. (Or a weeknight dinner, whichever came first.)

Unfortunately, it got pushed to the side and a box placed in front of it. I finally moved the box and there was the bottle. Conventional wisdom says that wine bottles need to lie on their sides to keep the corks wet and nicely expanded, so they fit snugly into the bottle necks and keep a tight seal. A dry cork can shrink and let air into the bottle, which would oxidize the wine.

I have to admit it wasn’t the first time I had left a wine standing up for that long. And my experience is reassuring. On those occasions when I have left a bottle upright for some time, even for several months, it’s always been OK. And so was this one, which had all its youthful fruit, freshness, subtleties and balance intact, despite its eight-month verticality.

Now, I am not advocating that we all get rid of our wine racks and just line up the bottles upright on shelves. Corks really can dry out and expose the wine to air, and that can damage the contents. But I wonder if it happens as fast as some of us think.

Although I have issues with cork taint, I admire the cork as a marvelous piece of natural engineering. Its interior is honeycombed with tiny air pockets. When the cylinder is cut, it exposes them like miniature suction cups, which help the cork adhere to the glass. Wine corks are cut significantly wider than the bottle necks. Mechanically compressed before they are inserted, they expand to fill the space but never quite as wide as they were. A lot has to go wrong before corks lose their seals, which is why they became standard for wine.

My theory is that the tiny amount of oxygen that might possibly get through needs more time than a few weeks or months to do its damage. Unless you’re planning to keep a bottle for 10 or 15 years, it’s not worth fretting if the bottle stood up for a few weeks before it found its way to horizontality in the cellar.

Of course, bottles sealed with twist-offs or other inert closures can stand up for years and it won’t affect the seal. They aren’t affected by moisture, or lack of it.

I know some wine drinkers who panic at the thought of leaving their cork-stoppered bottles standing up overnight, let alone for months. I think we need to relax a little. Only worry about it if you want to keep the wine for years.

Larry Schaffer
central coast, ca —  January 9, 2009 5:03pm ET
Harvey,The REAL question is whether or not you would have 'blamed' the fact that it was upright if the wine had not been 'as expected' . . .

Not trying to stir things up intentionally, but it certainly is something to think about . . .

Claude Kaber
Luxemburg —  January 9, 2009 5:10pm ET
Agree 100 percent, storage is not really a concern for wines you'll drink in the short- to mid-term. From my experience that's true for other storage parameters as well, like temperature. No problem keeping wines at 18 degree celsius for a few years, instead of the politically correct 13 degrees.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  January 9, 2009 5:48pm ET
Larry, given my own experience with bottles unfazed by standing up for months, I would more likely blame cork taint, which at low levels can simply rob a wine of its fruit and freshness. Taster variation is the next most likely explanation.

That said, we expect wines to evolve in the bottle, so I would be surprised if it were to taste exactly the same six or seven months later. The significant thing here is that the Pinot was fresh and unaffected by oxidation.
Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  January 9, 2009 8:19pm ET
Never seen a cork dry out and I don't worry if their standing up at all.
Brad Baker
Vancouver Canada —  January 9, 2009 10:00pm ET
I have another worry that maybe someone could help me with. I have a new wine fridge that seems to swing from 58-52 evry once in a while (few days maybe more.) This is without having opened the door. My question is, what is an ok temperature swing/ over what amount of time, if it happens regularily. What should I expect from my wine refrigeration unit? Answers or thoughts are greatly appreciated.
Robert Dwyer
Wellesley, MA —  January 10, 2009 7:58pm ET
The vertical wine standing question is interesting, but I couldn't get past the mention of that specific Elk Cove Pinot. I bought a half-bottle of it recently on a business trip and *man* it hit the spot. What a great wine. Brad- that temperature swing seems excessive to me. I've had mine about a year now and I haven't seen it move more than a degree or two.
Steven M Ruths M D
Santa Barbara, CA —  January 11, 2009 1:54am ET
Many of the lower to mid range wine storage units may vary 5 degrees prior to the cooling unit engaging. I have stored wine in such a unit without problem. Ideally, temperature fluctuations are kept to a minimum.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  January 11, 2009 2:16am ET
The temperature swings Brad mentions may not affect the wine as much as you think. The air temperature inside the fridge could be going up and down by 5-8 degrees, but the wine inside the bottle takes a long time to catch up. Rig up a cheap bottle of wine with a candy thermometer poked through the cork. That will give you an accurate read on how warm or cool the wines are getting. Air temps below 60 are not going to harm the wine, in my view.
Scott Johnson
Burlingame, CA —  January 11, 2009 5:10pm ET
Harvey, what software do you use to track your cellar?
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  January 11, 2009 6:14pm ET
I just created a simple database in FileMaker Pro. Not fancy, but it lets me sort everything any way I want, and identifies the location.
Andrew J Grotto
January 12, 2009 4:19pm ET

I encounter the most dry corks from wines that have been stored in a conventional refrigerator for too long -- conventional fridges are designed to suck the moisture out of pretty much everything that's not in the crisper drawer. In my experience, the cork can become brittle within a month or less if the bottle is standing upright. For that reason, I always keep the bottle or two of wine in my fridge horizontal, as close to the crisper drawer as possible (or even inside it, when there's room), and even then I make sure I drink them within a few weeks.

Harvey, re: cellar tracking software -- have you tried CellarTracker? I'm a really big fan, but that may be because I've never tried anything else. Curious to hear your thoughts.
Paul Ruiter
January 15, 2009 1:37pm ET
What about wine that has been standing in the shelves of the vendor ( e.g. supermarkets )for ages without you knowing it? Is there a rule for when not to buy ?

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