Hello there! I'm Dr. Vinifera, or "Vinny" for short. Ask me your toughest wine questions, from the technical aspects of winemaking to the fine points of etiquette. I hope you find my answers educational and even amusing. Looking for a particular answer? Check my archive and my FAQs.
Dear Dr. Vinny,
Unfortunately, my house recently had an electrical fire and burned down. I am concerned about the 45 to 50 cases of mostly California Cabernet wine that I had stored in the basement directly under the starting point of the fire. In addition to the heat from the fire, the area was also sprayed with a considerable amount of water that remained standing in the basement for at least a few hours—the basement was eventually dried out after several days by a number of industrial-sized dehumidifiers running around the clock. These types of dehumidifiers typically generate a fair amount of heat themselves in order to reduce the humidity. To make matters worse, once the wine was “rescued,” it was taken up to the ground floor, where it was left for several days and subjected to below-freezing temperatures.
Since this has occurred I have been advised by several local wine distributors to try a sampling from some of these various cases to see if the wine still seems to be OK. In my random taste-testing I have found some “bad” bottles that tasted nothing like the wine would normally taste; other bottles seemed to be unaffected. Another insurance company’s adjuster told me that his routine advice to people in my situation is to just simply dump all the wine, since in addition to possibly going bad it could also pose a health problem. I would love to get your expert opinion as to what you would suggest and how you would handle this type of situation.
—Ken N., Elm Grove, Wis.
I’m really sorry about what happened to your home, and my very best wishes to you and your family.
It sounds like your wine has been through the worst possible conditions. I’m not surprised that some of the bottles you sampled are showing badly, nor am I surprised that other bottles are showing well. Though on a much smaller scale, I’ve seen firsthand how some bottles make it through extreme conditions while others don’t. Once I left a case of wine in my trunk by accident for a week during the summer. Eight of the bottles were cooked, but the other four were terrific when I invited some friends over to pop the corks and survey the damage.
Realistically, most of your bottles are probably damaged. But I don’t agree that exposing your wine to extreme heat (or extreme cold) would do anything to cause health problems. They might not taste great, but a wine that’s cooked or oxidized will not make you sick.
How would I handle the situation? I can’t advise you on any insurance matters, but I can give you good wine advice. Since there’s no way to check on the status of each individual bottle without opening them and trying them, I’d invite my friends and family over, tell them to bring a corkscrew, start opening, and find some good bottles to toast the fact that you are still alive, even if all your wine isn’t.
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