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Dear Dr. Vinny,
My wine bottles were submerged for about a week during the recent flooding from Hurricane Harvey. Afterward, I cleaned the bottles with a bleach solution. Are they OK to drink?
—Dave, Katy, Texas
My heart goes out to everyone affected by Hurricane Harvey, and I’m glad you wrote, because I wanted to address the concerns of floods and hurricanes, especially because it looks like it’s going to be a heck of a storm season. In addition to people evacuating the path of oncoming Hurricane Irma, I’ve also heard of wine being evacuated to temperature-controlled cellars in other states. For those with valuable wine collections in the path of an oncoming storm, moving your wine collection out of harm’s way is the surest (albeit most expensive) way to protect it.
One of the first dangers that storms and floods pose to wine collections is a power outage, and the loss of temperature and humidity control that comes with it. If the temperatures get too warm, the wines can suffer heat damage, which includes leaking corks. There’s no formula for how long at what degree of heat will result in damage, but the longer your wines spend at elevated temperatures, the worse the outcome.
As far as flooding, wines topped with screwcaps are probably OK, but I worry about wines under cork, especially if submerged for days. Unless the cork is already damaged, floodwater isn’t likely to soak through and compromise the wine, but it can result in mold on the surface. You might lose some older labels that are glued on (modern labels are attached with more durable sticker-type adhesives). And despite some folks experimenting with underwater wine aging, the government has issued an advisory against it, citing increased pressure on the bottle and exposure to contaminants.
Once the waters have receded, I recommend using rubbing alcohol to clean the bottles. Avoid using bleach or any other chlorine-based product, which can complicate the situation. Remember that chlorine is part of the 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA) equation—an interaction of mold, chlorine and phenols (organic compounds found in plants and plant-based products like corks )—responsible for the vast majority of tainted wines. TCA is what causes wines to take on moldy, musty notes.
Even though you’ve already washed your wines in a bleach solution, I think you should still clean them with rubbing alcohol. Hopefully you didn’t create a perfect storm for TCA and your wines will be just fine.
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