How can I tell if a wine was properly cellared?

Ask Dr Vinny

Hello there! I'm Dr. Vinifera, but you can call me Vinny. Ask me your toughest wine questions, from the fine points of etiquette to the science of winemaking. And don't worry, I'm no wine snob—you can also ask me those "dumb questions" you're too embarrased to ask your wine geek friends! I hope you find my answers educational, empowering and even amusing. And don't forget to check out my most asked questions and my full archives for all my Q&A classics.

Dear Dr. Vinny,

Are there any clues to indicate whether or not a case or bottle of wine was improperly cellared? What if the label is wrinkled, damp or stained? Or the cork has leaked or seems pushed out?

—Jasper, Hong Kong

Dear Jasper,

In general, I recommend not judging a wine by how it looks on the outside, nor judging a wine-advice columnist by how silly they look in their profile picture. I’ve had bottles of wine that looked like they’d been through a war but tasted terrific and bottles that looked pristine but were disappointments. I’ve never been one to speculate: I’d rather open it up and see how it tastes. There’s no cork “forensic file,” but there are some telltale signs to watch for (and others that don't matter at all).

Wine auction houses carefully inspect and note all the cosmetic conditions of a bottle. In these cases, a perfect label can fetch more money than one that is ripped or stained, but not necessarily because the wine inside is better or worse. Appearance counts when it comes to monetary value, but not as much when it comes to wine quality.

A damp or wrinkled label suggests merely that the outside of the bottle was exposed to moisture. It could be from a humid cellar, or it might just be good old-fashioned condensation, which happens when something cool (like a bottle of wine at cellar temperature) is placed in a warmer environment. If the label is severely faded, that could indicate the bottle spent a lot of time exposed to light, which can be a problem, but many labels also simply fade with time.

A stained or ripped label means absolutely nothing about the quality of the wine inside—unless that stain came from wine that leaked out through the cork. Seepage is definitely important to note, as it could indicate that the wine inside the bottle at some point expanded due to excess heat, or that the cork is in someway compromised. Or the wine inside might taste great—there are no guarantees! (Although some companies do now offer heat-sensing technologies which can be packaged on bottles or in wine shipments and can track the temperature of the shipment through the duration of its voyage.)

I’ve scuffed, nicked and torn enough labels in my time to not worry about how pristine they are. Even a little bit of mold on the label is no concern—unless you’re looking to resell your wines at auction.

—Dr. Vinny

Collecting Storage Wine Flaws Ask Dr. Vinny

More In Dr. Vinny

How do you soften a hard cork?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains what happens after a wine bottle is opened, and …

Jan 24, 2023

How long can Champagne be stored in a wine cooler?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains what happens as sparkling wine ages, how long it …

Jan 17, 2023

I shook a bottle of wine with sediment and now it's cloudy. Is it ruined?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains where sediment comes from, and what to do if …

Jan 9, 2023

Can a cork-tainted bottle of wine cross-contaminate other bottles in my cellar?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains how and when cork taint or TCA contamination …

Jan 3, 2023

Dr. Vinny’s Wine Care Clinic: Top Tips for Safekeeping Your Wine Bottles

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny answers all your wine storage and serving questions!

Dec 27, 2022

Can you cook with non-alcoholic wine?

Wine Spectator's expert Dr. Vinny explains the benefits of cooking with wine, and shares …

Dec 19, 2022