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Cool Summer Shippers

Some wineries are using temperature-sensitive labels to track whether or not their wines overheat during shipping
Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Aug 11, 2011 5:00pm ET

In order for a wine to ever develop into a great aged wine, it has to be properly stored and have a great cork.

I often hear of readers' tales of trips to wine regions where they recall tasting a great wine at the property. One reason those wines taste so good on site is that they've never left. They've spent their entire existence in one place and don't have to endure travel.

All in all, wine travels fairly well, provided it's kept cool and in the dark. But heat is one of wine's worst enemies, and one reason some wines lose a little something and might not taste as good once they leave home and are shipped long distances.

For years there has been talk among those in the wine trade about creating a seal or band that would indicate if a wine had been exposed to excessive heat. That is, the indicator would change colors, just like those beer ads where the beer goes from cold to super cold, and the drinker can pass the "bar exam" by waiting for the perfect chill.

Back in 2007 I talked to Larry Chase, the owner of PakSense, a company that made shipping labels that track temperature throughout the delivery process and can even pinpoint at what point during the trip a wine reached an unacceptably high temperature.

Chase had five winery clients in 2007. We checked back in with PakSense last week and the number is now upwards of 30.

Obviously, some wineries think it's an important enough issue to keep track of. The technology is there, so why aren't more wineries using it? It's a topic that deserves further consideration, with a discussion about the pros and cons of a temperature-sensitive strip.

Richard Gangel
San Francisco —  August 11, 2011 6:25pm ET
It seems like a great idea, but as far as I'm concerned, no winery should ship out wine during the warmer months of the year, period. About two months ago I ordered wine from a Washington winery and was led to believe that the wine would not be shipped until the temperature would be cooler in the fall. Lo and behold, I received notice from FedEx that the wine was about to be shipped out about two weeks after I placed the order. I immediately e-mailed the winery that I was going to be out of town that week and that I wanted the wine held until October when the weather was cooler. The response I received from the owner of the winery was that since the weather in the Bay area was supposed to be cool that week that he thought it would be fine to ship, but he agreed to hold it for later shipment.

Although the weather was supposed to be cooler in the area, as it usually is during the summer months, that does not guarantee that it will be so during the complete route that the wine was being shipped. As far as I'm concerned, no winery should take the risk of shipping wine during the summer months.

As another example of "what were they thinking?" I received a shipment from another Washington winery last October in which we experienced a sudden heat wave in which the temperature reached the high 80's in San Francisco. I wrote to the winery about my concern but never received a response. As I would like the wine to age somewhat I haven't opened it yet to give it a try. I just hope that it won't be necessary to write them again complaining about cooked wine.
Eric Hall
Healdsburg, CA —  August 11, 2011 8:29pm ET
I know of a very clever winemaker who puts chocolate chips in his shipments, and if they are melted he (and the customer) knows it must have gotten to 95 degrees (the melting point of Chocolate) at some point on the way.
Thomas R Riley
Alameda, CA —  August 12, 2011 1:55am ET
I just read a blog piece today by Mark Squires on the exact same topic. What will it take for the industry to start caring about their product once it leaves their property? The producers should be siding with the consumer, in defense of their product and their good name, and not letting the shippers/wholesalers/ treat both with such cavalier disregard.

I worry that a label device that indicates temperature changes/spikes will eventually bog down the industry in he said/she said lawsuits. How can one prove when the temperature spike occurred? Maybe some wineries don't use the PakSense labels because their shippers don't want them to. That's a bit cynical but you never know. The tail here is wagging a pretty big dog. Anything is possible.

Can anyone organize a collection of wineries large enough to push the shippers around and insist they use refrigerated trucks or no shipping contract? I understand the inventory challenges many producers face these days but at some point the wineries have to take control.

A timely piece on an important topic. Thanks.
Anthony Dixon
Atlanta, GA —  August 12, 2011 9:48am ET
Hey Eric Hall,
Care to disclose the name of the genius winemaker/winery that puts chocolate chips in their shipments? That is pure brilliance and they are to be lauded!
Eric Hall
Healdsburg, CA —  August 12, 2011 11:33am ET
Fred Scherrer, in Sebastopol, CA. Great wines, & a clever guy


Eric Hall- Roadhouse Winery
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  August 12, 2011 11:58am ET
I love the chocolate idea, too. Brilliance! This whole issue has centered around US domestic shipments gone awry, but what about those from Europe? I hear about containers landing and wonder what conditions the contents were exposed to throughout what must be a weeks-long journey on the ocean. Are these containers refrigerated (or heated if it's winter)? Do they remain as such while the container wends its way through customs, then onto a flatbed, where it eventually arrives a week later in Los Angeles? I can't imagine the French (or the Aussies) going for any temperature indicators. I can't tell you the number of times I've bought non-domestic bottles directly from retailers shops that have been damaged by heat/cold. Maybe the retailers left a shipment in the sun, but I think my original scenario is far more likely.

I've stopped purchasing expensive, non-domestic wines for this reason. I have a hard enough time making sure retailers/wineries here only ship between November - March.
Nathan Mays
Houston, Texas —  August 12, 2011 12:45pm ET
As a consumer regularly subjected to the perils of overheated wine (over 100 degrees for the past three weeks here) it has been my experience that wineries are far more sensitive to this issue than distributors and local retailers. I purchase a significant amount of wine direct from wineries in California, and all of them have been extremely helpful with delaying shipments as long as necessary to ensure that their product doesn't get muted by the Texas heat.

On the other hand, I can't count the number of times I have purchased wines at local shops which when opened show obvious signs of being overheated during the shipping, storing, and stocking process.

I believe that most wineries would eagerly embrace the use of an on-bottle strip that would indicate whether heat damage may have occurred. However, the distributors and retailers with whom most of the fault lies, and who bear the expense of climate control once wine leaves the winery, would be opposed.

What percentage of wine sold is direct shipped from wineries? I would guess the amount is less than one percent of total wine sales. The question isn't why more wineries don't embrace the technology, the question is how to convince the distributors and retailers to embrace it.
Eric Vogt
Belmont, MA, USA —  August 12, 2011 3:34pm ET
Heat (& cold) damage is a major issue around the world. Transport and storage conditions can ruin wine before it ever reaches the consumer. Both the scientific literature and our own commissioned research support the fact that temperatures above 25 degrees Celsius are not healthy for wine, and temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius can “cook” wine in as little as 18 hours. It’s important to know how long the wine was exposed to extreme temps and how frequently the temps went up/down significantly.

I started my company, eProvenance, to help the wine industry monitor and improve these storage and transport conditions. Based upon the 650,000 temperature measurements we have taken so far, we can profile the world of wine shipments. For example, over the past three years, 41.2% of monitored fine wine shipments from France were exposed to temperatures above 25 degrees. 11.5% of shipments were exposed to temperatures above 30 degrees. And, 3.2% of shipments were “cooked” producing a wine that lacks aromas, lacks the sulfur dioxide for long-term storage, and generally tastes “off.”

Our data shows that as much as $2.2 billion in wine experiences improper storage temperatures during transport. (You can see our detailed report from last fall on fine wine distribution conditions worldwide at: http://www.eprovenance.com/AssuringProvenance-report.)

The wine industry can protect this precious cargo! By monitoring their shipments, several of our customers have discovered problems in their distribution channels and have taken corrective steps. Others have confirmed their wines are being properly cared for during transport (and can then use that info as a marketing advantage). The key is having the information — you can’t correct problems you don’t know about! We want to reach everyone who cares about wine — wineries, importers, retailers, sommeliers, collectors, consumers — and share our research and findings. Eventually, we hope all shipments will be monitored and all customers will have the assurance their wine has been properly handled. Can you image buying milk without checking the freshness date? We think wine should be accorded the same care and concern – that means creating “cold chains” to assure the correct temperature conditions from winery to consumer. I would love to see this discussion continue and expand – what are your experiences, questions and concerns?
David W Voss
elkhorn, Wi —  August 12, 2011 6:19pm ET
This is such a problem that I won't order wine from the west coast after April and before September. Unfortunately consumers have no idea how the distributors ship and store their wine before it reaches the retailers. I also will not buy wine from a hot, glass-front retailer. All this uncertainty about conditions makes it virtually impossible for a super expensive wine to make it into my cellar.
Karl Mark
Geneva, IL. —  August 12, 2011 7:48pm ET
Most shipments from overseas would be shipped in ocean containers most likely "below deck", which is out of direct sunlight. Nobody is going to pay for a refrigerated container due to cost, but I can't confirm this. Those ocean containers also often sit in the sunlight on the dock before loading this ships so everytime there is another port workers strike in France I get nervous. Also don't forget that shiping wine from the southern hemisphere in the winter will arrive here in the summer....so there are always going to be challenges.
Ivan Campos
Ottawa, Canada —  August 12, 2011 10:38pm ET
could it be that many consumers simply don't know that they're drinking a heat-affected wine, and that distributors count on this?
Gavin Mchugh
Nor Cal —  August 13, 2011 1:25am ET
We purchase most of out wines year round from a handful of retailers in CA for delivery to Northern CA. We have had zero problems with heat or cold damage. What has worked for us is simply watching the weather and coordinating with the retailer on the timing of the shipment. Also make sure that the wine is not shipped so it could end up sitting in a warehouse over a weekend waiting for Monday delivery.

Maybe we are just lucky, but all the folks we buy from are very good about it and will work with the customer. A number of them are now including cold packs in the shipping containers during the summer. One particular retailer will not ship wine at room tempature. To be extra safe, he places the wine in his cellar to get the temp down to 56 degrees before shipping.

I do agree its a good idea for retailers and wineries to include additional verification measures, such as, PakSense and chocolate.
Lyle Kumasaka
Arlington, VA —  August 13, 2011 9:57am ET
A small Sonoma winery from which I receive shipments has recently begun touting termperature-controlled ground service for east coast customers. There's still a day or two of risk from the east coast terminal to delivery, but that seems no worse than what you might get with more expensive air shipment.

It can be done in the direct market, the question is whether consumers will pay for it through retail channels, by seeking out merchants and distributors that disclose shipping and storage information, and paying a premium, perhaps a hefty one, to those who better control temperature. Somehow, I doubt that's going to catch on...
Jay Kaplan
Atlanta —  August 13, 2011 12:58pm ET
The chocolate chip thing sounds cute, but wouldn't wine exposed to 95 degree heat tell the tale itself via a pushed cork or wine dribbling down the label.
Eric Treiber
LaGrange Park, IL —  August 14, 2011 7:25am ET
In addition to wines we purchase for storage in our own cellars, we must not forget about wines we order in restaurants. These wines are delivered from large distributors, on a daily basis, throughout the year, regardless of temperature. Does anyone have knowledge as to whether distributors' delivery vehicles, in general, are refrigerated? I've always had that thought at the back of my mind any time I order wine while dining out, because one can never really be sure when that particular bottle arrived at the restaurant.
Jeremy Matouk
Port of Spain, Trinidad —  August 14, 2011 10:51pm ET
As a wine merchant (importer/distributor) in Trinidad, the most southerly island in the Caribbean, where daily temperatures are seldom below 95F, we insist on refrigeration at all stages of delivery and storage. Wines are collected from wineries by refrigerated trucks and shipped in refrigerated containers with temperature track recorders installed within. These recorders record the temperature inside the container from loading to unloading, including time spent on the port. We also take out insurance against heat damage. Deliveries are also made in air conditioned vans. It may come as a surprise to consumers but such measures are necessary to avoid the risks inherent in shipping wines and there are merchants who take these measures, though we are in the minority. It does cost more but that is the only way to ensure that the wines are kept in pristine condition.
We often observe the farcical practice of skimping on refrigeration during transit and then storing the wines in refrigeration once they arrive. You cannot refrigerate quality back into a wine once it has been damaged by heat. It may prevent further damage but it will not restore the wine to its original condition.
The sad part is that this only adds about a dollar to the retail price of a bottle.
My advice to concerned consumers is to check with the retailer and importer whether they take these measures to insure quality or 'caveat emptor'.
It is time consumers pressure traders into more responsible shipping and storage practices.
Andrew Alley
Burlington, NC —  August 15, 2011 12:28am ET
A good and important discussion but the question is "Are you willing to pay even more for your wine?" Until an affordable technology can be found or freight companies are willing to offer temp-control gratis, the cost will have to be increased on all wines to compensate. Who's willing to pay another $1-3 for their wines?
Jason Boughner
Czech Republic —  August 15, 2011 8:24am ET
The problem is that too many people in the industry have no clue about wine once it leaves the winery. In June (90F+), my 2008 Bordeaux futures arrived from the importer sent on a non-temperature controlled truck. Oh, and the shippment was 6 bottles short, those just happened to be 3 Ch. Mouton Rothschild and 3 Ch. Lafite! The importer has made good on the missing bottles, but the lack of concern for the method of shipping has turned me off on any further futures purchases.
Drew Innes
Toronto, Ontario —  August 15, 2011 3:32pm ET
Great article Mr. Laube but not only for the reasons you've pointed out. In most wines and especially those from warmer climates such as southern Italy, wine making results in the presence of certain unwanted chemical compounds such as ethyl carbamate the levels of which can increase in the bottle when heated such as in an unrefrigerated cargo hold.

While the amounts are trace and do not necessarily pose a serious health risk, the levels of ec can exceed the US's allowable max limit on wine of 15 ppb thus rendering the wine unsellable and posing a serious business risk.

Gregory G Peron
Scottsdale, Arizona —  August 15, 2011 9:24pm ET
Heat is the enemy of wine. Living in Scottsdale, Arizona where temperatures soar over 100 degrees Farenheint over 100 days per year can certainly ruin any bottle of wine. Village Wine Cellar, Scottsdale, Arizona, keeps the ENTIRE RETAIL STORE at 64 degrees Farenheint constant, 365 days a year. Over the past ten years, there has never been a single complaint of a wine ruined due to heat. All deliveries are received before 10 am in refrigerated trucks to insure this policy.
Rick Penner
Langley, B.C. Canada —  August 15, 2011 11:02pm ET
I would like to ask the same question as Ivan. Do we know when we are drinking a wine that has been affected by heat? I just recently had an 03 Clos des Papes (97 points) that I have cellared properly for years, but was felt that the wine was "off" - lacking a lot. It was a disappointment after all those years of storing and saving. It lacked some richness, flavor, aromas, and who knows what else. Could it have been "cooked". I do not think that I know what a "cooked" wine tastes like. Or a "frozen" wine for that matter? Any help out there?
James Laube
Napa, CA —  August 16, 2011 3:11pm ET
Rick, cooked wines actually taste cooked, and often have a "stewed" quality, that is it doesn't taste fresh. They can also taste baked, or have a carmelized flavor. I suppose you could heat up some wine and see what happens?

I've had the Clos des Papes you describe many times and suspect the one you tasted either suffered from excessive heat or low level cork taint, both of which strip a wine of its flavor. Low level cork taste doesn't leave an obvious cork taint of moldy newspaper. Freezing a wine is actually fine. I've written about it several times (see out search engine). In both instances -- cooked or frozen -- the cork will often push out from the expanded liquid. If it's cooked and the cork is pushed out you'll likely find seepage too.

Stuart Hinton
Colorado —  August 17, 2011 11:24am ET
Great post James, I don't think the industry as a whole wants to incur the extra expense of monitoring the temperature throughout the entire shipping process. The cases of wine at the winery are fine, but what happens every step of the way from there? Do they sit on a dock in 85 degree weather for an hour or so to be picked up by the distributor? Who then puts them in a truck to be driven around all day, to be put in the warehouse for shipping. Then on the dock again, then on the truck again for final delivery via fedex or some distributor to finally arrive at the restaurant or wine shop??? I think that most wines are probably sitting in temperatures that are not ideal during the long shipping process.
Kenneth Nelson
Chicago, IL —  August 17, 2011 12:09pm ET
I understand that Jorge Ordonez has long used refrigerated shipping containers. There must be other producers that do so as well. Surprising to me that producers don't "market" this as an important and valuable aspect of provenance.
Gerry Ansel
Fullerton, Calif —  August 18, 2011 9:32pm ET
Does anyone know if the big retailers, e.g., BevMo and Total Wine & More, ship their wines cool - especially those on BevMo's 5-cent sales? Something tells me they're able to slash their prices so low by cutting refrigerating costs. I've had too many cooked bottles from those retailers. Just a theory.
Rick Penner
Langley, B.C. Canada —  August 19, 2011 12:17am ET
Thank you for your response. It was very helpful.
Sao Paulo,Brazil —  September 6, 2011 5:56pm ET
Very often I have heard how bad are high temperature to wines. Never I have heard about extremely low temperatures wines travels in international fligts.
Could you tell something about?

James Laube
Napa, CA —  September 6, 2011 9:29pm ET
Jorge, cold weather poses a much less threat than heat and there's no upside to super cold temperatures for cellaring. If a bottle freezes, the wine expands and will push out a cork. That is less a problem if the wine is consumed with a reasonable amount of time (a day or so), but it can leave a mess. You can test this theory by freezing an opened bottle of wine (where there's room for the liquid to expand) for some time, even weeks. I often freeze wines where I drink a glass but don't want to pour it out before leaving on a trip. What you get is a wine slush. Long term cold cellaring retards a wine's development, which is why over time 55F degrees has been determined to be the best, most stable temperature to cellar wine.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  September 6, 2011 9:33pm ET
I should add, I've never heard of wine freezing on an international flight...but I'm sure it has happened and perhaps others have experienced it.

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