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Why Some 1996 Cabernets Were Oxidized

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Feb 15, 2007 12:34pm ET

Not all wineries store their wines in perfect cellar conditions. More wine gets moved around than you might imagine, and that can greatly impact the quality of the wine, especially as it ages.

When several bottles of 1996 Cabernet from two prominent Napa Valley wineries tasted oxidized while I was working on my '96 retrospective report, I asked the owners-winemakers how the wines had been stored. I’d had their wines on numerous occasions and wondered why the wines they had submitted were expired.

They both came back with the same explanation. Upon reviewing their inventory records, they found that the wines they sent to Wine Spectator's Napa office for the tasting had come from suspect cases. In both instances, the cases had been returned to the winery from retailers in exchange for a different vintage. (If retailers order too much of one vintage, they are allowed to exchange that wine for another year).

One winemaker, who logs which stores his bottles go to on a computer, was actually able to go back and try various bottles from the returned case. He discovered that the wines were tired, which probably means that they were improperly stored at the shop or during shipping.

The problem was more about the way the wine was stored than the actual wine. When the winemakers submitted new wine for me to taste, they were relieved that it showed considerably better than the wine they originally sent.

David A Zajac
February 15, 2007 3:41pm ET
Thats a questionable procedure to say the least. Are you serious that they really used that excuse or were that ignorant to send wines that were 10 years old and stored outside their winery for god knows how long and never even sampled the wine they received back before sending it to you for this tasting? Sounds too ignorant to be believed by me, or it makes me never want to ever buy another bottle of reserve or library wine again. No, actually both are true.
Michael Culley
February 16, 2007 9:47am ET
Dubious indeed, for a year rated at 96 points these retailers had too much too sell? I hope they had their allocations cut the next year!
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  February 16, 2007 10:25am ET
James - The more I thought about this, the "confuseder" I got. Not that I doubt the heat caused the oxidation, but my mind needs to ask a question.

The term Oxidation implies a chemical change in the presence of oxygen. Heat (improper storage) is being blamed for these wines being oxidized. Heat and oxygen are quite different. So how did heat cause oxidation in these wines? Thanks!
Colin Haggerty
La Jolla, California —  February 16, 2007 10:45am ET
James-During the fall of 2006, I received a shipment of wine from a very prominent Napa-based winery (whose name I will not mention) which was sent in the middle of a major heat wave. The wine had been shipped despite the fact that the heat wave was predicted on the news, in newspapers, etc. There was no notice by email, letter or fax that they were planning to ship the wine that week...it simply arrived at my office. I traced the UPS record and found that it went through the San Joaquin Valley during the middle of the day when the temperature was 105 degrees. Although the bottles appeared to be OK, there was no question in my mind that the wine had been cooked. The winery allowed me to send the wine back. Rather than them sending a new shipment (which for all I know could have been the same bottles), I requested a refund. I'm quite sure that some other poor soul (at some point) will receive those roasted bottles. IMHO, most wineries simply do not care that much. If I told you the name of the winery involved in this incident, you would be astonished.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  February 16, 2007 11:47am ET
Colin, thanks for that story. Old-time collectors used to want to pick up their wines at the winery (and now some small wineries only ship). I thought they were overly concerned about shipping, but perhaps they were wiser than I thought. They knew if they took their wine direct from a winery cellar to their cellar it would not be exposed to any unnecessary heat.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  February 16, 2007 11:49am ET
Don, didn't intend to confuse and your question is a good wine. If a 10 year old Cabernet is oxidized, with nutty flavors, heat damage is a likely cause. Also bad corks might lead to premature oxidation. I should add that of the many wines I rejected in my tasting, I had plenty of bad corks, too.
Peter Mayer
Cumberland, RI —  February 16, 2007 12:17pm ET
Can anyone tell me how much humidity is a factor in possible oxidation of wines?
Paul Manchester
Santa Cruz, CA —  February 16, 2007 1:41pm ET
OK, now I can't trust the wineries to ship or store correctly, wine shops to do the same, auction houses to sell "non-fake" rare wines, bottle closures to work without tainting wines, AAAARRGH!!!! Wow, I'm getting very hesitant to buy any wine at all. I feel like the only situation that I can trust is a local winery in the Santa Cruz area (Salamandre) because I personally know him and see the wine go from vineyard to barrel to bottle to me. And 98% of what I've tasted from him has been perfect and untainted. Now that I've read all these blogs on tainted bottles, etc... I do realize that I've had many a bottle in the past that was supposed to be great but didn't impress me. Now I think that I got burned a lot.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  February 16, 2007 11:25pm ET
James - thanks for explaining. I think now I'm understanding that corks dry out in (a) heat and (b) low humidity, allowing air to pass into the bottle to oxidize the wine. And if THAT doesn't make a case for alternate closures on wines in ALL price points, I don't know what will.
David A Zajac
February 17, 2007 12:34pm ET
Don, if the wine is stored at temperatures that are consistently too high it doesn't matter what the closure is, the wine will still be bad - it really has more to do with storage and shipping conditions than the closure. I know there is a huge number of people out there screaming to get rid of corks, why aren't they screaming about what matters even more, shipping and storage?
Joseph Kroter
Gladwyne, Pa. —  February 22, 2007 2:43pm ET
The proper shipment and storage of wines is the most important, yet also most ignored, aspect of the industry. Here in Pa., and in NJ across the river, I have been in warehouses where wine, includeing expensive Bordeaux and Burgundy, is stored without benefit of climate control. The temperatures were over 100 degrees F! Some retailers buy, ship and sell only wines that have never been over 60 degrees F and it tells. I have purchased the exact same wine from a "normal" big chain retailer and a one that is meticulous about shipping and storage and the difference is remarkable. The one was flat and dull while the other was lively, fresh and delicious. Guess which was which. I will not buy wine that has a remote chance of being shipped or stored in heat but, unfortunately, most wineries aren't interested in how their product is shipped or stored.

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