A friend called the other day complaining about his string of bad luck with damaged older bottles of wine, things bought in the aftermarket some six years ago and eight years to the years after release. My initial reaction was quite simple, although unexpressed. Why are you surprised?
The handling, distribution and storage of wine is one of the biggest scandals in the field. Too many distributors and retailers simply just do not care. Too many consumers do not know the difference between damaged and pristine bottles. As time goes on, I have become increasingly incensed over these issues, especially as the price of wine escalates. I remember a saying by an American importer Kermit Lynch who once wrote in the Wine Spectator magazine “a little heat damages wine a little; a lot damages a lot.” To which a careful consumer can only say “Amen”. And to which too many retailers and distributors seem to say “Yes, so?”
I sometimes, over the past few years, have heard people describing or posting notes on wines I know well. The description on the notes bears no relationship to the wines I have drunk. The difference? Storage. Some wines are especially vulnerable. For instance, expensive and successful vintages of wines from abroad — the ultimate commodity — have been passed along from person to person so often in the aftermarket that I would not buy them anymore. I do not trust their condition until I taste them myself and I am proved wrong.
How many ugly stories from out there can I tell? Well, there was a retailer who presented me with a case of some expensive Bordeaux for the hotel, with all the corks pushed up. The day I arrived to pick it up I found out why. There was a sudden hot spell outside, one of those real scorchers you can expect in Cyprus in July. To “cool off”, the store just open its doors. Inside it was hot and sticky — I would have thought it pushed over 30ºC degrees.
When confronted about the pushed up corks (a classic sign of heat damage), I was told blithely that it was “no problem, the wines are fine. They were shipped to Cyprus that way. Maybe they were filled too high at the Chateau.” Another store, along the same lines liked to cast itself as the prestige place in the town. But it lost all air conditioning for about a week during one of those brutal summers in the 90s when the temperature pushed near 40ºC almost every day. Bathed in light, with machinery inside, the interior may have been even hotter. Did you honestly think they sold the wine at a discount or made full disclosure? The answer is no.
When I started my career in Pafos then there was a retailer who cheerfully explained to me his shop’s shipping policy in the summer. He will always ship second day air in the summer and was wondering whether there were any serious problems about sending wine into serious heat. Apparently he thinks not. The second day air must be the cure for everything. Of course, no shipment of wine could ever be stuck in the back of a metal truck after it gets off the plane and that metal truck could not become a veritable furnace by the end of the day in direct sunshine, could it? Talking of furnace did you hear the horror stories of wine kept in customs in metal containers for days until it was cleared out?
Horror stories about the heat do come up year after year. But there are retail shops that store all their wines standing up in direct sunlight – one not so long ago under the heater. I could see a white Burgundy cooking under that. We must not forget, though, that these things do not happen only in Cyprus. Another retailer in Athens had a lot of expensive rare Greek wine on the shelf in direct light with no temperature controls. In the back, they actually had a cooler. Believe it or not, it was at least 75 per cent empty, but the thought of moving these rare wines into the cooler apparently did not occur to them.
In London, of course, they do not bother to install air conditioning on the grounds that their climate is moderate. Last year, there was a brutal summer. You can guess the rest, do you think they told the customers? Reports from the international press suggest the opposite.
And through the years I have read some horror stories from abroad. In the US, Wine Spectator reported an auction house had sold a few too many wines with poor levels and oxidized contents. The auction house did not even “deign to describe the wines if the levels are in the neck”. Mark Squires continues “Think there might be a problem with, say, eight year old Bordeaux with a level already so low that is near the base of the neck? They don’t. Not even worth a mention”. The auction house also saw no problem in ground-shipping wine in transitional weather. Over 30ºC degrees may not sound too deadly, but is enough to make some fragile wines leak. Temperature fluctuations can be wild and those alone can cause leakage. Overnight it could be 3ºC, 12 hours later 40ºC. And that process can be repeated several times in the shipping process. Also, temperatures can be different in the back of the truck than in the ambient air, as pointed out above, and as anyone who has ever left a car on the a bright sunny day knows. Direct sunlight can make certain areas unusually hot. Steel trucks can magnify heat. You can’t just hope things work out. You need a margin of error if you are shipping, and the slower the process, the more time on the ground, the bigger the margin of error that is needed. If you care about the wine, these are the thoughts that run through your head, but obviously the auctioneer friends of the Wine Spectator magazine journalist don’t much care.
The auction houses are highly risk places, in general. As noted above, retailers are hardly perfect, but at least if you act promptly, grab the wine when it hits the store, and make sure you take no risks in shipping, you have a fighting chance if the bottles look good to start with. Retailers lately ship their wines during late winter or early spring to avoid the summer heat. Moreover, the majority are storing their wines in control temperature areas in their shops. The auctioneers often don’t know, although they try hard to make you think they do. They claim they make investigations into provenance, but often, especially with smaller lots the investigation consists of saying to the seller “Did you store well?” and accepting the answer. The answer, even if true, fails to deal with issues such as whether the wine was purchased from the winery or bought in the aftermarket ten years after release, and so on. In addition, their stock in trade is older wines. It can in some respects be harder to determine when these wines have been damaged just by looking at them. Also, any that are damaged have their defects magnified by age. That is, a wine that was stored fairly warm for a year may not show much damaged if drunk a week later. But the same wine, especially if it has slightly leaked, drunk 20 years later may be a tired, oxidized mess.
Here’s a bit of a background concerning auctions even though we may not have yet an auction house in Cyprus. Some readers do though buy through the net.
How do retailers and auctioneers get away with it? A lot of people have no clue as to what pristine bottles taste like. There is nothing like a trip to a country of origin to open one’s eyes. Even without a lot of travel, if you drink enough you will suddenly begin to come across huge bottle variations from storage. Not too long ago, I opened a slightly damaged bottle of 1989 Chateau Talbot. The level was low, although not so low that it would have bothered our friends above – and I suspected it was going to show some problems. Considering how tannic and big this wine is, the oxidation and warm storage it had somewhere along the line may have actually helped it along a little. In pristine condition, it is hardly approachable. Yet, while several people liked it nonetheless, it bore no resemblance whatsoever to the pristine bottle I had had not too many months earlier. By the end of a long evening, instead of still developing, it was fading and tiring. A good tasting bottle? Yes. A good bottle? No. Clearly damaged. Would that make you happy at some £40.00 per bottle?
But they don’t really care. I cannot count on one hand retailers I really like for storage issues these days, and/or who I at least trust to tell the truth. Some or their sales team and staff seem clueless, some seem venal. Many just refuse to spend the investment in pounds or time necessary to protect the wines. Most sellers — especially the supermarkets — just like to avoid the issue.
Solutions? There are some. You have to be more active. First examine the bottles more carefully. Make sure the levels are good, especially for younger wines, that there is no leakage, and no obvious defect otherwise. Wrap the foil of the cork and check your hands.
Second, complain long and loudly, and repeatedly. Stop buying questionable bottles. Let a retailer know that you are walking out of a store because it seems to you that storage conditions are unacceptable. And, finally, learn what pristine bottles are supposed to taste like. Knowledge is you first defence.