Thinking About Wine Shipping

A neighbor stopped me a while backand asked “Are you Bear with Spec’s?” I said yes and we began to chat a bit about wine. He asked me what I thought about shipping wine. Specifically, he wanted to know what I think about consumers buying wine in California or elsewhere and shipping it home, or consumers buying wine on the internet or on the phone and having it shipped to their homes? I allowed as to how I don’t think it is a good idea. I’ll get to my “why” in a minute.

Shipping wine is a big issue these days. There are many reasons it seems like a good idea but there are compelling reasons not to ship wine as well.

While, due to a federal court ruling, it is no longer technically illegal for wineries in other areas of the US to ship wine to consumers in Texas, many are reluctant to do so. One reason is that Texas has many “dry” areas where alcohol sales and deliveries are prohibited. I can be quite difficult for a non-local company to know if they are shipping to a legal “wet” address or an illegal “dry” address. Sometimes it’s even a bit tricky for the local companies to know.

It is illegal for wineries or stores in other countries to ship wine or spirits directly to consumers in the US. Not a week goes by when I don’t get a call from someone asking if I can get something through customs for them that they had shipped back from England or France or Italy. I can’t. I am aware that many wineries and shops in other countries will say they can ship to you and sometimes the shipments make it through but more often than not, US Customs catches the shipment and the wines are destroyed. Shipping from out of the country is a losing proposition.

So why do I think shipping wine from elsewhere in the US is a bad idea? Because wine is routinely damaged in shipping. The shipment can be lost. The bottles can break. The wine can freeze. The wine can get too hot.

If wine freezes, the ice can push the cork out or can crack or break the bottle. Even if this doesn’t happen and the wine only gets to a slushy consistency, it is still ruined. The biggest problem is that you might not know.

The bigger problem in Texas is the heat. In late October, we are still have 90+ degree days. Even shipped overnight with morning delivery, wine can be exposed to damaging heat whether shipped by UPS, Federal Express, or DHL. You might think shipping the wine in Styrofoam containers would help insulate it from heat and protect it from breakage. It does. Help that is. But the wine still has the potential to get hot and heat is the worst thing for wine. If the wine gets to 80°, there is real potential for damage. If the wine gets above 90° it is badly damaged. If it gets above 100°, it is ruined. You know how hot the inside of your car gets when it is closed up and sitting out in the sun. Have you ever seen a refrigerated UPS truck?

When I worked for UPS in college, they wouldn’t let us unload the big trucks so that we could load the local delivery trucks until the inside had cooled down to below 120°. Even with large fans blowing cooler air into the big trucks, it took awhile. And this was at midnight or later.

As wine heats up, it expands and pressure builds inside the bottle. The cork will either push out a bit or the seal will break and wine will seep out past the cork and drip from under the capsule. In less obvious cases, you see a stripe of wine stain on the side of the cork where the wine tried to leak out between the cork and the bottleneck but didn’t quite make it. And the problem is not just “how hot.” There is also a concern as to how fast the wine heats up or if it is a gradual rise in temperature. A gradual change (over several days) is less damaging than a rapid change (over hours or even minutes). If wine gets hot really quickly (and the cork is not held in against the pressure), it can break the capsule and push the cork all the way out.

As the fine wine buyer for Spec’s, I receive samples every week that are heat damaged. It happens regularly from March until well into November and can happen in December, January, and February. Many of these wines are shipped overnight and all come packed in Styrofoam shippers. Even if there is no external physical evidence on the bottle (such as pushed corks or obvious seepage), cooked wine is relatively easy to detect. There may be evidence of the beginning of seepage on the side of the cork. There may be a bit of wine between the capsule and the cork. Whether any of these physical signs exist or not, the cooked bottle is always missing fruit.

Please note that evidence of seepage is not always a sign of heat damage. Some very high quality producers fill their bottles so that there is very little air space between the fill line and the cork. These producers also tend to bottle very cold as a protection against oxidation in the bottling process. Sometimes the wines they produce seep a bit as they warm up to 55-60° in the shipping process. The wines are undamaged put can look heat damaged. Among others, these producers include Guigal, Leroy, Domaine de la Romannee Conti, and JJ Prum.

Heat makes the fruit in the wine go away. The longer the wine is hot and the hotter it gets, the more the fruit is diminished. The longer you wait after wine is cooked the more the fruit diminishes. A mildly heat-damaged wine may not taste too bad if it is consumed quickly. The greater disaster is when a bottle with undetected heat damage is laid down and cellared with the owner unaware of the heat damage. Keep a heat damaged bottle five years and all you have is bitter disappointment when you finally open the bottle.

How can you best insure that you do not buy heat-damaged wines? Buy your wines locally at Spec’s. On all shipments that we control, we insist on refrigerated trucks and containers. We insist that our wholesalers deliver to us from their warehouses in refrigerated vehicles and we generally get early morning deliveries (we begin receiving at 6am on Smith Street). We try to make sure the companies that supply our wholesalers use good shipping practices from their wineries and warehouses to the wholesalers. We have, in a couple of cases, quit doing business with a supplier as they could not or would not get their wines to us in good enough condition. Spec’s stores are air-conditioned to the point where customers and employees often complain that it is too cool. And, yes, we leave the air-conditioners on overnight and all weekend. Spec’s storage for our fine wines on the third floor is cooled to 58°. It is up to you to take your wine straight home and right into the house so it doesn’t get heat damaged in your car on the way home.

It may be easy to order from wineries to get hard to find wines or wines that are not available through the normal distribution channels but is it worth risking (and the risk is high) heat-damaged wines?

Oh, and there is one more reason not to order wine from anywhere other than Spec’s. Every week, at least one customer will tell me they brought a wine back from somewhere (lately it’s been California, Chile, and Argentina) that they thought wasn’t available in Texas only to find that Spec’s carries it and at a lower price than they paid at the source. With over 10,000 wines at our Smith Street Spec’s Liquor Warehouse, the odds are that we have what you are looking for, that it was shipped properly, and that it is for sale at an excellent price.

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