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Taking the Temperature of Your Wine: How to Prevent Serving Heat-damaged Wine

Taking the Temperature of Your Wine: How to Prevent Serving Heat-damaged Wine

by Joyce Angelos Walsh

You may have heard a guest declare upon returning from a vacation abroad: "Some wine doesn't travel well." They are right, and for two completely different reasons.

The first reason is subjective, but important. As a restaurateur you appreciate the importance of the right atmosphere for a memorable dining experience, and the enjoyment of wine can be very subjective. The right glassware, proper serving temperature, remarkable service and even the right person to dine with contribute to the total picture.

Could it be that your guests' Frascati tasted better in a sunny piazza in Rome than in their kitchen on a chilly Cincinnati winter? The second reason concerns how the wine was transported. From the field to the bottle, wine is a living thing. It begins as a fruit and is born through a biological process -- fermentation. Like all living things, a hostile environment can damage it.

Imagine the juice of a summer peach. Now imagine the flavor in canned peaches. Heat transforms the flavor, right? Wine is very sensitive to temperature, whether too high or too low. Additionally, fluctuations in temperature can compromise a wine's overall freshness and quality. Just as you should expect your produce to arrive in a refrigerated truck, you should also set expectations for the manner in which your wine arrives at your restaurant's back door.

This article will follow the trail of wine from the producer to your guests' glass and the importance of temperature on quality and its ultimate enjoyment at the table. By the end of this article, you will be able to recognize damaged wine, and more importantly, avoid serving it to your guests.

Have Wine, Will Travel

In the case of imported wine, the journey from the producer to your restaurant is a long and winding one. The winery may ship to a central location for export, or the importer may pick up the product directly from the winery. Importers who are meticulous in shipping perform the latter in small temperature-controlled trucks.

In his classic book "Adventures On the Wine Route," importer Kermit Lynch writes: "Wine travels in metal containers that hold around [1,200] cases. I asked myself, how hot does it become inside as it crosses the Atlantic, creeps through the Panama Canal, and steams up the Mexican coast to California? Would I survive the same trip in a metal container? It must be like an oven."

Lynch, who imports predominantly from France, but also from Italy, is long-regarded as a pioneer in the practice of shipping wine in refrigerated containers, or "reefers," where 55 degrees Fahrenheit (13 degrees Celsius) is the rule. But he readily admits that he was not the first to make this discovery. America's first wine connoisseur, Thomas Jefferson, is documented as saying that wine should only be shipped one month out of the year: October.

Granted, these were the days of sailing ships and the journey took far longer than it would today, but his point is taken seriously by a handful of importers such as Lynch who want the same wine they tasted with the producer when they made the decision to buy it. It costs the importer about $2 extra per case to ensure the wine's fitness. In the late 1980s, refrigerator containers were not available year-round, but now Kermit says that he can ship any month of the year in reefers.

In the fall of 2002, you may recall the dock strike on the West Coast, where ships lay in wait to deliver their cargo. In addition to nonperishable merchandise from Asia headed for retailers, there was wine also waiting to be unloaded. Strikes aside, today shipments are often delayed for security reasons. As a result of recent terrorism, there is increased scrutiny on the part of customs to receive goods from abroad, leading to further delays in transit. This situation is further support for the value of controlling temperature in wine shipment.

For domestic wines that cross only a few states, this practice is just as important. Your distributor may or may not use trucking companies with refrigeration. Those distributors who do use refrigerated trucks battle for space with produce companies during peak growing seasons.

Next to spring mix, strawberries and artichokes, wine is not seen as perishable so it might get left behind for the next pickup, causing a potential interruption in the supply pipeline. The distributor that goes to greater lengths to ensure the wines' safety may be temporarily out of stock.

Some wholesalers may use insulated trucks but disable the refrigeration unit to save cost, or they may use insulated blankets. Depending on the time of year, relying on insulation alone means taking a gamble.

Remember this: A wine that sits for even two weeks over 70 F will lose freshness.

What Does 'Cooked' Wine Taste and Look Like?

Industry insiders will reluctantly admit that the vast majority of wine is shipped under less than optimal conditions. A winemaker strives to bring forth what nature provided. If the wine "cooks" at all on the truck, (whether it has been cooked "rare" or "well-done"), it is not the same wine as what went into the bottle. At the very least, the wine will suffer a lack of fruit and freshness.

At its worst, and in extremely rare circumstances, you will see the cork noticeably popped up and/or leakage from the foil capsule, with little or no fruit. The fill level in the bottle may be noticeably lower compared with others of its type.

Your First Line of Defense: Your Distributor

How much do you know about the storage and delivery practices of your distributors? Many boast of temperature-controlled storage. Is it a room for only the high-dollar wines or a warehouse for the entire inventory? If their warehouse is fully temperature-controlled and they ship from coast to coast in nonrefrigerated trucks, what difference does it make?

The wine could be cooked before it hits the warehouse. Experience is a great teacher, but to cut to the chase, ask for a visit to their facility. Are their delivery trucks temperature-controlled? Do they use large semitrailers that are loaded up and left outside overnight for the next days' run of deliveries? In a Midwestern summer it is not unusual to wake up to a balmy 79 F.

The Heat Is On

As we approach the summer months, taking receipt of your wine deliveries should parallel the importance of checking your meat or produce order. Consider taking these steps.

Have the product delivered inside without delay. Open just one case and stick your hand inside. Do the bottles feel warm to the touch? This is the proverbial red flag. Alert your salesperson. A reputable distributor will stand behind its product. If upon tasting you determine the wine is "off," refuse the shipment, demand that it be picked up and credited. Laws will vary state by state as to the time frame required to report a pickup. In most states, the law that governs the buyer's right to reject "nonconforming" goods (including wine) gives no absolute time in which he has to inspect the goods, but it should be reasonable based on the circumstances.

The law aside, if a restaurant guest returns a bottle of bad wine, reputable distributors will replace it, no matter how long it has been on the premises. The damage might not show right away. Even if the wine is severely heat-damaged, it may not show a popped cork immediately. The cork may pop up a couple of days later.

Popped-up corks and "leakers" are a rarity with reputable wholesalers, who take care in day-to-day handling, have good warehouse storage, and who happen to buy from suppliers (whether an importer or a winery in the United States) who show the same care for their product.

In-house Storage -- The Long and the Short of It

Optimal long-term storage is defined as cellar temperature -- 50-55 F, and most importantly, consistency. A slightly higher degree of temperature is less harmful than fluctuations in temperature. The level of humidity is also important, as too dry a climate will force corks to dry out over time, causing the cork to shrink and wine to oxidize. Conversely, having too much humidity will damage labels and corks. Consulting the experts in wine storage units can protect your investment.

For day-to-day service, a common problem in restaurants is that white wines are generally served too cold and red wines too warm. Optimal serving temperature for reds and whites is 60-65 F, with rose and bubbly a bit cooler.

One of the greatest challenges for a restaurant operator in effectively managing the space available, is that you never have enough of it. Any bartender will tell you the most precious space in the restaurant is behind the bar.

Space and economic considerations may dictate that your bottled beer and white wine share the same reach-in. Whites of more complexity like fuller-bodied Chardonnay, Viognier, Semillon, white Rhone and great white Burgundies will yield more nuances of flavor when not chilled to the same degree as a light beer. The caveat here is that for every guest who wants their Chardonnay closer to cellar temperature, there are two who want it in an ice bucket. (See sidebar "Wine Serving Checklist.")

For red wines, the problem is more serious. Between glass washers, computers, blenders, espresso machines, and reach-in coolers, you have an environment creating a significant amount of heat behind your bar. A red wine that is served above 68 F is not pleasurable. The alcohol leaps out of the glass, overpowering the fruit, and the wine is literally breaking down by turning acetic. Is it any wonder why there are many people who don't enjoy red wine at all, having grown up drinking ice-cold, sweet, carbonated beverages?

One wine-savvy general manager I know happened to inherit a classic example of poor bar design when it comes to storing red wine for daily service. The 20 red wines by the glass sat adjacent to the glass washer and a reach-in cooler that contributed even more heat. One quiet Tuesday afternoon, we borrowed the chef's instant-read thermometer and took a temp of 70 F in a bottle. Can you imagine that same bottle on a busy Friday night with the glass washer humming along without interruption?

This same general manager is now in the process of making room for a small refrigeration unit to keep his reds at 65 F. He is also evaluating his "par levels" in accord to the needs of service to further use space more efficiently. (Par level is the number of bottles of a wine that you expect to use in a given period.)

Another restaurateur I know likes to keep certain whites, e.g. white Burgundies, at two temperatures: some bottles at traditional cellar temperature and some bottles a bit cooler, giving the guest the choice. He also manages a bevy of 80 wines by the glass, but because of his foresight in bar design, he has no problem serving his reds at cool room temperature.

In addition to a shot of nitrogen (this is used when resealing a bottle that's been opened. The N2 is an inert gas that displaces the O2, which damages the wine), each opened bottle of red gets stored overnight in a reach-in cooler; further extending its life. Wine is complex. If you intend to serve it in your restaurant, it pays to become a student of this libation, and your distributor representative can be invaluable in this regard.

Wine Serving Checklist

  1. Timeliness is everything. Once wine is ordered, it should be brought to the table without delay. The server should ask if the guest would prefer the bottle on the table or in a bucket. If the white is too cold for the guest, the poured glass will have a chance to come up to temperature before the appetizer or entree is served (or likewise the bottle chilled down further if that is their preference).
  2. The prechilling of glasses is not necessary, unless requested by the guest. Aromas from a reach-in cooler where a glass is chilling may affect the wine. This practice is best reserved for martinis and beer, where the glass is always poured to the brim.
  3. Instruct servers to have a bucket full of ice and then add as much water as necessary to slide the bottle in and out effortlessly. This combination of ice and water is more efficient in chilling, and avoids the server awkwardly wrestling to get the bottle back into the bucket.
  4. Sparkling wines should always arrive in an ice bucket. They are generally enjoyed very chilled and the more ceremony you provide with bubbly the better.
  5. Some lighter, fruitier reds are delightful with a bit of a chill on them and appeal to those guests who say they don't enjoy red wine. Beaujolais, some Northern Italian reds and simpler Pinot Noirs, are good examples of reds that benefit from a quick five-minute dunk in an ice bucket.

What is 'Bottle Sickness'?

"Bottle sickness" or "bottle shock" is a temporary condition characterized by muted or disjointed fruit flavors. The wine can taste flat or off, or smell of sulfur dioxide. Some wines, such as Pinot Noir, are more vulnerable to this condition. The primary culprit is agitation during travel.

If you are new to wines, this condition might lead you to believe that the wine is permanently damaged or bad. This is the time to call your distributor, and discuss the problem. If she is an experienced taster, she will be able to identify the problem immediately. Most likely, your representative will assure you that the problem should disappear after giving the bottle a few days' "rest" before serving it, somewhere where the bottles won't be jostled or disturbed. Some wines can take as long as four or five weeks to recuperate; other wines recuperate more quickly.

Wholesalers will try to curtail this problem before the wine reaches your door. For example,upon receiving a container, the staff at Kermit Lynch in Berkeley, California, will pull a bottle of each type of wine, then taste and evaluate its fitness for distribution.

'Excuse Me, But There are Crystals in My Wine'

The evidence of crystal formation (it looks like sugar or salt) in wine is not a flaw. Whites that have been chilled for a longer length of time (perhaps a slower mover on your list) may "throw a deposit." Some reds come readily equipped with this deposit, which many think is simply sediment, even with a young wine upon release.

This is tartaric acid -- a natural byproduct of fermentation and an important part of wines' structure. In white wines they are white and simply fall to the bottom of the bottle or glass. In reds, you may see a sparkly, chunky substance on the cork, and some particles down the side of the glass. This is a sign of a natural wine, a wine that is not overtreated by excessive filtration or cold stabilization, which can reduce subtle flavors in the wine.

Large production wineries prefer to use filtration methods to avoid any presence of particles that may be seen by the masses as a negative. The onus is on you to educate your service staff about tartrates and thus the guest. Celebrate their existence!

-- Restaurant Startup & Growth Magazine

Initial Sources:

"Adventures on The Wine Route" by Kermit Lynch, North Point Press, 1988 "How To Taste: A Guide to Enjoying Wine" by Jancis Robinson, Simon & Schuster, 2001

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