June 19, 2010 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
“Your article about noisy restaurants really got my attention. That has been one of my pet peeves as well as ordering an expensive bottle of wine in a restaurant or buying one at a wine shop only to discover that it has been damaged due to improper storage.”
“I grew up in the Napa area and worked during the summers in the wine industry, so I know wine. After medical school in San Francisco, I moved to Fresno. In climates such as San Francisco, you can be fairly certain it will not be heat damaged. Here the chances of being, not just disappointed, but ripped off by sellers and restaurant owners who know better are very high.”
“Recently, my medical group invited a number of doctors to an upscale restaurant and ordered some fairly expensive wine. You cannot imagine the off taste so many bottles had, but more than that, the attitude of the staff was worse, denying anything was wrong, and not wanting to credit our purchase or just give us some other bottles. The wine was actually warm! Your column is very educational, and a lot of people – especially in hot parts of the country – have no idea they have probably purchased heat damaged or improperly stored wine. Dr. Whine.”
Is this wine or nail polish remover?
“It is truly very disappointing how many wine shops and restaurants improperly handle and store wine,” wine expert Abbe Rabenn of Seal Beach told me when we discussed my reader’s comments.
“When I hear someone tell me that they do not like wine, it’s not difficult to discover why; often they have been turned off by some of the bad tastes and odors, which can result from poor storage conditions, such as the smell of nail polish remover!”
“Typically, heat-damaged wine will have an unusual aroma. It could smell like wet cardboard or sweaty socks. It will not make you ill, but a severely damaged bottle will taste like you are eating spoiled fruit. Unless you know what properly cared for wine should taste like, you might wonder why anyone would ever want to drink this stuff,” she points out.
Why does storage matter so much?
“Wine is not like a bottle of soda. It is an amazing, evolving liquid. Wine should be thought of as perishable – just like fruit – and needs to receive proper care. That begins with temperature. Heat destroys wine, and it doesn’t take long to turn an expensive bottle of wine into something completely undrinkable. This can easily happen if the bottle is left in a hot car or in a wine store display case that is improperly placed facing direct sun,” Rabenn explains. She asks a question almost everyone can answer:
“How many times have you walked into a wine shop, supermarket or liquor store and seen bottles of wine, standing up, in pretty display cases facing a window? While it may look appealing, this is an invitation for disappointment and wasted money. You do not want direct sunlight on wine. It can prematurely age and oxidize the wine – actually bake it! Be careful of lovely displays near a window. Think of wine as if it was fruit – you would not want it sitting in direct sunlight.”
“Unfortunately, I have walked into many wine stores where the temperature is far too high and I leave. But, if you walk in a store and feel a little chill in the air, chances are good that the wine has been properly handled and stored,” she observes.
So, just what are the ideal storage conditions?
“There are several factors which are important, which I’m sorry to say, are often ignored by both retailers and many restaurants. Temperature, humidity, vibration and lighting are critical. A store or restaurant may purchase quality product, but when exposed to fluorescent lighting, the ultraviolet rays harm the wine, and that’s why most fine wine stores use old-fashioned incandescent lights. Ideal storage temperatures for red, white and sparkling wines is between 50 and 60 degrees. Fifty-five is fine.”
The customer’s rights
“It is important to point out that there is a difference between a truly bad bottle of wine, and one which you simply do not like. Before you buy, make sure to acquaint yourself with the store’s policy for return of defective bottles. Also, you should carefully inspect the bottle for defects, such as a broken seal, liquid dripping down the sides or a cloudy quality of the wine itself,” Rabenn concluded.
If you do get a bad bottle, both the retailer or restaurant has an obligation to make it right, and next week we’ll tell you how to make that happen.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.