Baby It's Cold Outside: But Is It Too Cold to Ship Wine?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Photo Credit: kaiban
When I saw my friend's name pop up on the caller ID my first thought was "Wow - this must be a hot wine deal!  He'd normally just send an E-mail."  Turns out a half-case of wine we'd gone in on had arrived unexpectedly - hadn't we told them to hold shipment until spring?

Turns out the winery decided it was a fine time to ship - even though the low temperature the night before the delivery was around 15F in the northeast.  It got me thinking about the actual surroundings a wine experiences when it's shipped.  Either from a retailer in Massachusetts or a winery in California.  Like the picture at right - which I found on Flickr and appears to me to be a delivery from a distributor to a retailer taking place in harsh conditions - I have to believe wine delivery isn't always a pretty picture.

It depends on whether it's air or ground of course, but take for example the 3 bottles of 2008 Belle Glos Meiomi Pinot Noir I had ground shipped last week from Wine.com.  Wine.com's MA warehouse is in Brockton.  The wine began it's ground shipment journey there on Wednesday and the first delivery attempt was made the next day.  I wasn't here to accept delivery so the wine spent the night in West Bridgewater.

When the wine was delivered on Friday I asked the driver whether the box spent the night in the truck outside.  He said the truck stays inside a building in West Bridgewater.  I'd imagine the place they keep the packages overnight is chilly but not completely exposed to the elements.  And as the truck drives around making deliveries it's cold but not freezing.

When the wine arrived it was 25F outside.  The bottle felt so cold I thought it could possibly be frozen.  I peered through the neck of the bottle and I didn't see any slush.

I thought it would be a good opportunity to test a couple of theories.  First being the temperature of the wine at delivery, and second being whether wine needs a chance to recover from the "bottle shock" of delivery.  I opened the screw cap and inserted a thermometer: 41F.  I left the wine on the counter for the day and tasted it later that night.  It was spot-on perfect and exactly as I'd expect it to be after tasting the same wine a half dozen times by now.

I've heard cold temperatures are safer than hot, but it's nice to have this personal experience to reassure that sentiment.  When we moved from Arizona to Massachusetts I experienced first hand what can happen when wine gets too hot: Wine seeps through the cork and the result is wine that becomes dull and lifeless.  After tasting a couple bottles of cooked 05 Sterling Vineyards SVR I thirsted for some clean wine - no matter the price point.

I came across this post on the Wine Spectator forums on the subject of shipping wine in cold weather.  Gotta love how the 1st reply is a snarky comment suggesting the original poster "use the search function" (I find wine forum snark especially hard to wade through) but once you get past that there's some valuable discussion.

One post in particular I found interesting is the assertion that fine Burgundy might be especially sensitive to being shipped in cold weather.  That it might "never be the same" after being exposed to near-freezing temperatures.  I can't say that I'm interested in paying to have some expensive wine shipped here under optimal conditions and compare that to wine obtained directly from the source under idea conditions but my gut tells me that this is more of a science thing that doesn't discriminate between premier cru and Charles Shaw.  I think all wine would be equally damaged by being frozen and then thawing.

This post from Vinfolio has really useful data on what an overnight shipment in extremely hot temperatures implies for temperatures inside the bottle, but I haven't found something similar for cold temperatures.  Is it "so long as it's not frozen when it arrives at your house and the cork hasn't popped out you're good to go"?

For me, this experience makes me somewhat more comfortable shipping in cold weather.  Come March it'll probably be too warm in some parts of California to ship out.  So if you want wine shipped directly from a winery in Paso Robles to the northeast you may have to make a choice.  Based on this experience I'd err on the side of it being too cold on the receiving end.

What do you think?  How cold is too cold for shipping wine?

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