A wine's greatest enemy may be the shop that sells it
Uncorked by Thor Iverson
Would I spend $110 for a single bottle of wine? That was the question posed by
a bottle of 1990 Penfolds Grange,
Australia's greatest wine. One hundred ten
dollars was way over my budget, but this was a legendary wine, the kind
I might never again get the chance to taste. Besides, $110 was only a few
dollars more than it cost at release, which made it a demented sort of
wine-freak's bargain. I nervously fingered my wallet . . .
. . . and walked out of the store empty-handed. Not because the
wine was too expensive (I still don't know if I would have spent that much),
but because there was a good chance it was a worthless bottle of wine-flavored
vinegar, thanks to the store's questionable storage conditions.
Wine lovers spend a lot of time and energy on storage. Some of us turn our
basements or closets into wine cellars, installing climate-control systems,
shock-absorbing supports, and vapor barriers, all to preserve our wine in
"ideal" conditions (50 to 65 degrees Fahrenheit, high humidity, no vibration,
and no bright lights). "Do I turn this room into a cellar or a nursery?" is a
common dilemma for wine nuts. Others buy horrendously expensive wine cabinets
designed to replicate cellar conditions.
Too bad wine shops don't take the same precautions. The majority of retail
outlets are too warm (75 degrees-plus is not uncommon, even in the winter),
which is a death sentence for delicate wines like
Champagne and red Burgundy.
Chilled bottles sit in vibrating, too-cold refrigerators until the wine is
shaken and numbed into unconsciousness. Some shops display their wine standing
up, which dries out the corks and allows oxygen to flow into the wine. And even
otherwise careful stores frequently stock their port, Marsala, Madeira, and
Worst of all, the wines most frequently mistreated by high-end retailers are
the rarest, most expensive bottles. One local store keeps all its treasured
wines in special glass cases. In those cases are bright lights that raise the
temperature of the wine to a nice broil; worse, the wine is displayed at an
angle that allows the cork to dry out. A $600 bottle of Domaine Leroy
Richebourg -- one of only a few hundred in the entire world -- is thus cooked
and oxidized into worthless liquid slop. Another store has its rare wine in a
window box that must reach 90 degrees in the summer and spends the majority of
each day in direct sunlight, which itself is detrimental to wine. The store
where I considered buying the 1990 Penfolds Grange keeps it and other trophy
wines standing upright behind the register, in direct sunlight.
No wine lover should tolerate this sort of abuse. Pay close attention to a
store's ambient temperature, especially in the summer; it should be moderate,
even a bit cool. Never, ever buy wine that has been stored upright (unless you
are absolutely certain it has been that way for no more than a few days, or the
bottle is plugged with something other than cork). Ditto for wine that has been
stored in direct sunlight. Check for seepage; overheated wine tends to push
past the cork and leak. Look for dried or sticky "tracks" coming out from under
the capsule (the metal or plastic material that covers the corked end of the
bottle), or trailing down any of the labels (glass, after all, can be wiped
clean). "Pushed" corks, which protrude a few millimeters (or more) from the top
of the bottle, are often a sign of heat damage.
Before buying a particular wine, check the other bottles from the same
producer or region; if your bottle has no obvious damage but others around it
do, it has probably been exposed to the same lousy conditions as its
shelfmates. Dust on the bottle is an issue only if the store has other
problems, in which case the wine -- having been around long enough to collect
dust -- has certainly been suffering for a long time and should be avoided. And
if you see poor storage conditions, complain to the store manager and do not
purchase any wine from that seller until conditions change.
Assuming proper storage, here are a few wines you should buy this
1996 Rosenblum Cellars Palomino Fleur de Hoof Contra Costa County ($7.99). Nice
pun. This unique wine (the palomino grape is common in
region) exhibits a flavor profile reminiscent of a white Rhône, adding
some fruitier pear, peach, and mango notes that suggest it will be a good match
for nibbles (especially nuts), and exotic fruit and seafood salads.
1996 Hess Select Chardonnay California ($9.99). Surprisingly interesting at
this price (and light on the oak),
with very non-Californian lemon-lime, apple, orange peel, nectarine, and
qualities. A tingly peach and nectarine
finish is a bit short, which suggests that despite the strong
acidity this one
won't age long. So drink it soon, with chicken breasts in a white wine and
Marques de Arienzo Rioja. I tasted three
Riojas from this producer at the
recent Wine Expo, and all were tasty and worth seeking out. The 1993 Crianza
was a huge wave of cherries and strawberries with a little nutmeg, the 1991
Reserva exhibited similar red-fruit characteristics with a more serious
structure, and the 1987 Grand Reserva was a smooth and delicate spicy-cherry
seducer, with a rich, silky future for those with the patience to keep their
hands off it for a few years. I don't have exact prices for these wines, but
given the market for Spanish reds they should be around $8, $15, and mid-$20s,
1994 King Estate Pinot Noir Oregon ($16.99).
Pinot noir is never cheap, but
this comes closer than most. A perfectly
balanced, early-drinking style, with
red cherry, apple skin, raspberry, strawberry, orange, and blueberry flavors
buttressed by a slightly exotic fennel and smoked cantaloupe character. It
takes on classic "meaty" aromas about an hour after uncorking, and just begs
for salmon steaks prepared any way but grilled.
Thor Iverson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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