By now, serious wine collectors know the drill: Store your wine at a temperature of 55 degrees and humidity of 60%, with an absence of light and vibration. Treated this way, your best bottles will evolve at a glacial pace and live to a ripe old age.
However, the obsession over storage conditions doesn’t always apply to importers as well. Shipping wine in temperature-controlled containers adds $2-3 to the price of a bottle, so it’s generally only the “blue chip” wines that receive this type of treatment (Classified Bordeaux, Premier and Grand Cru Burgundy, etc.). While few consumers would care if a bottle of wine costs $203 rather than $200, the difference between $10 and $13 might well cause some people to change their minds. Iceberg lettuce is always refrigerated during shipping, but wine only receives temperature-controlled treatment if the middleman feels like it.
So you’ve done your homework, identified the top specialty importers who are fastidious about the way their wine is treated, and plunked down a bucket of cash in the conviction that all will be well. Not necessarily. If the container is delayed at the port due to a Customs hold (a frequent occurrence), the wine could easily sit outside in 100 degree temperatures for three or four days unless the importer makes other arrangements. The next chamber of Russian Roulette is the distributor. Some warehouses are temperature-controlled, and some are not; sometimes wine leaves the warehouse in pristine condition and gets ruined on a non-refrigerated truck.
Then we arrive at the retail store, which should be the last line of defense. Unfortunately, many retailers subject their wines to direct exposure to sunlight, store them upright or in other positions where the corks will dry out, or place them in cold beverage cases directly under florescent light. Exposure to light can easily cause a white wine to take on sulfur aromas, sometimes in less than one hour.
Dan Berger, a nationally known wine writer based in Sonoma, recently visited New York and was “shocked” to find temperatures hovering between 80-85 in half a dozen stores he visited; all the retailers had bottles exposed to light. In South Florida, I can think of only one retailer who attempts to keep his store at the correct temperature. For consumers, the only solution is to stay alert and follow the old motto of caveat emptor (or, as we say in Yiddish, look before you buy).