Is the PLCB Killing Your Wine?

According to researchers at UC Davis (the foremost wine research facility in the US), with each 18°F increase inside a bottle of wine, the rate of chemical reactions will double. As such, a wine that’s 75°F can change at twice the rate as one that’s 57°F (a recommended storage temperature). This exposure does more than just increase the effects of age, however; it jolts the wine, which not only affects the aging process but also increases the speed of deterioration. (source)

It is, then, no wonder that those of us who are serious about wine can be obsessive about bottle storage, especially those we plan to age slowly (as one instance of heat exposure early in life will ensure vinegar when the wine is ready to drink). Unfortunately, in today’s global economy, there’s one thing we can rarely control: how the wine was stored before it became ours. (There is, however, some research and development being done in this area which gives hope for the future.)

Wines are most at risk during transport, because shipping vehicles and warehouses rarely offer temperature-controlled environments, especially at the UPS/FedEx level. As such, almost all major US online wine retailers offer future shipping dates, allowing customers to schedule deliveries during moderate seasons. Guess which major retailer doesn’t offer this option? Yep, Pennsylvania’s Fine Wine and Good Spirits (FWAGS). Try to contain your surprise; this is yet another example of shockingly poor customer service from a system with many documented flaws.

Pennsylvania does take some precautions to prevent against heat damage; only you can decide if they do enough. For one, all items arrive with one day shipping due to the central locality of the Harrisburg hub, which eliminates multiple days of storage in uncontrolled warehouse climates. However, the temperature inside a UPS truck (where the box can sit on the day of delivery for several hours) can reach as high as 150°F in the summer, so even one day of exposure can be too long.

There is, however, some evidence that exposure to extreme heat can be limited with the proper packaging. Vinfolio ran an interesting test with Styrofoam shippers that suggests they do an adequate job insulating wine for a day or two. (Once heat penetrates the Styrofoam, of course, it’s not coming back out!). This can be further mitigated with cold pack inserts. Pennsylvania, of course, neither uses insulated materials nor cold packs of any kind. Although several layers of cardboard (PA’s solution) might provide minor protection, it is doubtful that this would help much in an extreme scenario.

Pennsylvania does occasionally pause shipping in extreme heat, however in most cases this is done when it’s too late. I once received an email from FWAGS telling me about a shipping pause. Less than an hour later, I received a phone call from my PLCB store informing me that my shipment had arrived. (It was 98°F outside at the time.) It appears, based on when the notification emails are sent, that PA consistently waits until the weather is extreme to halt shipping, instead of viewing a little something called a weather forecast and making proactive decisions to protect their customers’ investments.

Though I have learned my lesson and now rarely order wine that will be shipped in the summer months anymore, I did get sucked into FWAGS’ Serious Wine Sale and Free Shipping offer this past August. Though most of the bottles I purchased were of the everyday variety (big markdowns to $5-10), I did bite on a few $20 bottles of finer wine (regular prices $50-60). As an obsessive about shipping conditions, I waited until we were due for a few cooler days (low 80s) to place my order. OF COURSE, my order was not processed for over 48 hours, and it was shipped on the hottest day of the free shipping period (highs in the mid 90s). According to the store, the shipment arrived around 11am, when it was in the upper 80s. I have no idea how long it was on the truck or what kind of heat it was exposed to, but I was concerned.

I could have refused the shipment, of course, but I actually wanted this wine, so I figured I would try it to see how it was. After two bottles that were both off (one was noticeably stewed, a sure sign of heat exposure), I returned the rest. Though the store gave me no trouble, this was a hassle I shouldn’t have had to deal with.

In sum, the PLCB options for safe warm-weather shipping are leagues below the industry standard, which of course should come as no surprise to regular users of the system. As such, I implore any FWAGS customers out there not to buy wine from them until the weather is regularly below 80 degrees, or until they introduce better shipping practices. Even if there’s a cool spell, there’s no guarantee when your wine will ship, and nobody in Harrisburg is looking out for you. Don’t be like me and get drawn in by a great sale, because cooked wine is never a good deal.

As for the folks at PA FWAGS? If you’re reading, consider the following actions:

  • Allow us to select a shipment date sometime in the future (at least 4 months out).
  • Use insulated materials and cold packs when you ship wine in the summer.
  • Instead of pausing shipping when it gets really hot where you are, use that thing called the Internet to determine what the weather will be tomorrow, and make an informed decision before you damage someone’s investment.

(note: image via freedigitalphotos.net)

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