There’s a Skunk in The Wine Cellar!

The practicalities of collecting wine

By William H. Edgerton, Wine Appraiser

Copyright © 2020, William H. Edgerton
February 2020

I always get a smile in return when I tell people I get paid to drink wine. What they don’t realize is that it usually is bad wine. In the course of a 32-year career appraising and authenticating wine I’ve been exposed to thousands of wine collections, usually as a result of the three Ds: Death, Divorce, and Damage, with most of the cases in the latter category, so there are no negative effects on wine or practical issues of ownership that come as a surprise. This piece is intended to familiarize wine collectors with some of the practicalities of owning and consuming wine that may not have occurred to them.

Routine wine damage problems include backed-up sewage, fire, broken water pipes, frozen wine, cooked wine, and a lot of others. But the strangest one I’ve seen was a skunk that had sprayed somewhere near a new Jersey wine cellar and the insurance company wanted to know if the wine had been affected. So, barring the finding of a more unusual wine occurrence, a skunk in the wine cellar ought to win the prize as one of the most infrequent things to find in a wine cellar.

There are many bad things that can happen to your wine while in the hands of a producer, distributor, retailer, auction house, or your own cellar, and although many wines improve in taste with age almost all of those things are able to damage wine.

Heat is the single most important factor in wine storage. Read that sentence again. In the past 32 years I have examined tens of thousands or more bottles of wine damaged by excessive heat. For example, a shipment of wine from Australia to New York was off-loaded in Panama and sat on the pier for two days, cooking the wine. Another shipment from Burgundy in a temperature-controlled container was supposed to have had the thermostat set at 55 degrees F but it mistakenly was set at 55 degrees C (approximately 131 degrees F).

The absence of heat can also cause other problems: another wine container shipment from Burgundy was set in error at minus 55 degrees F. and the container contents became one huge ice cube, with popped corks and many broken bottles.

One frequent but clearly unavoidable heat event is caused when water intrusion in or near a wine cellar from a broken pipe or storm is remediated by large industrial dehumidifiers. If they are used, everybody is at fault, including the wine owner, who should demand that his or her insurance company first remove the wine to a suitable substitute location – even if the bottlers are wet – before trying to get rid of the water in the wine area. As a result of intense dehumidification and the excessive temperatures involved, the loss of wine value due to heat exposure can turn out to be much more costly than the damage originally caused by the water. The remediation company employees may be pleased that their equipment that is generating an air flow at 100 degrees or more and is thus removing the last of the water, but they may not realize that they are doing incalculable damage to any nearby wine.

Wine purchased on a hot day and left in the car for an hour can be exposed to enough heat to forever damage the wine. A temperature above the low 80s can damage wine permanently.

Fortunately, advertising images of the ‘latest’ kitchen from the 1960s and 1970s showing a wine rack over the refrigerator have disappeared, possibly since the heat rising from the refrigerator compressor at the bottom rear of the refrigerator can be in the 80s or above.

Exposure to excessive heat frequently causes observable problems for stored wine. Typically, wine bottles are stored on their sides to keep the corks wet. As the temperature increases, the volume of wine in the bottle expands, pushing against or surrounding the cork. Physical evidence of excessive heat can often be seen by finding that a cork is stained or wet further up from its bottom than the normal 1/8-inch to 1/4-inch. Occasionally, a cork will be wet all the way to the top, or wet or stained on its top. Some corks in bottles of wine affected by excessive heat will be so saturated with wine that will drip when the cork is squeezed. Frequently mold grows on this small amount of wine outside the confines of the bottle, or even on or underneath the capsule. Occasionally, excess heat will push out the cork partway. Finally, if sufficient time passes, this wine pushed out by heat can corrode the capsule on an older bottle, if metallic, and even cause it to disintegrate through oxidation. Leaking bottles, protruding corks, saturated corks and stained and wet labels are the result of high temperature exposure.

The expansion of heated wine is very real. Even for bottles incorrectly standing upright, the wine will expand upward to fill the space below the cork and then continue upward around or through the cork. If the bottle was filled quite full, is standing upright, and then is affected by heat, the wine will migrate to the edge of the bottle top and leak downwards under the capsule and emerge at the capsule bottom edge and run down the bottles. This happens particularly with less dense corks and in extreme examples of heat. Vertical wine stains on a label are significant evidence that this has happed (or that the bottle has been consumed and refilled, as a counterfeit).

One physical manifestation of the moisture which frequently occurs with increased storage temperatures is wrinkled or stained labels. If storage temperatures and moisture levels are reduced, the wrinkles may or may not disappear and the stains will remain. Wrinkled or stained labels cause the affected bottles to be impossible to sell in restaurants and difficult to sell in retail environments, since most buyers want their wine to look new, so be sure to examine wine being purchased for these characteristics.

Although there is often physical evidence of excessive temperatures such as leaking bottles or protruding corks, the actual effect of those temperatures on the wine cannot be absolutely confirmed without tasting the wine.

When wine is affected by excessive heat, the taste of the wine is affected by oxidation and the automatic creation of undesirable compounds. Depending on the extent of the exposure, a taster notices the following characteristics, in approximate order of increasing severity:

  1. Increase in acidity on the finish
  2. Increase in acidity on the palate
  3. A diminution in fruit flavors on the palate
  4. A diminution in fruit on the nose
  5. Diminishing tannins
  6. A lack of structure
  7. Severe unbalance between fruit and acid in white wines and between fruit and tannins in red wines
  8. Introduction of off-flavors or smells such as chemicals, rubber, cooked odors of stewed fruit with stewed prunes as an example, and similar disagreeable flavors
  9. In white wines the color will darken; in red wines the color may lighten or pick up a brick-colored brown or orange hue

From numbers one through five in the above list, frequently the wine can still be consumed and the drinker without sufficient wine knowledge may not know anything is wrong. From number six onward, the faults will be clear even to the uninitiated, and by the end of the list no one will drink the wine due to its nasty taste.

In addition, wines recently affected by heat, but with a taste that does not immediately reflect the heat, will not mature as the producer intended, will have a much shorter life than normal, and once the bottle is opened, the life of that wine can often be measured in minutes rather than hours or days. This is very important in assessing wine affected by heat.

The Catch 22 of humidity is that high humidity slows down any liquid escape and evaporation of wine that has come up or out, through, or around the cork - which is good - but excessive humidity can cause mold that, if left long enough, will quite literally consume and therefore obliterate the label. This doesn’t affect the taste of the wine but the resale value of that bottle goes to zero. The formation of mold is temperature sensitive; the higher the temperature and/or humidity the faster mold will grow. Fortunately, a wine cellar at 55 degrees really slows the growth of mold at 70 per cent humidity or less, but higher humidity, even at cellar temperatures, will eventually permit mold to grow. Thus a target humidity level of 65-70 per cent will reduce evaporation while being lower than necessary to support mold growth. Additionally, moving air is better to suppress mold growth than is still air which is one of the reasons that the evaporator portion of a cooling system in the wine cellar has its fan usually running 24 hours a day.

From an investment perspective or for sale in a restaurant, damaged labels are bad: wine investors and consumers want perfect labels, even assuming that the wine has not been compromised by heat. Should the wine be offered for sale, prospective buyers will almost always pass up bottles with damaged labels. From a drinking perspective, however, the condition of the label is of little consequence until such time that the label deteriorates enough to make it impossible to read. In that event, the capsule may offer some identification or if the capsule is removed and the cork is branded – as most are – what’s actually in the bottle, or at least the producer name, may be able to be identified.

Now, what about values? In 1984 one could buy bottles of the 1982 Chateau Lafite-Rothschild immediately upon release in the US for $29.95 per bottle at first, and then the price shortly jumped to $39.95 per bottle. At the peak of Asian enthusiasm for Bordeaux wines some years ago the selling price for that Lafite was over $6,000, per bottle! Unfortunately, skyrocketing values like that aren’t possible to be realized anymore. There are too many savvy consumers looking for bargains, and producers have raised their initial selling prices significantly to control the eventual selling prices. But some wise purchases can be made – and likely modest increases in value can occur - if the buyer pays attention to several conditions. First and foremost, pick a wine that has proven to be a popular futures choice in the past. Don’t choose a fourth-growth Bordeaux or, with very few exceptions – a tasty California Cabernet Sauvignon. Next, choose one that wine critics have highly rated, both when tasting from barrel samples and again when tasting from bottles. Next, choose wines from estates that have a history of improving in quality.

But the most critical advice is to make the futures purchase (you choose and pay now and receive the wine later) with a retailer that you can trust and that has been in business for a decade or more. There are many unhappy stories about wine retailers accepting payment for wine futures and then using the money for other purposes; many losses have resulted from unwise futures purchases where the retailer cannot supply the wines or goes out of business after collecting payments but before delivery.

You have to accept the fact that not many people will do better financially with futures purchases, and sometimes the value of your purchase is less when you receive the wine than what you paid for a future delivery.

If you decide to insure your wine, for most wine collectors there are two principal ways to do it.

A personal residence insurance policy almost always carries a personal property policy provision that values personal property at a significant percentage of the primary residential insurance, without an additional premium. This policy language is intended to cover personal property that might be lost or damaged in a residential loss. Personal property coverage usually does not cover cash, furs, jewelry, and other similar valuable items, and it may or may not include coverage of wine, so ask your insurance agent if wine is covered as personal property in a loss. In a hypothetical case of a $500,000 dwelling insurance valuation there might be $250,000 automatic personal property coverage. If everything in the residence, including the wine, is valued under $250,000, and the company insures wine as personal property, then you’re covered, without an additional premium.

Wine can also be insured with coverage similar to a Fine Arts Rider where the wine value is itemized, you pay an additional premium to cover the wine, and you are paid that amount per itemized wine, in the event of a loss. Unlike the personal residence wine coverage there will be no question that you are covered or the exact amount of that insurance because both are spelled out in the policy. And note that this insurance may cover the wine wherever it is in the world or if in transit, and this provision may be helpful if you have purchased wine out of the country – for example in a London auction – and you have it shipped home, assuming you live in a state that permits such activity.

It is a certainty that either type of wine insurance covers a specific event such as sewage backup, failure of a cooling system, fire, etc., but does not cover gradual diminution such as wine that had aged beyond drinkability or that has lost value as a result of excessively humid storage which has damaged labels.

A most unusual need for wine insurance was a true event in New York City where an insured had a powerful telescope set up in an apartment and it was hit by a direct view of the sun coming in backwards through refraction. The resulting hot spot on the wall set a fire that completely burned the apartment contents including desirable wine stored there. That’s one problem no-one should have!

The first time one hears of corked wine, the assumption may be that there are pieces of cork floating in the glass, which happens to be a serving fault, not a wine fault. A wine becomes corked when the subject cork was affected by trichloranisole (“TCA”), a chemical caused by chlorine-based cleaning or bleaching products used to clean or sterilize the cork. A decade or more ago TCA was reported to affect 5-10 per cent or more of all wines but intense activity to eliminate TCA in corks by cork makers and eliminate chlorine-based bleaching products, has dropped that percentage to 2-3 per cent, some of which may be attributed to other molds growing in or on the cork. Obviously, plastic corks or screw-caps on bottles eliminate the possibility of TCA, but may introduce their own problems.

TCA can add one or more of the following tastes to wine: a sour chemical note, or flavors such as mold, wet dog, wet cardboard, dirty gym clothes, wet washcloth, etc. It also reduces the fruit flavors of wine and can add a metallic taste. In tiny amounts, consumers not sensitive to it may just consider that TCA-tainted wine should taste like that, but some individuals are so sensitive to TCA that they can taste one or two parts in one million.

Interestingly, TCA is absorbed by plastic wrap or some milk cartons that can absorb it from the wine, given some time. But an experiment by the author to reduce TCA-taint in a desirable, older bottle by using plastic wrap was not successful.

Brettanomyces, or “Brett” as it is commonly abbreviated, is a type of yeast that grows in wine as a result of being brought into the winery on the skins of grapes. As it converts grape sugars it produces smells like band-aids, cheese, bacon, and leather. Sometimes these sensory compounds are considered desirable since, for example, Lebanon’s famous Chateau Musar permits Brett to give its wine a distinctive character. And a small amount can sometimes improve the taste of a red wine. But many winemakers consider Brett’s smells as faults, and as Brett becomes more pronounced it can make the wine less attractive. Filtering the wine to remove the Brett can work but may cause a loss of fruit.

Identifying a Brett-infected wine can be difficult since the sensory threshold where you notice something amiss differs from person to person, so here it is helpful to have a Brett-knowledgeable friend identify it for you the first time to aid future recognition.

It is a relatively common occurrence to have a friend or acquaintance who “can’t drink wine” because of the sulphites; or, wine gives them a headache; or, I’m sensitive to sulphites; or, wine bothers my asthma; or red wine gives me a headache. So what is going on? Sulphur represents about one-half per cent of the earth’s surface, and sulphur products are routinely used to slow down or eliminate mildew in the vineyard and to suppress oxidation in the wine-making process, thus virtually all wines have some minimal sulphur component.

There are 100 or more detectable components of wine, with red wine usually having more than white. But there are sulphites in Maraschino cherries, lemons, pickles, and many other foods, and the friend may consume any of these foods. If he or she has no reaction to these other foods, sulphur is probably not the culprit. Some folks are allergic to sulphites they consume resulting in a physical reaction such as hives or wheezing. If one’s physical reaction can be narrowed down to the color and/or type of wine, that wine can be eliminated from one’s diet or a physician may offer an antihistamine if appropriate.

What can be in your wine in addition to fermented grape juice? Although they are infrequently reported, pesticides or fungicides appear in many foods as well as wine. They have been found in inexpensive table wines and in high-value famous Bordeaux wines but most measurements indicate their concentration to be one part per ten billion with dilutions of that magnitude not being toxic. One can conclude that pesticide risk in wine is way less than being in an airplane crash.

Fortunately, few wines are sold in containers made of materials other than glass. So any plastics interaction with wine has to happen from the cork or when the wine is made. Due to heavy competition among wine makers the work they do must be of high quality to be marketable. If, for example, non-food-grade plastic tanks are used in the wine-making process, the wine can pick up plastic odors, but these tanks are unlikely to be used for wine. And the plastics used in plastic corks have been tested to insure no contamination or effect on taste.

The Liquor Control Board of Ontario, Canada (LCBO) is one of the largest wine buyers in the world. Although the impact of lead on health has been well-known for decades, LCBO has tested thousands of wines and has only found eight samples with any lead. Thus one must conclude that lead exposure in wine is extremely rare.

Is it Fake? Do you Care? Increasing prices for fine wines over the past 40 years have encouraged counterfeiters, but the thought of fake wine has not been on the radar of most collectors, at least until recently. For an older or more valuable wine that seems priced like a great deal, whether or not it is fake may be one of the first questions to ask. It is in the counterfeiter’s best financial interest to fake a bottle of expensive wine rather than one costing less than one or two hundred dollars (although some French counterfeiters create low-cost fakes). If you should happen to purchase one of these and it doesn’t taste right, the enterprise that sold it will almost always give you a refund.

The definition of a typical fake is a bottle that started life as a different vintage or from a different location than the ones printed on the bottle label, and the bottle was relabeled with a better vintage or producer name. The goal of the faker was to increase the value of the bottle by renaming it as a more desirable product. But there is another type of compromised wine, one that has been spoiled (usually) by exposure to excessive heat or excessive moisture. Close scrutiny of the capsule for leaking or excessive cork protrusion, and examination of the label may provide evidence of a prior life. The seller’s intent may have been to defraud but the bottle was damaged rather than being created to defraud.

If you own or have been offered a suspicious bottle, one obvious choice is to consider whether the opportunity to purchase might be too good to be true; usually wine counterfeiters price their work below the market to attract buyers. For example, is the level of wine in the bottle higher than expected for a bottle of that vintage? Next, compare the subject bottle with another of the same vintage and producer. Among other comparisons, is the label at the same height from the base on both bottles? Since wine bottles themselves are usually not marked, the capsule and label offer the main evidence you seek.

Here is a list of specific things that can be seen, if they are there, and that will make a bottle suspicious:

  • -  A label that is crooked. Crooked wine labels in normal commerce are very rare
  • -  A cork that is not branded
  • -  Glue lines around the edges of a label
  • -  Oval or circular vintage date labels that have uneven edges
  • -  Inappropriate capsule color or type
  • -  Very loose capsules
  • -  Capsules that have been glued on, often with white glue. This is never done commercially
  • -  Perfectly clean and unmarked labels on older bottles
  • -  Magnum labels the same size as 750m-l bottle labels, except for some wines before 1961
  • -  Label typography different from a known genuine bottle

But – let’s be practical – most wine lovers won’t have to worry about fake wines for the good reason that wine counterfeiters do their work on bottles that are expensive. Since the retail cost of the average wine is under $20, few counterfeiters would spend the time and money to fake a bottle of wine of that value. So if you stay below $200 a bottle, or for some wines, $500 a bottle or more, it is extremely unlikely you’ll ever encounter a fake.

Hardy Rodenstock, a German, was among the first entrepreneurs to produce fakes and for about ten years starting in 1999 he shipped almost 1,000 fake bottles and magnums to the US. The vintages ranged between 1811 with several Lafites and Yquems, to the 2000 vintage. There were 113 Moutons dated 1945 which means that there is probably more than a 50 per cent chance that any ‘45 Mouton you see for sale is counterfeit. Rodenstock is reportedly deceased.

Rudy Kurniawan is now in jail and his lawyer’s argument that the thousands of wine labels discovered in his California home were intended to be used as wallpaper didn’t convince the jury.

There are many other examples of counterfeits. For example, a fake 1943 Schwarzer Tafelwein marked Fuherwein or “Hitler” wine was sold in a 2009 auction. There are many other examples, but none at the Rodenstock and Kurniawan scale of faking many older bottles from desirable producers.

Do you need an Appraisal? Depending on the total value of the wine you may need an appraisal for wine in an estate and the appraisal must meet IRS requirements and, for charitable contributions over $5,000, a certified appraisal is an IRS requirement. To avoid the expense of an appraisal, it may be advisable to ensure that the total value does not go over $5,000. However, if there is any possibility the value exceeds $5,000 it may be wise to get an appraisal just for protection: defending a claim by the IRS for an appraisal when you didn’t get one can be worse than a dental root canal!

Sometimes a wine owner just is curious about what his or her wine is worth. There are several Internet sources that can offer individual values close enough to determine a rough value to satisfy curiosity.

If you have an insurance claim or are going through a divorce an appraisal of the wine might be a good idea and might even be mandatory. In an insurance claim – with or without a public adjuster – the insurance company may require an appraisal, or if you suspect an insurance appraisal is too low, you might need one for comparison purposes.

In a divorce the normal need for a wine appraisal is to allocate the value of the wine between the parties. Be aware that the appraisal will be Fair Market Value or Replacement Value, but if the wine is divided and one part sold, the amount received will approximately 60-70 percent of the appraisal value.

Appraisers cannot charge a percentage of the value they determine the property is worth so the cost will be quoted in dollars per hour or dollars per each inventory entry. In either case ask for an estimate of charges before contracting for the work.

February 2020