by Eric E. Vogt, CEO, eProvenance
Fine wine does not take kindly to overheating or to freezing, yet fine wines are often shipped around the world with less care than cartons of lettuce. Winemakers devote great care to every step in the creation of their product in both the vineyard and in the winery, but transport and storage conditions can ruin wine before it ever reaches the consumer. Historically, the topic of temperature conditions has been neglected — a dark secret everyone knew was lurking but no one wanted to discuss, much less address.
Wine demands a cool, relatively humid, relatively constant environment. For centuries fine wine was stored in natural underground caves that protected the wine from light, vibrations, and spikes in temperature. The natural underground cave temperature was between 13°C and 15°C. Except for the claret trade between Bordeaux and England, 99% of wine was consumed within 20 kilometers of its production.
Today, wine is a multi-billion dollar item in global trade. Routinely shipped between five major continents, wine is exposed to a wide variety of environmental challenges. Importers concerned about over-heating often request the container be placed below decks on the ship. However, compliance is far from 100%. Climate controlled, or “reefer” containers can be used to minimize concerns about over-heating or freezing wine. But reefer containers add cost, and thus are often avoided.
Over the past 15 years in particular, as the world trade in wine has tripled, the task of maintaining ideal conditions during the voyage from winery to consumer has become increasingly challenging. Sometimes the reefer container loses power or is not actually plugged in. More frequently, temperature challenges appear on the “shoulders” of an ocean voyage; spikes occur during the transport and consolidation before an ocean voyage, as well as upon arrival in the importing country. Dock strikes, long waits for customs, and non-refrigerated trucks compound the challenge once the ship arrives. While passing through the Panama Canal, the ship’s captain must be able to see each side of the canal. This means that sometimes containers are unloaded and left on the side of the Panama Canal for another ship to pick up the following week. Stories abound.
What is the impact of current conditions in the global wine distribution channel? Wine gets cooked. Everybody agrees. Nobody knows exactly how big the problem is. We have heard estimates between five and twenty-five percent of the wine coming into North America is flawed by temperature problems. The truth probably lies somewhere in between.
In his Wine Buyer’s Guide No. 7, Robert Parker made the following sobering observation: “Tragically, far too many wines are still damaged by poor transportation and storage and it is the consumer who suffers…It is a frightening thought, but I have no doubt that a sizable percentage (between 10 and 25%) of the wines sold in America have been damaged because of exposure to extremes of heat.”
Furthermore, the damage is not always obvious. If the temperature spiked to 40°C and then dropped quickly, while the wine bottle might leak, and the cork might push a bit, the wine is not necessarily damaged. Conversely, the bottle might heat to 30°C for a day or two and cook the wine, without the cork pushing or wine leaking. No one had studied this question in any detail.
In order to make a judgment about when a wine becomes “cooked” we needed a scientific baseline. eProvenance conducted extensive research with industry renowned ETS Laboratories in St. Helena, California. They cooked five different wines at different temperatures and professional tasters noticed the difference in the taste and aroma of the wine after the wine had been subjected to just 30°C heat (86°F) for a total of just over two days. eProvenance then developed a patented monitoring system and a proprietary algorithm that allows us to quantify the damage to wines during transport and storage and assign an eProvenance Score. Based on millions of data points collected by eProvenance during thousands of shipments around the world, the implications of these statistics are startling — more than one in three wines (as much as $1.6 billion in wine) encounters poor conditions during transport and storage. Even short DTC shipments can experience dramatic and damaging temperature swings.
How can this damage be prevented? Maintaining wine quality all the way to the end consumer requires best practices throughout the journey by all members of the distribution channel. It’s been said you can’t change what you can’t measure. Monitoring conditions in the distribution channel yields measurements that shed light on problem areas as well as success stories. When the resulting observations and analysis are shared with members of the channel, corrections and improvements can be made where needed and good practices can be acknowledged and reinforced.
Of late, it has become clear that monitoring yields several important benefits. As members of the channel see the results, their wine handling improves and wine quality is protected far more consistently. When consumers learn their wine has been monitored, they are reassured about the quality and impressed by the dedication of the winery to that quality promise. In fact, they generally become more loyal repeat customers. When there is a clear record of provenance, the value of the wine increases. In the same way that buyers will pay a premium for ex-château wine, they will generally pay for the assurance of quality. Monitoring deliver new marketing insights and reveal gray market activity where it exists.
Over time, we hope monitoring will bring about industry-wide awareness and a new commitment to improving conditions and protecting wine quality.