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My cooling unit has stopped working. Is my wine at risk?

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Topic: My cooling unit has stopped working. Is my wine at risk?

Once a month, I have a panicked collector calling me with an inoperable wine cooler and believes his long-term wine will turn to vinegar if it is exposed to temperatures above 55°. His buddies have assailed him with anecdotes such as, “I heard about a collector whose entire collection was ruined by just three days at 72°.” Another guy recounts the old chestnut of the $72,000 insurance settlement won by a collector whose Burgundy collection turned into vinegar literally overnight when the cooling broke.

When I entered this business, my focus was to determine what was data and what was urban legend. So, I flew to a large media house in the wine business. Their editors assured me that these stories were myths and that wine is actually pretty hardy stuff. I explained that to some collectors, stored wine is treated as carefully as a new-born baby. While no one knew, first-hand, of any collector actually losing wine during a short-term period of heat, everyone had heard the stories.

My path was clear. I came from the electronics industry. Double-blind tests were conducted regularly to answer any number of questions. If everyone knew of these wine anecdotes, then someone needed to test the proposition. How much heat could wine in storage endure and for how long a period? Was one group of wines more sensitive than others? Would a wine stored at 55° for twenty years taste differently than the same wine stored for twenty years at 60°? And, of course the obvious question, who judges?

As the editors talked among themselves, the more they began to look at me as if I were crazy. Did I know how expensive it would be to run a test like this? To set-up the test and to run it with integrity over a twenty-year period would probably cost a quarter-million dollars, minimum. Duplicate cellars would have to be built and stocked. In addition to the main cooling systems, secondary back-up cooling systems would have to be installed to maintain temperature when any portions of the main system shut down. Personnel to monitor the test over twenty years would have to be employed and their actions policed to act as an integrity-firewall against any potential bias.

Undeterred, I asked to expand the format adding more questions such as, can connoisseurs taste the difference between two-buck-chuck aged for twenty years and a fine red wine? What about storing the same wines at 65°? Could anyone taste the difference? (These cooling units run 24/365. Think how much electricity we might save by reducing the run-time by half. Now, multiply that savings over twenty years. If we multiply that number times the number of wine cellars in the US, a raise of just ten degrees turns into a green bonanza.) Finally, I asked about comparing two bottles, one bottle stored continuously at 55°, and the other at the same temperature, except for one, two-week period each year when the temperature would be purposely raised to 70°. This would mimic one cooling failure per year. Could anyone taste the difference?

As I finished my last question, the senior editor who had remained silent during the entire discussion while lazily scribbling notes on the pad in front of him, rose to speak. He said, “Son, we’ve spent enough time on this and we are going to have to move on. Assuming we could secure the services of twelve sommeliers for this test, what’s in it for them? Seems all down-side to me. Each would be judged on the sum of his or her mistakes. Too many errors and reputations would suffer. Moreover, what qualifies as a positive outcome? If seven out of twelve choose the 55° wine over the wine stored at 65°, is that enough? That’s only one more than a 50/50 split of random choice. Would eleven out of twelve be sufficient to close the case or would it require complete unanimity?”

Wine is not only a matter of taste. It is theater. It is anticipation. It is the story behind the grape. As we all know, the consumer tastes wine using all five senses, the eyes, the nose, the tongue and even the ears and the touch. (Try serving a fine wine in a Mason jar. Wrong touch. Wrong visual.)


Question: Can I store my red wine at 58° instead of 55°?

Answer: Of course. Most of my clients choose a set-point above 55°. My largest collector (twenty- thousand bottles over four residences) put it this way. Red wine has no taste until the liquid temperature rises above 65°. A wine cellared at 58° will rise to tasting-temperature more quickly than one stored at 55°. And, to my palette there is no difference in taste, and I want to ‘get to drinking’ as soon as possible.

Question: What about storing at 65°? Would the wine’s taste be affected?

Answer: We truly don’t know. To my knowledge, no one has conducted a double-blind test over twenty years. My advice. Try it and see. Bifurcate your current cellar with an insulated wall, add another entrance door, buy another cooling system, and wait for twenty years. Call me with the results.

Question: At what temperature will wine ‘begin to cook’?

Answer: I googled the question, and most of the internet experts affirm wine flavor begins to diminish when it is exposed to 70° temperatures. Quick, someone call Binny’s, call Costco. All their wine is trashed! How could they not know?

At the Wine Spectator site, Dr. Vinny wrote, “Once I left a six-pack of the same wine in the trunk of my car for a few hours on a hot day… some of the bottles were leaking by the time I got home, and when I opened them, I could confirm the flavors were indeed cooked. Others didn’t show any sign of seepage, and I kept them in my cellar for years, where they aged beautifully.”

My daughter had the same experience. She picked up a case of wine at UPS, and the man at the counter placed it in her trunk. Two hours later she arrived home. Her husband asked about the wine. Running to the car, he feared an 85° debacle. He found one bottle with a cork that had moved out a bit. The other eleven were perfect and proved very drinkable.

Question: I have a cellar in my basement that is completely isolated from the home HVAC system. It is a fully insulated room with no radiant heating in the floor. The door is exterior grade. All that’s missing is active cooling. The temperature inside the cellar ranges from a high of 63° to a low of 53°. This is the natural change of temperature. During the summer, there are more days of 63°; in the winter more days of 53°. Will my wine be affected by these gradual changes in temperature?

Answer: This is the question that keeps me up at night. Full disclosure – I would be perfectly happy if I NEVER sell another wine cellar cooling unit. There are no Lennox, Carrier, or Trane cooling units available. Why? Because the wine cellar business is so small that none of the big-guys want to play. Everyone in this business is a small company. The product breaks down early and often. And that leads to a bounty of customer complaints and dissatisfaction. Wine collecting should be enjoyable; not filled with stress over when the next moment-of-frustration will occur.

I understand that passive cellars are almost a Midwest phenomenon, but I live near Chicago. Ninety-nine percent of my clients have basements. Common knowledge in this business states that wine requires a rock-steady temperature to mature into the finest version of itself. But, has anyone tested this hypothesis? Has anyone tasted a Bordeaux aged to perfection in the back of a cave somewhere, followed immediately by another taste of the same Bordeaux aged in a cellar where the temperature varied from a little below 55° to a shade above 56°? And, did the cave-cellar wine taste noticeably better than the bottle from the clinically defective cellar? My guess…no. No one has conducted this comparison.

The obvious rejoinder to my position is why risk the possibility that common knowledge is both common AND correct? Well, if I asked you, over the next two decades, to pay me a measurable amounts of cash (typically multiple times) and to endure months of frustration, while I, in turn, provide you with an unknowable and ill-defined benefit, would you do it? I’ve thrown down the gauntlet. Anyone care to pick it up?
By the way, in answer to the original question in the headline above, no one knows.

Happy drinking, Rick Grigsby (Owner)
Chicago Wine Cellar Expert Inc.

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  • I vetted seven companies before choosing Rick’s. The job was done beautifully, but what really blew me away was his response to problems after the cellar was installed and paid-for. For three days, Rick lived in my cellar overseeing the fixing of a very finicky cooling unit. That service after the sale is reason enough to recommend him. He truly cares about his work and about people.

    J.P. from Barrington Hills, IL
  • He crawled on his hands and knees though the steam pipes with the building engineer, stood by me during my meeting with the condo association and held my architect’s hand making certain that everything was right. Rick is the best!

    M.L from Lincoln Park, Chicago
  • Rick’s company did an incredible job!

    F.G from Winnetka, Illinois
ampedMy cooling unit has stopped working. Is my wine at risk?