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10.04.2009

Shipping Wine in the Heat: Speed and Styrofoam

temperature_humidity.jpgI order most of my wine online. Hell, even when I'm buying it at a store in my city, I still order it online most of the time so I can have it ready when I go down and pick it up. But often, I'm buying more obscure wines that I find at random retailers out there on the Internet, or I'm just scouring for a deal, so quite often I'm in the position of having wine shipped to me.

I'm a big believer in making sure that my wine gets treated right from the point it leaves the winery to when it goes through my front door. Which means I'm a fan of importers who guarantee every wine is shipped in refrigerated containers and trucks, and retailers that let me make decisions about when I want my wine shipped to avoid it sitting in a dark brown truck on a very hot day.

In general, my level of attention to shipping wine might approach what you would describe as paranoia. Or more charitably, more safe than sorry. In general I don't have any wine shipped to myself during the summer, even if that's when I find myself buying. It's easy to get lulled into complacency here in San Francisco, with our 55 degree summer days, but just across the bridge or down in the south bay, and across the rest of the western United States, it can be easily 40 degrees warmer. I have visions of cooked wine; corks protruding from leaky bottles; vinegar instead of vino. And so I just tell these retailers to not bother sending me anything until October.

But as it turns out, I may not need to be quite as paranoid about shipping wine during the Summer as I thought, at least under certain circumstances.

Vinfolio, a wine retailer and services company here in San Francisco (and, by way of full disclosure, a client of my consulting firm and an advertiser here on Vinography) is in the middle of doing some really interesting tests on what exactly happens to wines as they travel around the country in the backs of those delivery trucks and in the bellies of airplanes.

As the CEO Steve Bachmann writes in a recent blog entry, Vinfolio put temperature probes on and inside several boxes, and inside several wine bottles in those boxes, and sent them around the country at various shipping speeds and in various conditions with surprising results.

The results of their first shipping test are in, and they are somewhat encouraging to the paranoid.

In general it seems that properly chilled wines shipped in styrofoam shipping containers (I HATE styrofoam, but perhaps a little less after reading the results of this experiment) hold temperatures down pretty well despite major swings in outside temperature.

When shipped overnight delivery, a full case of wine exposed to outside temperatures of up to 92 degrees (they purposely routed the box through Memphis) only saw the internal temperature of the wine bottles climb 8 degrees from its starting temperature of 61 to 69 degrees, well within the "safe" zone for wine.

Other tests at slower shipping speeds and different packaging configurations will be forthcoming, but just on the face of this test I may not have to be quite as anxious about my wine shipping conditions (truth be told I'm mildly concerned even when it is not summer).

I guess I'll have to wait to see what a 4 day standard UPS ground shipment routed through Dallas on a 100 degree day ends up looking like. Unfortunately I may need to wait until next summer to do that. Maybe they can choose Miami instead.

Read the results of Vinfolio's first shipping temperature test.


Comments (17)

10.04.09 at 10:25 PM

Styrofoam is not a good conductor of heat which is why a bottle that is very cool inside a styrofoam container won't heat up quickly. However, if it is very hot outside and the delivery takes several days, then once heat does penetrate the styrofoam that heat will stay inside the container. This can then cook the wine even if the outside temperature cools off overnight. It will be interesting to see this study that shows what happens to ground shipments of wine across the country in the middle of the summer.

Dylan wrote:
10.05.09 at 7:20 AM

I just read something similar in a WIRED article about the transportation of fresh seafood from Italy to a Vegas restaurant in 53 hours. They have implemented microchips on every food item which read temperature every 20 minutes throughout transportation. Upon landing, the kitchen staff would review the chip data while checking physically for odor and appearance. Anything that peaked at a certain point or does not meet standards is not used. Which brings me to my next point;

For wineries and retailers which ship directly, it would be an interesting product promise to include a temperature report of the wine during its travels. Sort of like UPS tracking taken one level higher.

Chuck wrote:
10.05.09 at 8:50 AM

Is there any guarantee that the shipping method to the reseller has treated the wine well. One would hope, but...

10.05.09 at 11:00 AM

Larry, we're not even going to bother to do ground shipping tests in the summer as I think we know the outcome there. We will look at 2-day and 3-dayu and see what combination of shipping speeds and weather conditions are optimal to protect wine at the least cost to the consumer. I also just got off a call with someone who's created a new type of shipper which could meet all of our parameters of lost cost, low weight, high protection factor, and ease of assembly (while also being reusable and non-toxic). We've asked for some samples (product is still in test phase) and may skip directly to using these in future tests.

Arthur wrote:
10.05.09 at 11:34 AM

Steve
I did a similar test and some calculations (actually, I had someone better qualified than me do the math) which are less comforting than your results.
I expect to publish this on WineBusiness.com tomorrow - pending some edits and checking.

Aaron wrote:
10.05.09 at 11:46 AM

The test is encouraging, but I will maintain my paranoia and have my wines shipped in the late weeks of October and early weeks of November when temperatures around here in Saint Louis are cooler.

Companies have, on rare occasions, shipped in the summer and I found the bottles warm when received. Not something I want repeated.

10.05.09 at 11:56 AM

Arthur,
All input on the topic is welcome. I'll be interested in comparing any differences (and why they might exist) but the data is the data.

Arthur wrote:
10.05.09 at 12:00 PM

Certainly, Steve and in my piece I assert that reproducibility is key to validation.

I cannot speak publicly to any detail until my piece is published but we can converse off line if you like.

Rick wrote:
10.05.09 at 12:58 PM

Sea Smoke will not ship their allocations until November because of heat. They specifically mentioned that they were concerned about the wine being routed through Memphis. I decided to personally pick up my allocation in June, but most people probably do not have that option. I couldn't wait several months to receive my Sea Smoke! Anyway, perhaps this study will prompt Sea Smoke and others to reconsider their summer shipping policies.

Anonymous wrote:
10.06.09 at 5:18 AM

I agree that Styrofoam is not a good conductor of heat and it also produces chlorofluorocarbon when heated. I also don't like to order wines online coz I want to make sure to maintain its freshness before consuming.

Bruce Schoenfeld wrote:
10.06.09 at 7:13 AM

To me, bad shipping and storage is a far greater problem than TCA. As a wine writer, I get samples sent to me all year long, and I'd estimate that 20 percent or more are heat-compromised. If they're sealed with a cork, at least I can tell: the wine has expanded and gone up the cork, to greater or lesser extent. But screwcap-sealed wines tell no tales. If they've heated up and cooled down, they look just as pristine as when they left the winery.

Katie wrote:
10.06.09 at 8:06 AM

Funny, I just posted a piece about shipping with styrofoam in general. Sorry, I can't stand the stuff, and despite what towns tell you about picking it up with your recyclables, most recycling centers won't take the crap and it winds up in a landfill...forever. Better options need to be explored.

Arthur wrote:
10.06.09 at 1:56 PM

My test differs from Vinfolio's in that it exposed the shippers to much higher temps for greater periods with the intent of simulating the conditions inside a delivery van. Vinfolio’s test results suggest that speed (overnight delivery - origin pickup in afternoon and destination delivery before noon the following morning) and EPS are key to protecting wines.

Some thoughts that remain after considering both tests:

Paraphrasing a part of my article: A more definitive study would need to involve the real-time temperature recordings taken inside a bottle of wine placed in EPS and pulp shippers and exposed to temperatures in excess of 100°F for extended periods (at least 2-3 hours).

Coincident monitoring of the temperature outside the box would be necessary. Simply looking at projected/reported temperatures for the zip code of the destination is not enough:

When I did the first test (max heat exposure to shippers 112.4F) the ambient outdoor temp was 83F (by weather.com) and when I did the second test (max heat exposure to shippers in excess of 113.2F) the ambient outdoor temp was 79F. Drivers have indicated to me that the insides of their trucks get about 15F higher than the outdoor temps. So, if it's a 90F day, the inside of the van will very likely exceed 100F.

Here is the link to my Wine Business article:
http://www.winebusiness.com/news/?go=getArticle&dataid=67958

Wine Business does not have room for comments but I have a post with some additional thoughts and room for discussion on my blog.

Eric Vogt wrote:
10.09.09 at 1:26 PM

It’s important, and indeed now possible, to monitor the shipping and storage conditions of fine wine. My company has conducted extensive scientific analyses of the impact of high temperatures on the chemistry, turbidity, color, and taste of wines exposed to high temperatures. 30 degrees Celsius appears to be the “danger threshold” for wine, and of those cases shipped and monitored for temperature, many were exposed to temperatures of 30 degrees Celsius and above. Our research also shows that perfect conditions have been achieved for some shipments and that this quality level is a realistic goal. However, the steps necessary to achieve it depend on multiple factors, including the route, the time of year, the mode of transportation and packaging.

Brently wrote:
11.07.09 at 12:51 PM

Well, that's good to know that things are going to be changing for the better regarding wine shipping and packaging. I have ordered wine from New Jersey to Los Angeles before and one of the wines was completely ruined. I wonder if bamboo or hemp cold work well?

Mike Stoneking wrote:
09.28.10 at 3:20 PM

Just got 3 cases of wine delivered yesterday, a day of record heat in Southern California, with temperatures well over the 100* mark and as high as 113*. The wine sat in a warehouse all weekend at 110*, then was delivered to me on Monday. The bottles were hot to the touch, and I opened a bottle to see the temperature of the wine. A toasty 92.5*!! They were in styro shippers, and the box was hot to the touch. Needless to say, when I tasted the wine today, it was a harsh, bitter mess. I believe I did the vinfolio test of wine shipped in 100* weather and the results were as expected. GARBAGE!!

Chris K wrote:
11.04.10 at 4:31 PM

Just went to move some bottles to my smaller wine keeper downstairs. The door was open. I think it had been left open for a full day and the motor was off. Room temp was 74 degrees but one of the 4 bottles on the top shelf was really hot and some wine had leaked thru the cork. I can not figure out why that bottle was so hot. Unfortunately it was a '05 Lewis Napa Cab that I paid $85 for. The Phelps and Duckhorn bottles were just room temp and the other less expensive stuff was still cold. Really weird. As far as I can tell the motor, which is at the bottom really heated up when the door was left open. Looking at the Lewis cork the wine had travelled up about 10% so I cooled it down in the fridge. Will drink tomorrow and let you know.

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