As restaurants begin to reopen, based partially on increased COVID-19 vaccinations, more attentiveness to social distancing and spring-spurred outdoor dining, wine lovers face some decisions.
Perhaps this is premature, but I’ve been thinking about it for eight months, and it’s about U.S. restaurant wine programs.
A vital question: were restaurant wine cellars kept cool enough to protect already-purchased wines during the months that restaurants were closed? Were wines kept at a constant, cool temperature through the last year?
If so, people who adore wines with slightly more bottle age than they would typically get will benefit from added maturity, especially with wines from some prior vintages.
A best-case scenario: a restaurant server says its wine cellar or wine storage area had at least R19 insulation (preferably R38), which allows wines to age gracefully and develop a bouquet that you almost never see except at the best restaurants.
Alas, I fear that the majority of restaurants cannot deliver such good news. If a restaurant says its wine storage room is air-conditioned and that the place was closed since last May, chances are the restaurant did not keep the A/C going over the last year. And wine consumers may be facing some marginally tired wines.
Older wines left for months in a warm space could decline through maderization — and the older a wine is, the greater the risk. Maderization (a malady not unlike oxidation) is often seen in wines that were held too warm, robbing the wine of its fresh fruit. Its aroma then is not as vibrant. It is occasionally called “cooked” by wine experts.
Keeping air-conditioning on for months without anyone in the building is costly. Also, maderization is a minor risk since few wine consumers can spot it.
(I once knew a wine-savvy restaurateur who was offered an older red burgundy at a price so low I was skeptical. He called to chat about it and I asked the name of the importer. It turned out to be a guy with a checkered track record.
(Days later I popped by the restaurant and my friend opened the sample bottle he had. Immediately we both could smell that the wine was slightly maderized. Even though we both thought the wine would pass muster with 95% of his customers, he said he couldn’t take a chance. He passed on it.)
I suggest that going forward, diners employ several tactics when dining out.
1. Stick to young white wines, which likely were not purchased by restaurants until after reopening. Try 2019 or 2020 whites like Sauvignon Blanc, dry Riesling, Pinot Gris, Viognier or white Rhône blends, or wait a few weeks for the arrival of 2020 dry rosés. Any 2017 or 1018 whites may have been bought and inventoried at restaurants before they were forced to shut down.
2. If you’re considering a red wine from a vintage like 2010 to 2016, ask the server about the restaurant’s cellar conditions.
3. When a bottle arrives at the table, be especially careful to look at the condition of the cork and capsule BEFORE the waiter removes the cork. If there are any signs of leakage or if the cork has migrated above the lip of the bottle, even a tiny fraction, be suspicious of the wine storage.
4. If you’re planning on buying a bottle of expensive wine, ask to see the wine storage area. You may be shocked at what you see.
My favorite experience with one famed restaurant wine cellar came in the early 1980s when I first visited the late, lamented culinary palace the Imperial Dynasty in otherwise unassuming Hanford, Calif.
After we ordered dinner, I asked owner Richard Wing to tour his deep-underground wine cellar, which at its peak held 70,000 bottles. We descended steep steps into a vast cavern that was very cold — even though the daytime temp hovered around 100.
Over the years I bought lots of wine from Richard Wing and every bottle, no matter how old, was in great shape.
Finally, one last suggestion that I often employ: call restaurants ahead and ask what the corkage policy is.
I use this tactic exclusively when consuming older wines from our cellar, such as recent experiences with a 1985 Barbaresco, 1977 and 1982 Napa Valley Cabernets, 2011 Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc and 2010 Australian Riesling.
I never do this with a wine that the restaurant has on its list. I don’t mind paying a reasonable corkage since I’m certain that the wine I’m bringing from home has been stored perfectly.
On a completely unrelated topic, it has been 20 years since Dr. Andy Waterhouse at the University of California at Davis published a paper on red wine stain removal from various fabrics based on research by then high school student and intern Natalie Ramirez during a UC Davis summer program.
The tests Ramirez conducted included a two-minute stain of red wine on various fabrics and a 24-hour test. The most effective treatment on the two-minute test was also most effective on the one-day test.
Dr. Waterhouse said Ramirez’s research and tests conducted at UC Davis showed that one effective treatment for a majority of fabrics was a commercial product called Erado-Sol, which eliminated red wine stains after treatment and laundering.
However, just as effective and far cheaper was a home-made solution of 3% hydrogen peroxide with an equal amount of liquid Dawn. Allow the solution to soak into the stain for better stain removal, followed by laundering. This treatment also included a follow-up with rubbing alcohol.
Other solutions that were tested and found to work well on cotton were Gonzo Wine Out Red Wine Stain Remover and Dow Corning’s Spray ‘n’ Wash. Other fabrics such as synthetics showed varying results with commercial products.
Using white wine and/or salt were among the least effective stain removal treatments, the research showed.
Wine of the Week
2018 Dry Creek Vineyard Zinfandel, Sonoma County, “Heritage Vines” ($19): For the last several years, one of the best value Zinfandels in America is this widely available regional blend that displays classic characteristics of the variety, from red berry fruit to a subtle spice character. In this slightly cooler vintage, winemaker Tim Bell captured a food-friendly structure that makes it a perfect match to go with hamburgers and other simple foods. It compares favorably to wines at twice its price. Often seen at about $17.
WATCH NOW: HOW DRINKING RED WINE CAN BENEFIT YOUR HEALTH
Dan Berger lives in Sonoma County, where he publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a subscription-only wine newsletter. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He is also co-host of California Wine Country with Steve Jaxon on KSRO Radio, 1350 AM.
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