It’s not as if the cards are stacked against you when you pluck a bottle of wine from the shelf in a retail store, especially wines of the most recent vintage, as in 2005 and ’04 for white wines (soon light-hearted whites from 2006 will be available) and for reds 2005 back to, oh, 2002 or even 2000, depending on what grapes they’re made from and what the intention was, for immediate drinking or laying down to age.

Hazards are involved though. A newly released wine could be corked, that is spoiled by a bacteria-tainted cork that somehow made it through the sterilization process (in cork manufacturing, not bottling the wine). If you open a bottle and the wine smells like damp cardboard and oldbotls.jpg mold, it’s corked. This is a frustrating situation, especially if you spent a wad of dough on the wine (or don’t have another bottle to substitute), but most retail stores will exchange a corked bottle for you if you take it back the next day. Some publications report that as many as eight or nine percent of the wines they open are corked, but that has never been my experience; two or three percent is more likely, though even one corked bottle is frustrating.

Mainly, wine is OK. You buy a bottle of the newest Kendall-Jackson Vintners Reserve Chardonnay, say, or Bonny Doon Big House Red, or whatever you prefer to knock back, and generally all you want is a tasty wine that you can trust year after year, no problems.

As you move back into the past, however, the dangers increase, and you have to ask yourself a few questions or at least be aware of some issues: How long has the wine been in the store? Has it been in the store since it was released or is the wine a close-out special from the wholesaler, who may not have a cold room for thoughtful storage? For that matter, no retail store keeps its thermostat at the sort of temperature that we associate with keeping wines, especially fine wines, in good condition; on the other hand, most newly released wines, especially the popular ones, move off the shelves pretty quickly.

When I was in New York last month, I went into Garnet’s Wine and Liquors on Lexington Avenue, and the place was like a sauna. One forgets how hot New Yorkers keep their apartments and retail establishments in cold weather. I went ahead and bought two bottles of Burgundy. One, from 1998, was superb; the other was, sadly, corked, and I was leaving for home the next morning, so I couldn’t return the bottle.

Odd bottles of wine get forgotten on those top and bottom shelves or in a store’s back corner. Wine can sit in a store for a decade. I was amazed once when I was in Morrell & Co., at Rockefeller Center, and there was an 8- or 10-year-old bottle of a small-production, fairly cultish California pinot noir priced at something like $12. “Whoa,” I said to the clerk who had been helping me with some other purchases, “that’s a bargain!”

“Oh, you don’t want that,” she replied. “It’s cooked,” that is, the wine had been ruined by excessive heat.
The person who bought that wine without asking would have been cooked, too. I guess you pays yer money and you takes yer choice.

I recently posted a page called “How Old Is an Old Wine?” on the “Patience Required” segment of my website. For a take on 10 wines from 2001 back to 1998 that I purchased in retail stores, some with worse results than others, visit http://www.KoeppelOnWine.com/Patience_Required.asp

The image of really old wine bottles is from intowine.com.