Some Thoughts On Shipping In Warm Weather

I thought I would give some insight into direct shipping and how it all kind of works, especially in warmer weather like now.

Generally, you want to keep wines under 80F. A day or so over that temperature and you will start to effect the wine for the worse, although it may be hard to notice. Over 90F and you only need an hour or two and you are in real trouble. In the 70s, wine is fine for travel, although if you keep it in the mid to high 70s for months, they will begin to age prematurely.

With that in mind, when it gets to April and May, wineries are pretty much near the end of any reasonable shipping window and even then, they are best done on a state-by-state basis.

The best months to ship “ground” are November through February. March is mostly good, but you have to be careful. For air shipping, the window is wider and here is why.

I sent out some shipments to NYC this week. Max temps in NYC were expected to cap out at 75-79F. To send it “ground” would have failed though. The packages would travel through some really hot spots in a non-refridgerated truck and take over a week to reach the east coast. By that time, temps could be well over 80F at the final destination and even worse in the truck on the way.

In air shipping, it’s a whole different ballgame. For example, the 2012 Piper left the warehouse Monday at 4pm. It was 73F at the time in southern-Napa. But until it gets into the truck the wine is close to 58F in the warehouse. By the time the truck reaches the first hub in Oakland, the styro packaging protecting the wine and the ever dropping temps probably placed the wine at 60-62F.

It leaves the airport at night for air flight to either Memphis (FedEx) or Louisville (UPS). The cargo holds of those planes are pressurized but usually not temperature controlled. The temps inside the cargo hold can drop into the 30s. This will typically bring the wine down to 55F by the time it lands, usually very early in the morning.

Memphis and Louisville were 83-85F today. But the warehouses, although not temp controlled, have high ceilings and are probably a good 10-15F cooler than the outside temps. So by the time in leaves on another plane (again at night) the wine has risen to perhaps 63-65F. You only need to even slightly worry if the temps in those hubs are 92F or higher, outside. Other than that, you are probably good.

While on the next plane to the final hub, it drops again to maybe 58-62F in the bottles, which arrive in the early morning. In NYC for example, lets say it is 82F the next day. The wine sits on the truck til 3:30pm and is delivered to the office. Styro is a good insulator! Even if it peaks at 90F in the back of the truck at 3pm, it would be fine, as it takes hours at 90F to get wine inside the truck to that temp through all the styro. It might never actually get to 90F unless it is 100F outside. My guess is, at worst, it would arrive at the final destination at 70F in my example. It might keep slowly rising to room temp (72-73F) if it sits in the office all day (or overnight) before someone takes it home.

I threw ice packs in every single shipment on Monday, even Oregon, where it is cool. Ice packs last 48 hours, max. They really will do little good at all on day 3, or later, when they arrive in NYC, and most likely the ice packs will be box temperature by then. But what you REALLY need ice for is the Hub in Memphis or Louisville, not the end point. Also, most ice packs are really a gel, not ice. And they don’t “sweat” as they warm up, so the labels of wines are usually protected.

I tested a shipment to a state with 98F temps once in September a few years ago. We put in a digital thermometer that sent data to a computer of the temp of the wine all the way on its 2-day air journey. The wine never exceeded 78F at any point and spent most of the trip under 70F. Not ideal, but it goes to show that if one uses ice packs and goes by air, you probably have avoided damaging the wine even in harsh situations.

Another thing that freaks people out is missing the first delivery attempt. That is not usually that bad. The back of UPS trucks are not ovens like the back of 18-wheelers. They do not get any hotter than the outside temps, usually. And getting 85F through styro and glass is not easy. If you miss the first signature then it goes back into the truck (in our example at 4pm) and then heads back to the local office, where it is stored indoors. Temps are already dropping as it drives back to the station. Unless we are talking Arizona or Texas in summer, this will likely be in the 60s. low 70’s max. You might get the wine close to daytime temps the second day, but I bet not.

Sometimes one feels a bottle and thinks… oh no, it feels warm. You might be surprised. If you were to pop the cork and stick a thermometer in, it would almost always be under 80F.

Also, sometimes one will see some wine going up the side of the cork and thinks “It got heat damaged.” Again, most likely not. Bottling lines are fast machines and they fill the bottle in a couple of seconds. It is very possible that some wine got in the neck and dried there. Also, if the cork is not perfectly sized for the wine, when wine first gets bottled, pressure can cause some wine to occasionally creep on the neck, especially if the case of wine is immediately turned upside down on the pallet, post-bottling. I was taught to stack the wines right side up for a few hours, then turn them over, to better avoid that. If you see some wine creeping up just one small part of the cork, you are probably fine. If the whole cork looks red, thats a real problem. Also, wine at the top of the cork could also be from bottling, not heat.

Also, about 1 in 10 bottles has the cork either pushed a millimeter too far in or too far out. About 1 in a 5000 bottles might not even have a cork! I’ve seen that a couple of times too. But just because a cork is slightly elevated does not mean that the wine got hot and pushed it out. Bottling machines are imperfect.

For the most part, my summary is…

  1. If you want to send ground shipping outside of CA, OR and WA (where ground is 1-3 days, anyway), then you want to ship from Nov- Feb and you are almost always good.

  2. With air (2 or 3 day) than you can go from Oct-May, as long as you are careful about temps. With 3-day air, it is the same as 2-day but sits in either the original hub or final hub an extra day.

  3. Avoid final destination estimated temps above 79F. That way, even if they are wrong, it is likely they are wrong by only 5 degrees maybe. Don’t intentionally ship to final destinations above 85F.

  4. Ice packs do wonders to avoid heat at the primary southern Hubs for Fed-Ex and UPS. But they only last 48 hours. They are useless in shipping beyond 2 days, typically.

  5. Make sure to be there and sign for it the first attempt, if you can. Don’t panic if you don’t, but it is better to get it the first time around.

  6. If your wine has an elevated cork or some wine stains up the side, don’t panic. If it is heat damaged, you will know by taste more than by cork.

Sometimes wine can get heat damaged. It does happen. I wonder how many Bordeaux wines all these years that came over on un-refridgerated shipping containers by ocean, taking a month-plus, were heat damaged? Still, a lot of them tasted pretty darned good to me. It is actually not easy to heat damage a wine.

If you want to really take control, whenever you enter an order online, put in the comments section or instructions section… “SHIP IN NOVEMBER ONLY”. Or January, etc. That will work almost every time. Fulfillment centers get spreadsheets from the winery for all shipments and both the winery and the fulfillment center usually catch such instructions before they go out.

Hope this gives a little insight!

Great stuff, thanks.

When using UPS, if it is necessary to leave the delivery location and the delivery is missed, by calling customer service, a same day, will call pickup can be arranged by using the tracking number.

Great info Roy, especially about the test you did. Where did you pick up the digital thermometer that relays data to your computer?

Miami is a tough one. I insist on Fed Ex , as UPS is a Big Brown Oven , they deliver to my home very late in the day & the floor of the truck is usually where the wine is and is warmer.
I go Fed Ex 2 day in April to late November or December . They will deliver to a Fed Ex office 1 mile from my home , by 9:30 AM and place in Airconditioning for my pick up , much better.
Got a shipment today from Premier (Fed Ex) and it was cool to the touch.

I just shipped from San Fran to Denver this week. The high temp the wine experienced was in the high 60’s. Nice to be able to ship in May once in a while.

Roy, if you want to do a true test… Get SenseAware…

There is no better way to truly find what occurs with a package in transit. In my opion, that’s not the concern. The reality is that nobody here is willing to pay the extra to ensure the quick delivery in challenging lanes and shipping seasons. Just my two cents.

Holiday inn express… Blah blah, you know the deal

Great analysis, Roy. Detailed, sensible stuff.

What about the other end of the spectrum… Can wine freeze during shipment? My guess is that short of the polar vortex there is sub-zero (pardon the awful pun) chance of that happening.

I like your scientific research into this, but would extend the safe shipping window to the Mid-Atlantic/Northeast thru April.

Definitely yes; I’ve had it happen twice with cross-country shipments, one time due to a retailer error, the other time the shipping company driver screwed up.

Thank you for posting this. I have gotten several deliveries this week and just got a fed ex notice than another is on its way. I missed a delivery earlier in the week and when I got it the next day, I unpacked immediately and the bottles didn’t feel that warm but I still was annoyed. No reason for california wineries to ship ground to me in NJ in May and that is the last time I will purchase from that particular one.

Hi Sherri -

Just a question regarding the CA winery who you’re no longer going to buy from:

  1. Was this order part of their stand wine club/allocation offering, or a single order?

  2. Did they advise you of their shipping policy in advance of the order being sent?

There are some exceptions. We actually just went through a nice shipping window from California to the Midwest and even the East Coast. The highs range from 10-20 degrees below normal west of Missouri throughout the next 7 days, including temperatures below freezing in the Rockies over the weekend. Cool nights everywhere. That trend slowly shifts East every day. The East Coast is hot on Monday and Tuesday, but cools off dramatically starting on Wednesday. Shipping wine from CA to NY (for example) yesterday is like shipping in March.

I check weather by zip code for each individual shipment, but here are some informative links for general trends:

For wine to leave Thursday, head towards Chicago, then arrive Thursday north of Washington, DC (or anywhere on the way), it’s very safe. However, this was a somewhat rare 2-3 day window, and probably the last one of the shipping season. It is nice to have these moments where people can get their wines without waiting or paying the ridiculous costs of air freight. It probably doesn’t need to be said but if the wine happens to get damaged, it gets replaced. Therefore, I only ship when I am confident.

I swear I probably watch weather forecasts more closely when shipping wine than during harvest!

Rick T, it was actually a test we did with Fed Ex before they rolled out their warm-weather shipping program. I actually can’t remember the name of that program. It was maybe 4 years ago. It was actually a sensor going into the bottle through the cork. It was a fun experiment.

Ned, Miami is gonna be very hard to ship to for a while. Texas too.

John A, wine can freeze but that is really hard to do. Because of the alcohol content, the wine in the bottle (through the styro) would have to reach 19-25F. Unlike heat, you will know if it froze because as the wines become solid, they will blow that cork right out. Also, I find that wine recovers from cold better than heat.

Joel, I will look into Senseaware!

Sherri, I shipped to NJ, which is one state that was supposto be in the high 70s but wound up in the mid-80s. But I shipped 3-day air, not ground, and included ice packs. In air shipping, it only spends one day in the final destination city. So far, everyone said the wine either arrived cool to the touch, or in the low 70’s.

Wine Popsicles around here at that time of year . . .

Why not ship in refrigerated trucks? I get shipments from last bottle in refrigerated trucks to a refrigerated warehouse and then over nighted with an ice pack and the shipping is free.

Paul - I purchased the wines off of a spring mailer in late March and the confirmation email said “Weather permitting wines will ship out during the last week of April or first week of May. If temperatures are too warm, we will ship using temperature controlled shipping in Mid-May.” It’s been in the 80’s here all week and I’m sure just as hot along the shipping route. Fed Ex Ground was NOT temp controlled. Fail.

gotcha. thanks.

Not all shipping methods are created equal! Rule of thumb for everyone on either side of the transaction: when in doubt, don’t. Don’t ok (or ask for) the shipment when it is questionable, and don’t make the shipment when it is questionable. I would rather turn down an order (and $$ in my pocket) than to have a shipment arrive heat-challenged or frozen. No one wins in those cases.

In standard styro shippers, where does an ice pack go? If it’s in one of the cells, how does the cold get to the bottles in the other cells? Or are there shippers made for ice packs to distribute the chilling evenly?