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WINE

Getting the Bugs Out

June 06, 1996|DAVID SHAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"You've got termites."

Great.

I wasn't really upset when the inspector told me that my wife, our 3-year-old son and I would have to move into a hotel for three days during the fumigation. But I was worried about my wine.

I'd had a wine cellar built a couple of years ago, and there were about a thousand bottles in it. I didn't want them ruined.

"No problem," the inspector assured me. "The bottles have corks and lead capsules; they'll be fine."

I was skeptical. I envisioned myself dropping to the floor a few weeks later, clutching my throat, poisoned by Chardonnay.

"How do you know it won't leave a toxic residue in the wine?" I asked. "Are you sure the gas won't affect the taste or the smell of the wine? Can you give me the name of anyone else you've worked for who had a wine collection so I could ask about the experience?"

He said he couldn't give me the names of any customers without violating their privacy. Nor would he agree to call any customers and ask if they'd be willing to speak to me. He insisted I had nothing to worry about.

I asked if he would guarantee that in writing. "You'll have to call my supervisor for that," he said.

The supervisor said he, too, was sure the wine would be OK, but no, he couldn't give me a written guarantee. That would have to come from the people who made the fumigation gas: Dow Chemical Co.

I called Dow and explained my situation. "I'm sure everything will be OK," the Dow lady explained, "but we can't give you any guarantees. I'd move the wine out if I were you, just to be 100% sure."

Move the wine out? More than 1,000 bottles?

I needed some expert advice.

First, I called Dan Berger, then the wine writer for The Times.

"I had the same problem myself about five years ago," he said.

"What did you do?"

"We moved."

That seemed a bit drastic.

I made a few more calls, starting with two wine merchants I respected, Steve Wallace in Los Angeles and Daryl Corti in Sacramento. Then I called Harvey Steiman at the Wine Spectator and Vern Singleton in the Department of Oenology at UC Davis. I called Bipin Desai, a well-known wine collector in Riverside.

None of them had ever dealt with termites and wine. But Wallace and Singleton said they vaguely recalled having heard about a couple of wine collectors who'd been through fumigation, with--as they recalled--no damage to their wine.

Nevertheless, everyone agreed that to be safe, I should move the wine out, especially after I explained the fumigation process: The house would be tented and gassed the first day, aired out the second day and tested with meters the third day; the door to my wine cellar would have to be open all three days to allow the gas to flow in and out.

But moving the wine meant filling almost 100 cases, carrying them up two flights of stairs, loading my car, driving back and forth 10 or 12 times to a wine storage facility (unless I rented a small U-Haul truck), unloading the wine there, reloading it three days later and then carrying it back downstairs to my wine cellar and unloading it. With my bad back, I figured I'd be in traction before I finished six cases.

I thought about hiring someone else to do the loading and unloading. But I'd still have to supervise--and since my wine is individually racked, it didn't matter who did the heavy lifting; I'd still have to keep a careful record of what bottles went into which cases so I could put each bottle back in its appropriate slot. That alone would be enormously time-consuming.

One friend suggested that I rent a refrigerated truck and just park it in front of my house for three days. That would eliminate one round of loading and unloading, but my street is too narrow to park it there. I'd have to park it elsewhere. Where? And how could I stop someone from breaking into it?

What if the refrigeration unit in the truck failed or someone plowed into the truck? Or hijacked it? Would my car insurance cover that? For that matter, would my homeowners insurance cover the wine if I took it to a storage facility?

It all sounded like a nightmare.

I began to look into alternative means of termite termination. I heard about a company that microwaves the termites. No tent. No poison gas. No moving out. I called and asked about my wine.

"No problem."

"But if you microwave the walls, don't you also inevitably microwave the wine? Won't that ruin it?"

"I'll get back to you on that," he said. That was the last I heard from him.

I called a company that promises to kill termites by "freezing their buns off." Again, no poison gas. When I asked about my wine, this company, too, promised to call back and never did.

I called three other traditional exterminators, hoping someone would have a better solution to my wine problem--or, better yet, tell me there were no termites in our house after all. No such luck. Everyone found termites. Everyone said the wine would be OK. No one would put that in writing. The only differences in the companies were the prices, which ranged from $1,900 to $3,800.

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