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A case of bottled-up anxiety

The prospect of moving his wine collection before fumigating gave him the vapors. What's an oenophile to do?

June 23, 2004|David Shaw | Times Staff Writer

It was our housekeeper who first spotted the tiny grains of what looked like black sand in the corner of our kitchen floor.

"Termites," the pest-control inspector said when he came out the next day. "We'll have to tent and fumigate the entire house."

"What about my wine?" I yelped.

I have a 1,200-bottle cellar next to our laundry room, and I love walking in every night and picking what I want to drink with dinner. When we fumigated for termites 12 years ago, I decided -- after considerable research -- to individually double-bag and seal every bottle and leave them in the cellar. As near as I could tell, all the wines -- and the people who subsequently drank them -- emerged unscathed.

But that bagging process had taken three days of nonstop work in my 56-degree cellar, and at the end, my back, fingers and wrists were in agony. This time -- older and busier, already fighting a sore neck, a bad back and a bad elbow -- I just couldn't face the prospect of another marathon bagging session.

So, how to protect my wine?

Friends suggested moving the wine temporarily into a temperature-controlled facility. But my bottles are individually racked, with an identifying tag on each space so I know exactly where each bottle is. If I took all of them out, I'd have to devise a system to keep track of where each bottle was in each of 100 cardboard boxes, then carry the boxes up two flights of stairs, transport them to the storage facility and back, carry them back down the stairs and then find each bottle and put it back in the same spot it was before.

That was my idea of a nightmare.

The pest-control inspector insisted the Vikane gas wouldn't penetrate the corks and capsules of the bottles. But he wouldn't guarantee that in writing. I called another fumigator. He offered the same termite diagnosis and at my request, he wrote on his fumigation proposal, "Stored wine will not be effected [sic] by the fumigation process."

He also had Dow AgroSciences, which makes the Vikane gas, send me a letter, which said that if the original "air-tight seal is intact

That made me feel a little better, but I decided to double-check with the top fumigator in Napa Valley, figuring he'd have a lot of experience with termites and wine cellars .

"I've done thousands of fumigations," he said. "No one has ever bagged or moved his wine, and no one has ever had any problems."

But no fumigator would give me the name of any satisfied customer with a wine cellar. So, still nervous, I called virtually everyone I knew -- friends, sommeliers, winemakers, collectors, merchants -- who might have some insight into my problem. None of them had been through fumigation or knew anyone who had. All assumed my wine would be fine. But all said if they were in my shoes, they'd move all the wine out anyway rather than take a chance.

Still unwilling to face that gargantuan task, I decided to leave the wines in place, unbagged. Then, on the Saturday before the Monday fumigation, temperatures soared into the mid-90s. With a tent over the house, it would probably be 20 or 30 degrees hotter inside. What if my wine cellar cooling unit broke down? What if the fumigators made me turn off the cooling unit? What if they said the cellar door had to be open for two days so the gases could circulate everywhere? My wine would be ruined. But we'd already made our motel reservations and bagged all our food, medicine and various other items, in accord with the fumigator's instructions. We had 30 large, taped bags full of stuff in the kitchen, bathrooms and pantry. We couldn't live like that until the heat wave abated, and we didn't want to unbag and then rebag everything.

I decided to take two cases of wine to a friend who volunteered to hold it for me. I packed up a dozen of my best bottles -- a 1961 Latour, a '75 Petrus, an '89 Haut-Brion, an '89 Hermitage La Chapelle from Jaboulet, a '90 La Tache, a '67 Yquem, two Marcassin Chardonnays and my favorite Barolos. I also packed up an assorted case of everyday wines that I had multiple bottles of so I could later drink those alongside identical bottles left in the cellar during the fumigation. That way, I could compare them and see if the stay-at-home wines had been damaged, either by the poison gas or by the heat.

Fumigation day

The night before the fumigation, I called Jean-France Mercier, the man who designed and built my cellar.

"Don't worry," he said. "Even with the cooling unit shut off, given the cumulative cold in all those bottles, the temperature wouldn't go much above 68 degrees, which wouldn't hurt anything."

"But what if I have to leave the cellar door open during the fumigation?" I asked.

"Then you have a problem."

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