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Life on the Shelf: Beverage Experts Tap Into 12 Things Retailers And Restaurateurs Can Do To Ensure Their Beverages Stay Fresh

Posted on  | February 1, 2011   Bookmark and Share
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Whether you run a retail store or a restaurant, you don’t expect to have big spoilage or shelf-life problems with your beverage alcohol. After all, we want wine to age, don’t we? And spirits have so much alcohol, they are practically indestructible, right?

Yet a couple of weeks ago, I went into a popular restaurant bar for a Manhattan before meeting friends for lunch, and the place was buzzing with fruit flies, a couple of which went skinny dipping in my cocktail. “We’ve had them for a couple of weeks,” the bartender sighed, having answered the question too many times before. “We can’t seem to get rid of them.”

And not too long before that I was in a wine store—not one that I would patronize regularly—and saw almost-popped corks and sticky wine stains in a bin of fairly pricey Burgundy.

The fact is that you can have serious problems with how you buy, store and display your wine, beer and spirits—if you don’t take prudent precautions and use proper management techniques. This can cause you to alienate your customers by selling them neglected bottles and can cause you inventory losses by having to throw out stock. And don’t expect to find a sympathetic ear if you ask the distributor to pay for your mistakes.

“It happens all the time,” says Bruce Neyers, national sales manager for Kermit Lynch and owner of Neyers Winery in Napa Valley, of retailers who want to return products they abuse. “Earlier this year I was in Washington DC and visited a store that wanted me to replace three bottles of Raveneau Chablis—worth about $150 each—because they were leaking on to the label,” he recalls. “They were stored standing up in a room that must have been 80 degrees or more during the course of the day in the winter!”

How can this happen?

“The usual issues apply,” says consultant, writer and Master of Wine Doug Frost. “Temperatures above 70 degrees, temperature variance, direct natural and indoor light, vibrations and such.” And that just tops the charts.

Frost and other beverage experts helped us put together a list of a dozen things that restaurant, bar and retail managers need to do to avoid wine, spirits and beer product losses.

Perform Background Checks Before You Buy The Goods

“Surprisingly, one of the questions retail buyers seldom ask is, ‘What’s the provenance of the product?’” says Brian Larky, owner of Dalla Terra imports. “You need to know where it’s been, and how it’s been treated. For me, the proper handling of quality wines is essential.”

John A. Ryan, an award-winning sommelier and a former wine importer who has just opened Ryan’s Wine & Spirits in Wilmington, DE, says, “Once it’s in the local distributor’s warehouse, I feel more comfortable. Unfortunately, I just sent back my first two cases of badly treated wine.”

Be especially wary of going-out-of-business and other fire sales. A good rule of thumb is to buy cautiously until a new distributor has a track record with you. Finally, check out all shipments, even sampling bottles, before paying the bill.

Guard Against Hot—And Cold—Flashes

Eastern retailers love to swap stories about how their wine got cooked traveling from the West Coast across Kansas in the summer or frozen in the Rockies during blizzards. As a result, some insist their wine be shipped in “reefers”—refrigerated trucks and containers.

But the same thing can happen on the retailers’ loading docks, in their back-room storehouses or even on the store shelves. Reflecting on Neyers’ story, Larky says, “We [distributors] can only control the process up to delivery to the restaurant or the shop.”

Moore Brothers, a small Eastern retail chain headquartered in New Jersey, goes so far in protecting product that it keeps its storage rooms and its sales area at a chilly 56 degrees 24/7/365. Regular customers know to bring a sweater while shopping. Moore Brothers’ competitors may think the constant cool is more marketing hype than necessity, but the point is made to chilly customers that temperature counts.

In addition to keeping both the front and back of stores at reasonable temperatures, it’s also important to guard against just-delivered product sitting in the heat or cold for long periods before being moved into storage. Restaurants that close on certain days can be especially vulnerable if they shut off the AC while they’re gone.

Don’t Be Blinded By The Light

Sunlight can kill a bottle of wine both by heat and by UV rays that break down the wine’s structure.

“I tell all my store wine managers to have UV protection in their windows,” says Doug Due, director of wine and beer for Grocery Outlet, a chain of more than 130 stores in six Western states.

While dark-colored green or brown bottles—most common with red wines—do provide some protection, clearer bottles used for many white wines are particularly at risk to UV damage. However, the darker bottles intensify heat absorbed from direct sunlight, and constant daily fluctuations of even a few degrees can be damaging.

Watch For The Last Bottle Standing

We all know that it’s important to keep a cork wet to prevent it from shrinking, thus letting wine out and air in. But we also know that few retail stores—or restaurant wine cellars—have enough room to put all bottles on their sides, whether in storage or on display.

Standing up wines with screwcaps is a no-brainer, but what of those with corks?

The question is how long they are left standing, and here is where experts advise shelf rotation. Popular items that need to be re-stocked regularly can be a problem. If, for example, you stock six-deep, the temptation is to replace the four that have been sold without bringing the two unsold ones to the front.

Noah Rothbaum, editor-in-chief of Liquor.com and author of the book, The Business of Spirits, brings up a seldom-discussed question regarding spirits or fortified wines that are finished with cork. “High alcohol can eat away at the cork, so store [those] bottles standing up,” he warns. “And while spirits are hardier than wines, it doesn’t make sense to store them too close to the kitchen because of the heat.”

Always Card Your Beer—And Sometimes Your Spirits

A few years ago, Budweiser was asking consumers to check the “born on” dates on cans and bottles that revealed when the brew was made. The company even went so far as to pull beer from retail shelves after 110 days to ensure their necks didn’t get age wrinkles or its cans get bottom-heavy. Now it gives most of its beers up to 180 days.

Partly this is because beer today is less likely to get stale at the retailers because of higher bottle fills for less oxygen, and better-engineered UV protection than in the days when there were a lot more clear bottles to better show the brewer’s art—but at a price.

The urban beer rumors even have it that clear-bottled Corona was served with a lime to neutralize skunky flavors when it lingered too long. Whether the rumor is false or not, the lime juice can serve that purpose.

Beware Of Cream Rising To The Top

“Most people who are concerned about shelf life of spirits always ask about Baileys and the cream-based liqueurs,” says Anthony Caporale, über consultant and originator of Art of the Drink TV.  “But Baileys came up with a product that is stable, even at room temperatures.”

According to its website, “Baileys is the only cream liqueur that guarantees its taste for two years from the day it was made, opened or unopened, stored in the fridge or not when stored away from direct sunlight at a temperature range of 0-25 degrees centigrade.”

But, as Rothbaum points out, while cream-based bottles may not actually spoil, “The problem is that some will separate if they stay on the shelf too long,” giving them a less-than-appealing presence.

Turn Back The Invasion Of The Fruit Flies

Caporale warns of things that can go wrong when bar products—mixers and garnishes, too—are not properly stored or replaced between shifts, and when bar tools aren’t properly cleaned.

“Pour spouts have to be kept clean, and I recommend using screens in them to prevent fruit flies” which are naturally attracted to all sweet and sticky beverages and bar fruits, he points out.

Caporale recommends any cut fruit that carries over between shift needs to be wrapped and refrigerated or tossed, carbonated beverages re-capped, volatile mixers refrigerated and all bar tools cleaned and stored.

Remember: Few Things Are Good ‘Til The Last Drop

Oxygen is the enemy of opened bottles, especially wine poured by the glass in restaurants or used in multi-day consumer tastings in retail stores.

Caporale gives these rules of thumb for open-bottle life: three to five days for sweet wines, red wine should be served the same day “or quality will be hurt,” and white wine “can go through to the next day if it’s kept at 40 degrees.” Oxidized wine is a sure turnoff and may keep consumers from coming back. As far as vermouth is concerned, Rothbaum suggests buying smaller bottles for preserving freshness.

Watch Out For Delicate Or Time-Sensitive Wines

Retailers should be ready to rotate some wines to the closeout bin relatively quickly. Beaujolais Nouveau, for example, only has a few months before it turns drab in the bottles and in the consumers’ minds.

And while how to treat the growing “natural” wines category is still hotly debated, all use little or no sulfur and will thus have shorter lives. “I believe those trace amounts of sulfur are crucial to the stability of wine,” Frost says. This does not mean that natural wines aren’t worthy products, but simply ones that may need to be more closely monitored.

Appearances Count

As one PR agent who worked years at her family’s wine shop told me, “What I worried most about was keeping the shelves clean of dust. Customers were wary of stock that looked old.”

The same is true with labels that have faded—which many quite easily do—by repeated exposure to sunlight.

Gear Up For Inspections

At Grocery Outlet, Due charges his wine stewards with keeping tabs on their shelves daily. “They are responsible for checking in advance on a walk-through to examine if there are any pushed corks or leakage,” he says. And, if particular products are slow to move, he recommends biting the bullet by discounting the items and using their shelf space for something that may move more quickly.

Warn A Customer, Save A Return

On a final note, Due points out that no matter how well you source or maintain product, it can all go out the window if the buyer blows it. “Can you imagine how many wines—even expensive wines—are cooked in the car trunk while the buyer is shopping or doing something else?” As these bottles may come back to you for credit or replacement, you may lose a customer, even if it’s his or her fault. “It makes sense to gently warn them of the dangers—especially on hot days,” Due says.

Although much can go wrong on the shelf, whether in a retail shop or a restaurant, most of them can be avoided by thinking ahead.

Two executives who live a little higher up on the retail beverage chain warn against product paranoia. Norman Bonchick, head of Van Gogh Vodka, says the worst claims he gets is of a cracked or broken bottle during shipping. And David Milligan, president of the American arm of Joanne, the negociant that imports dozens of different Bordeaux labels and vintages, says, “I’m honestly not aware of any issues. When I asked a major retailer, he said his latest problem was customers who tried to use a corkscrew on a screwcap.”


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