Sunday, February 20, 2011

Wines in retail store: Standing Up or Laying Down bottle?

Dominique Noel (a.k.a. LeDomduVin),
Wine Director at Heights Chateau, Brooklyn Heights, NYC (2010)
©LeDomduVin 2010

Standing Up or Laying Down bottle?

Not because it is the store where I currently work (and have been working for the last nearly 4 years), but "Heights Chateau" is the quintessential "niche wine boutique store": antique library look, elegant boiserie, quaint charm, warm atmosphere, inviting, cosy and full of carefully selected wine and spirits gems (from all around the world) by the knowledgeable and friendly staff, under the leadership and guidance of its friendly, experienced and skilful owner - Matthew Lasorsa.

Both pictures (above and below) show you the charm of this Brooklyn Heights neighbourhood “Alibaba Cavern” and partly reflect the extent of the choices it has to offer, neatly organized on shelves and displays for the pleasure and easy access of our customers. 

As you can see, 1 bottle is shown on display, while the others are laying down in the back of the shelves where they are both protected from the lights and able to rest laying down with the wine touching the cork (the most ideal way to store wines, even the bottles don’t stay long enough on the shelves for their conditions to really be impacted).

Very often, when our customers come to the store and pick up one or more bottles from the shelves, they inadvertently take the first one(s) they see, which, generally and in most case scenarios, end up being the one(s) standing up.

Wine Shelves at Heights Chateau, Brooklyn Heights, NYC 
Photo courtesy of 

As mentioned above, at Heights Chateau, the bottles are stored on beautiful antique-like library shelves, with one bottle (for display) standing up in front of a few more bottles (about 6-8 bottles), which are (usually) stored vertically (forming a column) with the bottles at the horizontal (lying down on their side) on top of each other (see picture above).

The owner and myself, as the store's manager and wine director, as well as the rest of the staff, are very concerned about the quality of the bottle(s) we buy and sell, how we store them.  However, we are even more concerned about how our customers pick their wine(s) and take it(them) from the shelves. 

Consequently,  unless they don’t have any other choice (as there is only one bottle left standing up), we always recommend them to choose one of the bottles lying down in the back rather than the one standing up (facing them).

And irremediably, my colleagues and I, (nearly every time we do that recommendation), are faced with the same unavoidable question from our customers: "Why? Why can't I buy the bottle standing up?" 

Well, there are surely countless amounts of reasons I could give for you not to buy the bottle standing up, yet, among them, the following 4 ones seem (to me) the most obvious and logical. And these are usually the reasons I give to my customers, when having to choose a bottle of wine in a retail store (whether it is a niche wine boutique store or a supermarket, or anywhere else you buy your wine from for that matter), and explaining why they should avoid taking the one(s) standing up.

Four Reasons not to buy a bottle standing up at your regular wine store: 

A wine Cork's Story by ©LeDomduVin 2018 (v2)

1. Dry cork and Oxidation

The first reason that comes to mind is that the bottles standing up might be affected by "dry cork and oxidation". Due to lack of the inventory's turnover on the shelves and/or, (even worst), if all the bottles on the shelves are standing up (like in a supermarket), and more especially for the bottles that have been corked with a real tree "cork" (and even for the ones that are made out of agglomerate cork to some extend, but not for the synthetic ones (*)), the cork may have dried out (due to lack of contact with the wine inside), and let some air enter the bottle, which may have resulted in some oxidation of the wine in the bottle. 

Once oxidized, a wine is bad and deteriorates rather quickly (especially if the bottle is left standing up), and its color tend to become dull and brownish (for red wines). 

That is the first and main reason why one should always choose to take a bottle from the ones that are laying down rather than from the ones standing up on the shelves.

(*) Screw-tap and plastic-like-synthetic corked bottles are usually less or rarely exposed to this kind of problem, but there again, it may happen, especially with bad or loose screw-tap caps.

Corked and Upstanding Bottles by ©LeDomduVin 2019 (v2)

A little tip: 

Always pour yourself a little taste of the wine prior filling up the rest of the glasses (the ones of your company and/or guests), as if you happen to have a bottle that you believe is oxidized or corked after tasting the first sip, do not serve it and discreetly put it aside...

(that way you will prevent anyone from making any embarrassing comments and consequently save your face at the same time, and will continue to enjoy a dinner that will have surely turned a little sour and annoying otherwise...) 

...then, immediately put the cork back and bring the bottle back to the store (where you bought it from) with what is left of wine in the bottle. 

Do not pour  the wine out in the sink (like most people do), as you might still have a chance to get your money back or get to choose another bottle as a replacement of the bad one (obviously that entirely depends of the type of store and store management you will face... you might need a tiny bit of luck too). 

One of the following scenarios will occur:

A.   You've only poured and took a sip for yourself to taste first, and the bottle is about 95% full, which is good (and will surely work on your favor when at the store explaining the situation) 

B.    You've poured a few glasses already, but they have not been touched yet... you're in luck, just pour the content of the glasses back into the bottle, put the cork back, then bring the bottle back to the store (the person at the store does not need to know you've poured the untouched wine back in the bottle, remain impassive and/or evasive on that part) 

C.    You've poured a few glasses already, and people started to taste the wine a little.... bad luck (sh*t), then forget about it, just put back the cork on the bottle as it is, probably only 40-50% of the wine left in the bottle, yet you might still have a chance... it ain't over til it's over... 

D.    You've poured the whole bottle and the glasses have long been emptied (and maybe no one but you noticed the fault...).... well, your loss... and don't push your luck mate... coz, bringing the empty bottle to the store and try to convince the store manager the bottle was oxidized or corked won't get you far.... 😊     

However, whether A, B or C (Shh.... not D we told you... ), just remember that the store needs the bottle, the cork (if possible) and (more importantly) the wine inside in order to taste it, to agree or disagree (that the wine is faulty or not), and if agreed to let you choose another bottle at the same or similar price and/or refund you (depending on their policy and also the understanding and kindness of the store manager). They also need the bottle with the wine inside for them to make, in turn, a claim and try to get the bottle replaced or a get a credit back from their suppliers/distributors.

The store should normally exchange it for a new one or another wine of your choice at the same or similar price (if they are nice and if they want to keep your business... at least that is what I do). That say, as a wine being oxidized doesn’t happen too often, and being corked either, that is if your local wine shop is doing the right thing and if you have the right customer profile (in their eyes)... Otherwise, forget about it, most stores management and/or policy will totally ignore your request and probably won't even acknowledge you. 

The Daily Life of a Bottle of Wine on Display by ©LeDomduVin 2019

2. The life of a wine bottle on display: Grabbed, checked, shaken, put back, repeat

The second reason is that the standing up bottles on the shelves, (usually the ones on display to identify the other bottles lying in the back), are always the ones that people grab, check, shake and (too often) put back without buying it, and with no consideration whatsoever for the poor wine all shaken inside the bottle. Wine doesn’t like to be shaken. Do you?

Wine Under Bright Lights by ©LeDomduVin 2019

3. Under the bright lights

The third reason is that the standing up bottles (especially the ones on display) are always the ones which receive the most light, usually the lights from inside the store (generally cheap neon fixtures glaring from the ceiling), but also from outside the store, like the sun light (yet, and obviously, that entirely depends on the store plan configuration and how large and close to the wine shelves the store's windows are... duh....).

Light usually discolors the wine. It fades or dulls the color of the wine, which may becomes lighter at first than may darken into a dullish-brownish color. In parallel, light may also affect the aging of the wine too (aging or reaching its peak prematurely) (**).

  • For the young and light whites: the color might go from light yellow-greenish hue to becomes
  • For the older and heavier whites: the color will evolve from pale and/or deeper yellow, to darker yellow-brownish
  • For the reds: the color will turn from purplish-ruby red-crimson red to a dull brownish brick color (in general)   

Among other places, (and don't get me started on supermarket's ultra-bright and harmful neon lights), rare are the wine stores that have the appropriate LED lighting and proper light orientation to make it less harmful for the wines. In fact, it is quite intriguing and enervating (and fascinating in a weird way) to see bottles on display under direct bright lights in most (supposedly fancy and reputed) wine store... (like if they did not know... unbelievable).... 

And (fortunately), that is the main reason why wine (in general), and more especially red wine, which often needs a minimum of time to age in the bottle, always come in darker colored bottles (green, dark green, brown, amber or even black), to filter the light and more especially some of the harmful UV rays, and thus prevent the light from discoloring and damaging the wine in the bottle.

It might not matter much for wines made for immediate consumption, which are usually inexpensive enough to have a good turnover and thus move faster from the shelves. Like young white and rosé wines, for example, which (usually) come in transparent or lighter colored bottles for color identification purposes (and maybe for aesthetic purposes too).

Yet, it definitely matters for top tier, expensive and high quality wines (more especially reds, but also some whites), which usually come in darker colored bottles protecting them from the light, as they usually need more aging time in the bottle.

(**) I have also read that light, among other faults, may also cause oxidation in the wine. I definitely agree for the faults that might include side effects and changes in the wine chemical composition/reaction due to the degradation of the color and pigmentation/sedimentation/residues/ components of the wine, harmed by the UV rays of the light. However, I have doubts regarding the "oxidation" of the wine by the light, as oxidation usually occurs via/through air contact, and air cannot pass through glass, as glass is impermeable to gases and liquids and is nonporous (meaning that light can pass through it but not air, nor gas or liquid). 

Color and Sediments A Soap Opera for the old, rich and famous by ©LeDomduVin 2019

4. Older wine's sediments and color pigments falling down and settling at the bottom of the bottle

The fourth reason is that, as the wine gets older in the bottle, the sedimentation naturally occurs and thus sediments form inside the bottle as the wine ages and matures (***). These sediments consist of a combination or mixture of micro-particles, composed of debris of solid matter, as well as color pigments and other wine component's residues in suspension. 

If the bottle is left standing up and the suspension is left undisturbed, these micro-particles, color pigments and other residues, will gradually fall towards and likely settle at the bottom of the bottle (in the punt). 

Understandably, if the bottle is left standing up, and more especially if it is an older wine/vintage, all the sedimentation will fall down at the bottom of the bottle, and as a consequence (and due to the fragility of older wines), the consistency of the color, but also the taste (of the wine of this particular bottle) will be irrevocably disturbed/changed. The color of the wine will fade gradually from the upper part of the bottle (logically being more concentrated at the bottom than the top) and the wine will taste slightly dull and unbalanced, lacking of focus in aromas and flavors.

I never repeat it enough, but it is really, really important to keep these old ladies at an horizontal position (meaning on their side, and not standing up) for the sedimentation (or the sediments if you prefer) to rest at the bottom along the side of the bottle. That way, the sediments remain in contact with most of the wine contained in the bottle allowing it to keep its color and taste consistency.

(***) Sedimentation usually occurs for most wines (yes, even whites), and more especially the wines that did not undergo any "soutirage" (racking), nor "collage" (fining) or filtration during the vinification, the aging in stainless still vats or wooden barrels and/or prior bottling.

"Le Domaine du Vin" by LeDomduVin, NYC Boutique store style, by ©LeDomduVin 2017

 5. Conclusion

In short, and for these 4 main reasons above, while shopping and browsing around for some good bottles of "JaJa" (a synonym of "wine") at your local wine boutique store (like at Heights Chateau), you should always choose the bottles laying down rather than the ones standing up.

That is also the reason why, in my honest opinion, one should always favor the recommendations and prone the quality of the eclectic choices (the wine selection) of a local wine boutique store (a "Caviste" as we say in French), rather than looking bewildered and irritated when facing the endless and usually “staff-less” aisles of a supermarket, which will (usually) offer a lot of choices, more especially in terms of low quality and prices, but will definitely lack the uniqueness and precision of the wine selection, the knowledgeable advises and the quality of the services, as well as the more intimate and personable experience a wine boutique store usually provides.(****)

Remember, that, unless the bottle standing up (that you are about to grab) is the last remaining bottle of the wine you really want in the store, and you don’t have any other choice, and you want it so badly, that, no matter what, you will take it anyway..... then, it is the bottle laying down that you would want and should take, not the one standing up

PS: in fact, leave the standing up ones for those who do not know better, don't care, don't want to listen and/or will not believe you even if you tell them anyway....


(****) Matthew La Sorsa, owner of Heights Chateau, if you ever read this article, thank you for everything you taught me about wines and how to manage a retail store and for the opportunity you gave me to be the wine director and manager of your beautiful and characteristic wine boutique store in Brooklyn Heights (NYC) back then, for nearly 4 years (between October 2007 and July 2011). Thank you. The drawing above was inspired by the façade of your store. 😊


LeDomduVin (a.k.a. Dominique Noel)

All illustrations and pictures and other materials used in LeDomduVin blog and other relative LeDomduVin sites and/or social medias/networks are subject to copyrights ©LeDomduVin

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  1. This is place is look like a big whisky and wine storage place where we can see the all type of wines and whisky. For storing the whisky and wines in such type of area and selling them to other the company always use the sustainable glass bottles for storing the beer for selling in the open market because glass bottles are really enhance the status of its company and drink.

    1. Ok... Right... Well, thank you for your comments.... :-)