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On Wine and Hurricanes

Posted by perle0 on 2006-01-19 13:07:10 (9163 views)

[The Pedestrian Wine Drinker]
(or, A Tale of Two Cellars)

How are wine and hurricanes related? Well, for openers, hurricanes are A LOT stronger. You can easily drink two glasses of wine, but drink two hurricanes, and you're in danger of passing out. Oh, you meant the storm, not the Pat O'Brien's drink?

Now, that's a different story. For LaWineClub, which is headquartered in the New Orleans area, wine and hurricanes are very much related, since we love wine and we were hit rather badly by a powerful hurricane. The trauma was so great that only now are we able to look back and take stock of how Katrina affected our wine. Of course, our first concerns were for ourselves and our friends, since we had no relatives in the strike zone to worry about. Once our friends were confirmed as okay, the next order of business was to worry about our stuff. My stuff was pretty easy to take stock of; it was in Baton Rouge, I was in Baton Rouge, and my only damage was to be without power for 5 days. It was enough to kill the contents of my fridge and my freezer, but that's a good excuse for finally throwing out those years-old jars of mint sauce and the frozen veggies that had congealed into a solid block of frost with broccoli-shaped chunks. The other main concern was for my little stash of everyday wine. I keep my good stuff, and other things I plan to share with fellow wine-lovers, in the LaWineClub climate-controlled cellar, but I keep the more ordinary stuff for regular use at home. I don't even have a wine fridge--just a rack and an air conditioner that keeps the whole place at a higher-than-ideal seventyish.

But when Katrina struck, it was clear that this system would not serve. I learned from Andrew that when a major hurricane hits Baton Rouge with any force, the power will be out for days, and it's luck of the draw how many days. For Andrew, I got power back after a mere 4 days, while others in my apartment complex went twice as long. Some friends living down a dead-end shell road in a questionable part of town were out for weeks. For Katrina, sadly, I had moved out of the Andrew apartment, which got power back the day of landfall--there is no justice. Still, everyone I knew had power restored in roughly a week, some much less.

Because Baton Rouge is too far from the coast to suffer much from anything besides a direct hit from a major storm, Katrina was totally off my radar. I woke up on Saturday fully expecting to drive down to New Orleans that afternoon to visit my wine. Last I had heard, Katrina was a weak hurricane that had swatted south Florida, and was heading back towards the Florida panhandle, hundreds of miles away. Friends called to tell me I would not be going to New Orleans, because there was a hurricane headed straight for it. I wasn't worried. Ivan had done the same, and just knocked down some tree branches. If they hadn't enacted contraflow at four in the afternoon, I would have driven down anyway, and enjoyed a last night in the city. I still kind of wish that I had managed it, even if it would have meant a slow trip back at two in the morning with several hundred thousand fellow travellers. I certainly wouldn't have thought to bring some of my wine back with me, any more than most evacuees thought to bring their valuables or supplies for more than a few days. What for? The storm would be over in a day.

As the storm approached, instead of making preparations, I was called in to work to finish a project early, in case the power was out and we weren't able to finish it later. As a result, I managed to get only a few bottles of water, a battery-powered lantern, and a tank full of gas, but wasn't able to scour the city for the now-rare and prized bags of ice. My food was on its own.

The power clicked off promptly at 6:30 a.m. on Monday morning, right about the time Katrina made landfall. I had cranked up the AC full-blast the night before, so the apartment remained pleasant for most of Monday, aided by the wind and clouds as the hurricane raged past. Around mid-morning, as the wind howled outside, I packed all of my wine into a small nylon cooler and a large cardboard box wrapped in a towel. The more important items from the fridge went into a slightly larger nylon cooler. All of these were dotted with items from the freezer--some actual cooler packs, heavily augmented by ice cream bars and frozen foods that could at least serve to keep the other items cool as they melted. My goal with the wine was not to keep it refrigerator-cool, but merely to keep it at a reasonably cool temperature as the apartment steadily got hotter.

The next day, the scope of the disaster in New Orleans began to become clear, and the battle to keep the wine cool-ish continued. Now, one of the great tragedies of hurricanes is that they tend to hit in the deepest part of summer, when the people of the south are in greatest need of their electricity. The week after Katrina, the highs were in the upper 90s, with humidity to match. The apartment got steadily warmer. A bright spot--or more accurately, a mixed blessing--was that the power came right back on at work. So while that meant that the free "vacation" was over quickly, at least we could get cool at the office while working. Even better, the icemaker in the work fridge was as prolific as ever. Each day I filled two gallon-sized baggies with ice, taking it home to replenish my drippy coolers. Eventually I gave up on most of the food in the larger cooler, and wished I'd used it exclusively for wine and a few cold beverages. A few ice cubes a day just couldn't keep up with Louisiana heat in the dead of summer.

By Wednesday, the apartment was no longer fit for human habitation. Even at night, it was a good 80 degrees inside, and opening the few windows created no air movement at all. Despite the conditions, I had a couple of evacuees and their dog enjoying the luxury of my sweltering floor for the night. I could only imagine what the wine was being subjected to during the day. Thursday, I gave up, and after dropping off my sad little baggies of ice, I went to sleep somewhere where the power had been restored already, and my evacuees sought shelter somewhere cooler.

Friday the power returned in the afternoon. You really have no idea how great electricity is until you spend a few days without it.

The wine had, I think, been spared the worst of the heat. I firmly believe that the ice and insolation, makeshift as it was for most of the wine, at least kept the wine below the 80s. Still, it probably was exposed to more heat than any wine should be, and I'll be trying to drink it before age makes the heat damage more apparent.

But what of the wine in the LaWineClub cellar?

After a few days, there was plenty of time, amidst the wondering whether the house it was stored in was flooded or not, wondering whether the owner would still be able to earn a living, wondering why the hell New Orleans was apparently being left to rot without proper help, to wonder about the wine, too. A neighbor who had stayed through the storm was able to report back that the house was, luckily, unflooded. But the power was definitely out. And if anything, it was even hotter in the New Orleans area than in Baton Rouge.

There were two things that allowed the LaWineClub cellar to survive, after a fashion.

First, it had the good fortune of being located in the Metairie suburb, not in New Orleans proper. Although residents of New Orleans had to wait a month or more before being allowed back in, the residents of Metairie were allowed to come back to check on their property exactly one week after Katrina struck. The cellar's owner rushed back in with high-powered generators, and slowly nursed the temperature back down as gradually as possible, living in the sweltering heat while devoting the precious cool air to the cellar.

Second, the LaWineClub cellar was insulated like mad, done painstakingly by hand by the homeowner. Since there are no actual cellars in south Louisiana, particularly New Orleans, due to the swampy nature of the ground, this cellar was in a separate small building behind the main house, with as much added insulation as could be added without tearing down walls. As a result, the cellar stayed cooler than it might otherwise have, and warmed up very gradually. Although the temperature did eventually rise to about 80 degrees, it took a week to get there, and probably didn't get any hotter. The wines in the cellar, though they may not age well, seem to be relatively unharmed by their week of intense heat. And after only a couple of weeks, the power in that part of Metairie was restored.

By contrast, the really rare, special wines were stored in a wine fridge inside the main house. These wines were exposed to the very same amount of environmental heat, for the same length of time. But without electricity, the wine fridge turned into a small sauna. It was hotter inside the cooler than inside the house, and that was very hot indeed. All of the wine stored in the wine fridge was completely and utterly ruined. Technology is great, but the old ways work best under old-fashioned conditions.

The moral of the story: insulate your cellar really well. Have a plan in case the electricity goes out. If a hurricane threatens, take your most prized bottles with you when you evacuate, so you can at least drink them. If you're facing a long stretch without electricity, avoid the wine fridge of doom. And most importantly, remember to drink your wine instead of hoarding it indefinitely for some future hazy event. It's no fun until you drink it, and you never know what the future may hold.

Check out a description of the LaWineClub cellar's construction, including a link to temperature and humidity graphs. The yearly graph clearly shows the spike in early September.


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