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Botox for Wine

By Jim Clarke

One of the common frustrations of buying wine for the home is the accepted unit of purchase: the bottle. If you only want a glass to wind down with at the end of the day, opening a bottle could mean throwing away the remainder. Richer red wines can last a day or two after opening, but usually not longer, and whites often don’t make it overnight. As a college student I remember obstinately drinking wine that had pretty much been sapped of any interest simply because I couldn’t stomach the idea of having wasted most of the bottle.

No one likes to waste wine, but these days pressure to finish a bottle can become life-threatening for those of us who have to go out on the road later. Fortunately a few companies have developed some gadgetry to help you make an opened bottle live a bit longer on the shelf. Their foe is oxygen; exposure to the gas that we find essential to life is sometimes not so friendly to wine. While exposure to oxygen may bring out the wine’s aromas when you’re serving it (hence the practice of decanting young, tannic red wines), prolonged exposure mutes the wine via oxidation: in essence, your wine rusts. Recorking the wine and chilling it (red wines as well) until you next serve it helps somewhat; the process of decay is slowed at lower temperatures. But mechanical means are needed if you want to prolong an opened bottle’s lifespan for any significant length of time.

Taking it out

So how do you keep the oxygen away from your wine once you’ve pulled the cork? The Dutch company VacuVin and a few others have created pumps to vacuum out the offending oxygen. In place of the cork you put a rubber stopper on top of the bottle; then you stick the VacuVin on top of it and pump it several times (The Concerto model makes a clicking noise when a vacuum is reached; I preferred this over the basic model, as I often found that it took more pumps than I would have suspected). Critics contend that the aromas themselves are being vacuumed out along with the ambient atmosphere, and that under ordinary conditions the vacuum created is far from complete. Nonetheless, the electrical version of this product is popular in a number of restaurants.

Putting it in

Scott A. Farmer of California came up with another approach. He developed a mix of gasses (Nitrogen, Carbon Dioxide, and Argon) that you spray into the bottle. These gasses displace the oxygen in the bottle and create a protective blanket over the wine. Put the cork back in immediately and store the bottle upright. The gas mixture has no aroma of its own, so it does not corrupt the wine (In fact, this is the same mixture of gasses many wineries use in pumping their wine for bottling, etc.). Farmer’s product is called Private Preserve and, like the VacuVin, has inspired several imitators.

Put to the Test

How effective are they? Although I didn’t conduct a scientific study, I did try out both methods under war conditions at home. It took some time before I worked up the confidence to trust any of my higher-end wines to the preservers, but eventually I was using both systems with any red, white, or dessert wine that I didn’t finish in the course of an evening. Neither product is meant to be used with sparkling wines as they don’t create a pressurized environment to retain the wines' bubbles. The VacuVin was fairly effective in the short term, giving wines a few extra days of freshness. Sometimes, and especially if I left the bottle for more than a few days, there was no “pop” when I removed the rubber stopper and it was clear that air had seeped into the bottle and eliminated the vacuum, with subsequent deleterious effects. So the VacuVin didn’t really come through for me over longer periods, but did give most wines the needed few extra days of life.

Private Preserve was more versatile and effective on the whole, despite being disappointing at first. The problem was actually me. Initially I was replacing the cork about halfway, much as I would typically do to prevent potential spills. Once I began pushing the cork in a bit further – deep enough that it would require a corkscrew to remove it again – the wine-preserving gasses began to show their effectiveness. Properly used, I found Private Preserve protected a number of different wines for extended periods ranging from a few days to a couple of weeks. Mr. Farmer claims to have preserved wines for months; given deadlines and my own drinking habits I have yet to push the product to this extreme. I did, however, entrust it with a delicate fino sherry for about ten days and was pleasantly surprised to find it still retained the appley note that is usually the first casualty of opened sherry.

Normally the VacuVin would be sufficient to my needs; on the rare occasions that I have a half empty bottle, I usually return to finish the job within a day or two. However, I imagine if I developed the habit of using Private Preserve I would take advantage of it by pairing wines with courses of even casual meals at home; opening a white to go with a starter salad, a red for my burger, and a dessert wine to go with ice cream and the Daily Show wouldn’t be a wasteful indulgence. The VacuVin Concerto as is isn’t up to this task, as it comes with only two rubber stoppers. You can order more, of course, which may also become necessary if your cat, like mine, decides that they make wonderful toys and pursues it into hidden recesses of the apartment. But “ordering more” is also inherent to Private Preserve; each can is good for about 120 uses before it empties and needs to be replaced.

Private Preserve retails for about ten dollars; VacuVin runs about the same, with the Concerto model priced around twice that. Both are available at liquor stores and online. I found that chilling the wine in the fridge as an added measure paid off with both products. Finally, some wines are beyond hope once they’ve been opened; just the amount of exposure that comes from opening the wine and pouring a glass or two will push the wine toward its demise despite any efforts at preservation. In any case, Private Preserve and VacuVin certainly do provide an excuse to drink a bit more (opening that second bottle) or less, as the occasion demands, without wasting some of the experience.

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Published: August 2004