An oenophile is not safe from its scourge except in a nudist colony. The red wine stain, an inescapable consequence of the bibulous life, is a special hazard around holiday time, when liquid tends to flow freely and elbow room can be tight.
Maybe you're not too concerned. You've got Aunt Ruby's folk remedy or a commercial blotter at the ready. Problem is, most wine-stain-fighting techniques – sorry, Aunt Ruby – are about as effective as all those hangover "cures."
So, I have gone to the mountaintop and consulted the highest authorities, a wine-country dry cleaner, a chemist and a veteran household-tips guru. What they had to say enlightened me. And I'd advise skipping the rest of this column at your wardrobe's – or carpet's – peril.
"Leave it alone," said Tracey Michael at Classic Cleaners in Penticton, in the heart of the Okanagan Valley, British Columbia's premier wine region. "Take it to the dry cleaner and let them deal with it."
Self-serving, perhaps. But Michael, who receives a constant stream of merlot- and syrah-stained linens from local winery restaurants as well as pieces of wine-stained clothing every day or two, says amateur strategies tend not to work. She reserves special derision for commercial blotting products designed to fade the stain prior to laundering. "Don't ever buy a Tide to Go pen," she said, referring to the magic-marker-like blotter. "Sometimes they don't work and then it leaves marks on the clothing where the dry cleaner usually has to get them out."
Michael says she's bracing for a surge in wine-related business during Christmas holidays after the fall quiet period. "Never buy red wine," says Michael. (Easy for her; she doesn't drink the stuff anyway.) "I'd love to talk to these wineries. Quit making this s---."
Although the traditional dry-cleaning solvent, perchloroethylene, or "perc," is designed mainly for grease and tends not to work on wine, Michael and another dry cleaner I spoke with say their "wet cleaning" (a.k.a. laundering) arsenals, including professional blotting chemicals, are far superior to what you and I can accomplish at home. What are those techniques, exactly? "It's an ancient Chinese secret," Michael said. "If I told everybody, then I wouldn't be in business."
Frantic Lady Macbeth at-home stain-fighting strategies, including club soda, salt and – that bizarre old chestnut – pouring white wine over a red-wine stain, are not only ineffective but apparently can do more harm than good.
A 2001 study conducted at the University of California at Davis, the leading wine school in the United States, dispensed with the latter two, among other things. Prof. Andrew Waterhouse, a wine chemist, teamed up with Natalie Ramirez, then a high-school student on a summer internship at the university, to compare various popular home and commercial remedies on red-wine stains.
They divided the research into two sections: fabric that had been soiled just two minutes prior to treatment and dried-out fabric that had been stained for 24 hours. After each treatment – which typically involved blotting with the cleansing agent – the fabric was laundered with detergent in a home washing machine and the intensity of the residual stain was measured using a Minolta Colorimeter.
The results, which cover four different types of fabric – cotton, polyester/cotton blend, nylon and silk – are too detailed to fully summarize in this column, but suffice it to say that the two most effective treatments on most fabrics consisted of: a mixture of Dawn liquid soap with an equal volume of hydrogen peroxide (a very mild bleach, specifically the 3-per-cent formulation commonly available as a wound treatment in drug stores); and Erado-Sol, a commercial cleaning solution traditionally used to remove biological and chemical stains from lab coats. (The latter is now sold to consumers as Stain Rx, available at stainrx.com.) Spray 'n Wash (now called Resolve) finished a respectable third only on the fresh, two-minute stains.
"I think one of the reasons that the hydrogen peroxide [plus Dawn] treatment was effective was that the mixture of peroxide and detergent made sure that the peroxide got into the fabric," Waterhouse said.
Judging by the results, I'd advise passing on the salt and white-wine treatments as well as on a commercial product called Wine Out. They generally all left a worse stain after laundering. One exception: White wine worked well on nylon.
Waterhouse was quick to qualify that the study merely compared the relative effectiveness of a limited number of methods and was not designed to be the last word. That's why I telephoned Shannon Lush, an Australian home-cleaning expert with 16 household-tips books to her credit (shannonlush.com).
On most fabrics save for silk she recommends the following drill for set-in red-wine stains. Using a cloth, wipe a small amount of glycerin (available in health-food stores) on the affected area. Wait two hours, then sprinkle with sodium bicarbonate – a.k.a. baking soda – and tap the powder with your fingers till it goes grey. Wipe the powder out with a cloth that's been soaked in a small amount of white vinegar. (For silk, simply soak the section with white vinegar for 24 hours.)
Lush says the key to loosening stain particles is to alternate between alkaline and acidic solutions. "You can get away with just acid itself, but it takes more work," she said. Waterhouse concurred that the strategy makes sense chemically. "It could also cause some damage to the fabric, but that probably would work well."
In cases of old wine stains on jackets or ties, where you're unable to wash the entire garment, Lush recommends pouring white vinegar into a small jug and microwaving it till it's almost boiling. Place a bowl under the stain and pour the vinegar through the stain. Empty the bowl back into the jug and repeat till the stain vanishes.
"Everybody says throw salt on it," Lush said. "All it does is absorb the moisture and leave the pigment behind, and that's not good."
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The Flavour Principle, a new cookbook and drinks compendium by Lucy Waverman and Beppi Crosariol, is in bookstores everywhere. Published by HarperCollins.