Wine Review Lemmings

(Originally published January 2000)

This month's rant will focus on the "lemmings" effect, one to which Hanes himself is not immune. We will focus on one particular phenomenon, the effects of the positive review in the November 15, 1999 issue of Wine Spectator Magazine on the 1996 California Cinq Cépages Cabernet Sauvignon from Chateau St. Jean. Wine Spectator raved about this wine, awarding it a score of 95 points and running a page length article advising readers to "stockpile" this wine. This is all fine and dandy. However, the problem is that such a high score usually is awarded to "boutique" wines such as crafted by Bryant Family or Screaming Eagle that are small production, impossible to find, and exist only virtually for most wine lovers. The Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cépages is more of a mass product with 11,300 cases made. The article says the suggested retail price should be around $28.

Well, let us all join together and boo Wine Spectator! Upon this rave review, the winery pushed back the release date to February and will be raising the release price astronomically. What was a great relative bargain will not be so. Last year Hanes bought the 1995 Cinq Cépages for $27 and this year the price will be at least double that. Every wine store in creation has been inundated with requests for this wine. Here is a direct quote from a wine store's (Garnet's) e-mail mass distribution:

"In the case of Cinq Cépages, the wine was held back in the supply chain after a generous review from the Wine Spectator. The price is rumored to be at least double what it has been in previous vintages and the wine is now being allocated. This comes after years of being able to buy as much as we wanted. It may not show up, further, until as late as March, after a release scheduled for late fall.

We've been bombarded by e-mail over this wine. Please hold e-mail on this.

It's a shame we have to issue notices like this and that passing reviews -- whether they're accurate, inaccurate, or glancingly reminiscent of the wine reviewed -- can have such a dramatic effect from time to time on availability. But that's the reality in the American market right now. Maybe we should all resolve to cultivate independent sources of wine inspiration in the new year? To resist stampedes for overpriced wines? To do more wide-ranging sampling in search of things that bring us personal pleasure that might not make the front pages of magazines and thus be available for fair prices?

Not to say we don't understand the urge to try the latest hot product -- we do indeed. But one beauty of wine is that there's always something else out there you haven't tried and haven't heard of that's fantastic."

Well, hallelujah! Couldn't have said it better myself (so Hanes didn't). The wine store where Hanes works may be allocated about 2-3 cases and most likely will not be able to purchase more for any price. Most of what we do get will go directly to the store's best customers. So, the average customer (you!) ain't gonna get jack. Hell, Hanes may not get any and he works there! What we collectively have to admit and fess up to is that a review from a source like Wine Spectator would not have this effect if we collectively did not place such a high emphasis on their reviews. In the final analysis, we are to blame for this insane phenomenon. You can't really blame Chateau St. Jean too much -- after all, they are a for-profit entity. And wholesalers and retailers will take their cut. But, we the ultimate consumers, fetishize too many limited reviews and perpetuate this madness.

Hanes fully understands that in a vacuum of knowledge, any guidance is of great value. If you walk into a store and they have 24 California Zinfandels it helps that you read that Wine Spectator liked five of them. And that they didn't like three of them. However, this still leaves 16 left over, unreviewed. And this is the majority! The point is that any reviewing source, whether it be a large magazine like Wine Spectator, professional independents like Robert Parker or Stephen Tanzer, or penny ante losers like myself only cover a mere fraction of the wine that is out there. They often try to pre-select what they believe will be the best, but this process is horribly flawed and most likely simply becomes self-fulfilling. That is, the wines they review become the best because they gain recognition through being reviewed.

Please, please, please let's commit to using wine reviews as rough and ready guides and not The Final Word on anything. At least 50% of the wines you buy in a given month should be things you've never heard of. You'll have much more success this way (trust me, has Hanes ever let you down?). There is so much good juice out there unreviewed it's a crime. Being unreviewed does not mean the wine must be insignificant and suck (though this will happen!). Hanes subscribes to Parker and Tanzer and when Hanes notes their (and Spectator's) ratings in my wine database, the vast majority of the time they never reviewed the wine in question.

Now, to be entirely hypocritical, if anyone is interested in checking out hoity-toity independent wine reviews, both Robert Parker and Stephen Tanzer do decent bi-monthly printed reviews. Parker's costs $60 per year and his number is 410-329-6477. Tanzer's costs $70 per year and his number is 800-wine-505. Again, these are great purchasing aids but should never be considered the final word on quality. For better or worse, that's your job...