Confessions of a Wine Reviewer

(Originally published April 2001)

It's confession time, time to take a peek behind the veil and see just how a World Famous Wine Reviewer™ weaves his magic. Take care, it's not a pretty sight…

The key concept to understanding the life of Hanes may be summed up in a single word: redundancy. Allowing for the vast differences among all the winemaking regions, vintages, grape types, winemaking styles, etc., wines still pretty much end up tasting the same. This is the sordid truth behind all the flowery prose of the wine reviewer. And it is only truer the greater the amount of wines one tries. Lines blur, what once seemed unique and inimitable descends into a homogenous mass. Sure, during rare swilling moments, a sailfish breaks the ocean's surface or a butterfly alights from the air, bringing a new sensation into this gray world. But for the most part, the cold law of diminishing returns rules the roost.

Thus, to see each wine anew so that it "feels like the first time" remains the wine reviewer's greatest challenge. And a challenge to any reader of said wine reviews. As loyal sycophantic readers of The Hanes Wine Review, you desire to suck the marrow from each single review, teasing out secondary meanings and double entendres. At the same time, once in awhile you actually need to get some useful information to help with a real wine purchase (the horror!). For Hanes to help you achieve the former, he must stretch his literary powers to the max, employing juxtapositions, metaphor, analogy and references to fetish wear. To achieve the latter, he must employ a narrower set of descriptors that allow for easy comparison among wines. Alas, these directives may run at cross-purposes.

Say, for instance, that Hanes samples a Côtes-du-Rhône that costs around $12. This can turn out to be a nice everyday wine or it could be stinko - there's a wealth of these wines out there and they cover the full qualitative range. First, one should step back and see the wine in broader context. Most likely, this one wine was tasted among many others, each wine given a certain time window to strut its stuff (not every bottle is allowed to languidly unfold during the course of an evening). It may be the case that in that window of time sensory and literary genius strikes. Yeah, but it may not. The latter results in a fairly straightforward tasting note. This in and of itself is no crime (and is probably appreciated by many). The problem is that if you read enough of these tasting notes and have not as of yet developed your own palate and sense of which wines you enjoy, it's hard to read between the lines. Thus, the notes will all read similarly, lessening the benefit of the tasting notes during "the buy." Viewing this homogeneity as a necessary evil, what does Hanes choose to note when tasting a wine?

With luck and a modicum of sobriety, Hanes attempts to capture the following. If the color or nose stand out in any way, Hanes tries to note this. If they do not, Hanes does not note this. Please note this. What fruit flavors appear? Are they lighter or darker in nature? Do they persist well? Arguably, fruit flavors are/should be the primary flavors in a wine so even though this is an area of great redundancy from tasting note to tasting note it is essential to note these flavors. For most good folks, the next most important element is to capture the level of tannins and/or acidity in a wine. Imbibers scantly agree on the proper level of tannins and acidity, so leaving this out results inevitably in many unhappy readers. These elements are also a major sign of a wine's ageability and must be noted for the collectors among us.

Next comes the vast swirl of other flavors which surround and nuance the fruit core. For white wines these include the level of smokiness or mineral/stone flavors that often appear, or spices such as anise or cinnamon. For red wines one may find herbaceous flavors reminiscent of leaves or hay or grass. Flavors of menthol, black pepper, roasted meat, chocolate, or pine flavors also may appear and deserve note. Capturing all of these additional flavors remains the wine reviewer's greatest challenge. Many such flavors are fleeting or difficult to discern. Moreover, they remain the most idiosyncratic part of tasting and one person can swear up and down that she is sensing “garrigues” in a wine while no one else picks it up. We all try our best and Hanes humbly confesses that there are many times these elements elude his sensory grasp, even as the wine itself careens downward through his intestinal tract.

Beyond even all this, one may venture to say that the paramount element of a wine that the wine reviewer must comment upon is the presence of oak-inspired flavors from aging the wine in barrels/barriques. As with tannins and acidity, this separates wine lovers into opposing camps quicker than debating the relative merits of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera. Treatment in oak imparts a creamy mouth texture to wines, in tandem with vanilla, coconut or buttered toast flavors. Many drinkers believe these flavors are actually in the grapes themselves and are astonished when they drink unoaked wines. Probably the easiest way to make yourself sound intelligent and experienced around wine geeks is to say you hate overly oaked wines. Hanes feels this is a cheap shortcut to wine sophistication and that oak is useful, if not necessary, in many wines. Be that as it may, and while it adds to the level of redundancy from note to note, the presence or absence of oak treatment in a wine must be noted in any fully complete tasting note fit for public consumption (burp!).

General descriptors such as hot, fruit bomb, long finish, backbone, tongue weight, sweet/dry, yadda, yadda all factor in at certain points. For readers of tasting notes, the key with these descriptors, as with any of the above, is to try to align these flavors or aspects with some wines you know you love or hate and use the redundancy to best advantage. A good wine reviewer strives to embody a consistent palate to her reader so that, whether or not one agrees with her assessments, you can calibrate to those assessments and make an informed purchase (e.g., if you know that Wine Reviewer X loves oaky fruit bombs and you hate them, a 95 point score from her may indicate you should avoid that wine, even taking into account the high score). So, although boring at times, redundancy in tasting notes has its merits.

Thankfully, Hanes is a lazy slug and we can count on there being enough redundancy in his musings to guide us consistently and thoroughly in future purchases of bottled delight!