Drinking a Lot of Wine

(Originally published July 2002)

Hanes always tries his best to achieve twin directives: first, to get drunk as often as possible; second, to shape these moments of self-negation into a vaguely coherent format as wine tasting notes for consumption by hordes of wine lovers near and far. To reach these lofty goals, he frequently takes earnest oaths, swearing with steely determination to explore the wines of certain regions or revisit other wine regions he has somehow lamentably neglected over time. All this begs a question:

How much freaking wine can one person drink?

While there are some lunatics out there who taste more wine than Hanes in any given month, for the most part the majority of people get weirded out by how much wine Hanes tastes. Do not think it is easy, either in terms of time commitment or financial cost. Drinking wine takes up the bulk of Hanes's free time. He scribbles notes at home, in wine stores, on dates, at weddings, on the subway, at the hardware store...

Yet, despite all this Hanes is always glum as he compiles his notes for his monthly review. He notes bottles laying around that didn't get swilled in time and must wait for next month's review. Some bottles get ignored for a few months in a row, shaming Hanes to the point where he cannot even look it straight in the capsule with a clear conscience.

He laments the pledges that have gone unfulfilled -- has he actually risen to the challenge of any of these promises? This past December he went on at length about his hibernating love for Spanish wines. How many has he chugged subsequently? In January he made a whole slew of cheesy New Year's resolutions, including drinking more South African wine, more red Austrian wines, more red Loire wines and trying to find an Uruguayan wine to sample. Have these been achieved? In March he exhorted the world (Hanes includes himself as an entity in said world, although in his more Spinozistic moments he equates himself fully with the universe) to imbibe more dessert wines. Have these sweet nectars graced his throat in greater numbers? In May he lauded the fine qualities of rosé wines. Yet has he had a single one this past month? And last month, in June, he valorized the mighty white wines of Bordeaux. See many reviewed this month? Never mind other nagging failings to drink more Italian white wine, Australian Riesling, Washington State Cabernet, Chenin Blanc from Vouvray, New Zealand Pinot Noir, and so on and so forth.

How could such a horrible fate have come to pass? What envious and mercurial gods have blown Hanes's ship off course? If only the answer was so simple as a spiteful deity. Hanes would then just sacrifice a goat and go get drunk on Zweigelt or something. Despite having been earnest and true in his resolve, Hanes seemingly has bumped up against his arch-nemesis. That's right, human finitude. Hanes's five-year old journey to learn about wine has covered many miles and he has been quite lucky to taste as many wines as he has. In such a short time, he has gone from baffled neophyte to World Famous Wine Reviewer! Or something like that. Anyway, curiously, the more he has learned the more he feels he is falling behind. At the journey's beginning Hanes did not fret about not tasting enough Zweigelt because he didn't know it even existed. Now, the knowledge weighs heavily upon him. Even now, having sampled wines from virtually every major wine region in the world, so much slips through the cracks. The clock keeps ticking faster than Hanes be sipping.

For example, the 1999 vintage in Austria was heralded as incredible, demanding that one attempt to try as many of these killer wines as possible. Naturally, Hanes turned his focus there. But, wait, here's the killer 1999 vintage in the Northern Rhône! Damn, time to stop tasting those excellent 1998 Southern Rhône and 1998 Australian wines (even as new wines from these vintages/regions continue to be released or sold-out stock replenished). Gotta get to the best of the 1999s! Did Hanes get to try a lot of these 1999s? Assuredly so, let the record speak. Yet, in doing so he had to pass on exploring more of Argentina or Portugal or Oregon. Even by conniving other wine lovers into holding large group tastings to increase one's exposure, there it is. Human finitude. Despite settling many times for only a glass's worth of a wine in order to keep moving forward and try more, hand cramps and the eventual need to sleep undermine Hanes relentlessly. And look what's arrived! It's the stellar 2000 Chablis wines and soon the kickass 2000 Bordeaux...

This naturally raises the question of when the relentless pace becomes more like "work" and less like "fun." It is not unusual to keep chasing the best current vintage from around the world. Who don't want to taste the best? One also wants to explore unknown regions, regardless of vintage. How is one to learn what one likes best unless one takes such a plunge? Hanes has come to see that learning about wine pulls one in two different directions at once. On the one hand, when a great vintage in a particular region comes along, one wants to sample as many as one can, driving one's knowledge deeper into what makes that region tick and excel. On the other hand, if one is to gain insight into how various grapes and regions differ, one needs to be a wine slut and move from bed to bed, driving one's knowledge in a broader manner, forming comparisons and contrasts as one goes. These two directions obviously work many times at cross-purposes.

How may one resolve this tension? Hanes knows of many wine lovers who push through this process quickly and then more or less seize upon a particular region, to the exclusion of almost all others. For example, a gent named Allen Meadows has made it his life's ambition to sample and report on nothing but wines from Burgundy, France (www.burghound.com). Now, Burgundy is such a complex region with so many different winemakers and sub-regions that there is a lifetime's worth of complexity and learning right there (hell, more than a lifetime's worth). Surely a dude like Meadows knows more about a region like Burgundy than 99.9999999% of humanity. But when was the last time he had an Australian Shiraz? A Californian Zinfandel? Probably a long time. Despite having narrowed his focus so greatly, Meadows is still constrained by that same damnable human finitude. There's no way he tries all the wines Burgundy produces every year, probably only covers a mere fraction of the total output. What tortures his soul more? That he didn't taste a certain producer's Meursault-Charmes in a given year or that he hasn't had a good German Riesling in like a decade?

Hanes reflects on individuals like this when pondering questions such as how much wine one person can reasonably drink. Would he feel like he accomplished more, had achieved a greater clarity of purpose in life, if he settled on, say, the wines of Ribera del Duero and drank nothing but these wines for the next 20 years? Surely he would be The Man when it came to advice on these wines. But at what price? To forget the pleasure of a great Hermitage?

Conversely, one can keep flitting about like a dragonfly, barely touching down on the water's surface before taking off for yet another spot. One may thus forego truly deep understanding of what makes an Echezeaux an Echezeaux but one can in turn reasonably expect with time a firm grip on what generally makes a wine successful, regardless of place of origin. There will always remain certain benchmarks that elude someone on this path ("What? You've never had a Haut-Brion?") and you'll be less likely to be able to pick out a wine blindly (e.g., if you've only had the chance to sample three Shiraz wines from Victoria in Australia it's unlikely that you'll blindly differentiate it from a Shiraz from either Barossa Valley or Clare Valley). While the power of deep recognition may elude you, on this path you'll still have the thrill of the chase.

After five years of playing the game, Hanes himself is still in a hybrid state. Reviewing recent past editions, there is no doubt that a growing percentage of the wines reviewed come from France, and within France from the Rhône and Loire Valleys. There is less South American wine and more Austrian wine. Is this a permanent trend or is Hanes temporarily diving deep into certain regions to see what the depths give up? As with most things, it's a bit of both. It is highly unlikely that you'll see a Hanes Wine Review that is 50% South American wines. He remains a wine slut with a short enough attention span that it is comfortable to predict that he will always at least partially chase the latest and greatest thing. Such is his nature. Moreover, he feels a debt to his loyal readership, to cast the net widely enough that in any given review there will something for everyone to enjoy, whatever their palate may be. Yes, Hanes can be so selfless...

So, how much wine can Hanes drink? Not as much as he wants to. But more than he should. Will he ever fulfill his vows? In part, yes, but not before another newer vow leads him astray. Will this situation ever change? Not in this lifetime.