What Is This Guy Trying to Prove?

(Originally published September 2003)

Hanes isn't as dumb as you think he is.

He knows it can be so boring and redundant to review wines that sometimes you need a drink. Anyone who thinks this job is easy should walk a mile in Hanes's shoes. Not another -- shudder! -- Côtes-du-Rhône! Praise Allah for the opportunity to taste Californian Chardonnay #2,983 on this bountiful mortal coil! It is no easy task to provide entertaining and captivating reading all the way through the 27+ printed pages The Hanes Wine Review usually turns out to be. But Hanes perseveres. Why?

Hanes's readers are renowned for their slavish devotion to his wine recommendations, letting his vast wisdom guide their purchases unerringly while bludgeoning wine retailers or restaurateurs who dare to stock their shelves with wines Hanes did not enjoy. While mighty are his legions, Hanes's leadership is not always transparently clear. During this past January's monthly rant, Hanes discussed in overview how The Hanes Wine Review came to be and why he writes it. He will now dig a bit deeper to reveal some mysteries in his tasting notes and also address other sundry points of contention and/or confusion.

Probably the most popular question is: Why does Hanes refer to himself in the third person, i.e., as "Hanes." Although he has had two other last names in his life, everyone calls Hanes Hanes. Most girlfriends have called Hanes Hanes. Hanes's mother does not call Hanes Hanes. But she often states proudly that during her hard drinking days back in the garment district all the men there called her "Hanes." Go figure.

But the best reason to go by Hanes is that it's annoying and pompous! Why, just, just like… Hanes! OK, the real reason is that Hanes cannot remember his first name.

After that question, there's the oddball status of many of the wines reviewed (perspective taken from that of a "normal" person, not a bona fide wine geek). Where does Hanes find all these obscure wines?

Well… This is a source of some consternation for Hanes. On the one hand he drinks what he himself hopes will prove personally interesting and compelling wine. On the other hand, as a disseminator of useful information to others it makes sense to offer counsel regarding wines not entirely impossible to find. For better or worse, the first hand wins out most of the time -- so get used to liking Mourvèdre! Whether it's a popular and well known grape made in only a 60 case amount or an obscure grape made in 6,000 cases, Hanes tries to find the best for his gullet and your edification. That's why you pay him the big bucks! So, yeah, a lot of the wines reviewed are unfamiliar and difficult to locate. But it's worth the effort to try, Hanes cannot underscore this enough. And, you never know, asking a competent retailer for these wines may earn you respect even if they don't carry them and as a result lead to good recommendations on wines they do have in stock.

If there's a wine you are looking for and can't find, try these two websites as they may help you find a local retailer or one that will ship the desired item(s) to you: www.winesearcher.com and www.wineaccess.com

Then there are questions about the big "winners" and "losers" of the month section. Initially, its raison d'être was pretty straightforward, to highlight a few of the wines that, expectedly or unexpectedly, rocked the rock or alternatively stunk up the joint. Slowly it mutated to include both wines with maybe lesser point scores yet still very good value and those that received pretty high final scores yet still disappointed by not scaling the heights they should have. The section mutated further to include other "wines of note" such as first wines sampled from a particular region or grape or passing glosses on some vintage in some region or such. The latter chromosomal change probably happened for no other reason than there's nowhere else to put this damn stuff!

The biggest question -- at least to Hanes -- is what will he "rant" about in the beginning piece, before the tasting notes? This is no easy thing to decide and as more time passes and topics get discussed, it becomes only harder to find fresh material that isn't so esoteric and maintains some vague utility to the reader. Some months Hanes suffers even more malaise than others and the thought of researching a topic results in opening bottle #2 that quiet evening alone at home. On the whole, Hanes likes to mix it up. Sometimes write about a grape, sometimes a wine region, sometimes an aspect of wine appreciation, sometimes something simply rambling (guess what he decided this month?). In the end, as the years slide by, he only hopes that every topic of merit gets its 15 minutes of fame. He is always open to suggestions...

On a somewhat related note, people ask Hanes, "Hanes, when are you going to get a website?" Hanes replies with "When are you going to stop mooching wine off of Hanes?" Then he goes on to note that he has the URL registered and friends willing to host the site for free. He just doesn't have the damn time to work on getting the content online! Sometimes this shortcoming vexes Hanes so much that he is forced to open bottle #3 during that quiet evening alone at home. He's got four years of semi-valuable articles and a tasting note database of over 4,500 notes. With a little design help and a month off from his day job it would be no problem to get it all online. 2004 is looking really good for this project. Hah!

Since the beginning of 2003 Hanes has tracked the prices of the wines reviewed in a section loosely considered a "hypocrisy watch." Why? Because Hanes has since time immemorial unsuccessfully attempted to curb his wine buying disease, each month falling prey to yet more tempting bottles of fermented grape juice. By breaking the wines reviewed down into four price categories and tracking them Hanes hoped to shame himself into facing up to his hypocritical lack of resolve. Of course, the fly in the ointment is that Hanes has no shame. So, instead, this price tracking serves the useful purpose of letting readers know if the wines being reviewed fall more or less into ranges in which they might consider spending their moolah. Other professional reviewers don't provide this data so one never really knows if one's needs are truly being catered to. With Hanes, its all viscerally available.

So much for the "meta-level" perplexities. There's certainly enough nervous tics in the tasting notes proper to discuss!

Seriously, a lot of wine tastes awfully alike. Tasting notes for a J. Lohr Chardonnay and a St. Francis Chardonnay are never going to diverge too greatly. Granting this unavoidable aspect of the reviewing process, how can Hanes maintain both his and his reader's ongoing attention?

One important way is to try and capture not only the more "objective" elements of the wine but more so how the wine "feels" to Hanes. This (and his wacky sense of humor) is why you get tasting notes along the lines of "seems like a linebacker trapped in a gorilla suit three sizes too small." While this may not be clinically dispassionate, with luck and some elbow grease maybe it conveys some of the experience of the wine. Hanes kids himself that this is one way he differentiates himself in the marketplace from those other second rate wine reviewers. If none of these descriptions make sense, even after having tried the wine in question, maybe it is time to adjust Hanes's medication yet again.

Then, there is the actual technical parts of the tasting notes. Broken down into three basic categories of color, smell and taste, Hanes presents the information in that order. BORING! But is there a better way? So far, Hanes has not found one that will remain accurate to the logical order of experiencing the wine. Just as stultifying is starting the taste category by noting the body weight (light, medium, full) -- this is lame-o in a major way and gives Hanes the old narcoleptic blues every time. But again, what's the alternative? Especially when Hanes is at a distributor portfolio tasting or wine dinner with 15 wines to consume in two hours. You gotta crank the notes out! But don't think Hanes is unaware that this necessary evil exists.

Synonyms. A wine may feel very smooth in the mouth. In a given month Hanes may drink many smooth wines. But no one wants to read that all 115 wines are "smooth." So he goes with synonyms for variety's sake if nothing else. Streamlined. Flowing. Satiny. Silky. Seamless. Yet, even whipping out the thesaurus on occasion, there's a limit. So, all apologies for beating certain words to death but that's linguistic finitude for you.

A question that plagues Hanes is this. When describing a wine's color, is it more accurately "rim" or "rims"? Someone may argue that it is one glass and one liquid being analyzed at the given point and time. Hence, it should be the singular "rim." But there is something about gazing at a wine and soaking in the hues and contrasts that makes the colors seem more plural in nature. As a result, when Hanes writes "Cloudy violet core, mostly opaque with broad and heavy red ruby rims," he really feels like it isn't a discrete, solid rim but a shimmering mélange of hues, either concentric or subtly blended. Fancy pants, that Hanes is.

Of course, there are real idiosyncratic tics. Like what's up with using the word "nostrils" in a tasting note? Isn't that kind of gross? A note from last month offers the following: "The nose strives to have cut but the eucalyptus, mint, clove, ginger scents only lead to extracted, jammy cherry, blackberry, boysenberry fruit, crushes itself into your nostrils." Doesn't end on an elegant note, now does it? But what's better? "Nasal cavity"? "Air passage"? "Proboscis"? "Olfactory organ"? Ugly though it be, Hanes is stuck with nostrils.

Hanes's fascination with the descriptor "grassy" has been pointed out almost ad nauseum to him. Grassiness in this wine, grassiness in that wine. Are there any wines Hanes cannot find to be grassy? OK, the answer is no! No, dammit! EVERY wine tastes grassy. So there.

A tic that annoys Hanes is his penchant for opposition. Every descriptor has a qualifier, separated by a "but" or "yet" -- shit like "builds strongly but imperceptibly." If Hanes did a word count, "but" probably appears the most. This irritates because it makes Hanes appear to be forever waffling, like he can't make up his mind. Although it would be sexier to say Hanes merely recognizes the subtle nuances of each wine's elusively shimmering essence, the former probably isn't too far off. To find one element dominant and say so in the face of strong alternative candidates takes moxie and Hanes remains on the road to such cocksure confidence.

In a very related vein, Hanes also shows no guts with the further employment of qualifiers. His tasting notes are rife with cowardly words such as slightly, mildly, lightly, etc. As if he can't muster the courage to say the wine is this or that, instead hedging behind the cloak of a "somewhat." Like the high school football coach says -- "be aggressive!"

Not far off from this is Hanes's employment of words that are supposed to indicate the presence of an embellishing element. Now, certainly not everything is going to be all in your face and overpowering. But how many times can someone read words like accent, tone, shade, hint, nuance, touch or edge before getting suspicious that the author is just feebly dithering about? If it tastes like leather and peat moss, SAY it tastes like that! Fer crissakes, Hanes, show more spine than a Californian Merlot!

Lest you think Hanes suffers from the low self esteem of the bookish weakling (yeah, right!), another tic to ponder is his usage of intensifiers. While descriptively accurate, how many times must one's eyes pass over "very" or "quite" or "extremely" before wishing Hanes had the literary flair to find some new way to express a superlative? It would seem many times.

These are the confessions of a World Famous Wine Reviewer. Hanes feels your pain, your ennui, and he wants to beg your forgiveness as he continues to hone his craft over the years. Be assured, he notices his shortcomings and will address them as he can. Thankfully, there are many more bottles on which Hanes may practice, practice, practice...