Hanes's Holiday Wish List

(Originally published December 2003/January 2004)

Who says The Hanes Wine Review isn't interactive?! It's time for YOU to make the call...

Do we want to call this the "Mega Year End Edition"? Or do we want to call it the "Lazy, Overworked, Should Have Had It Out Three Weeks Ago Edition"?

Votes will be tallied and presented in the next edition (whenever the hell that is)...

While you kind voters decide, Hanes hopes to entertain his readers with his "holiday wish list" — may good fortune and common sense bring if but a few of these wishes to fruition!

May both wine producers and end-consumers embrace some form of alternative bottle closure to regular cork. The way Hanes sees it, there's two basic issues with alternate bottle closures and most everyone involved with the world of wine, from the grower or winery to the lovely couple at home or in a restaurant savoring the winemaker's fine efforts shares in the guilt. The first issue is aesthetic, the argument going that synthetic corks or, even worse, screwtops, ruin part of the romance of opening and presenting a bottle of wine. These alternative closures look cheap and detract from the time-honored traditions associated with the consumption of high-end wine. Most of these complaints come from consumers, the folks who finally plunk down the cash before draining the fermented grape juice out of the bottle. Naturally, Hanes says — get over it! Hey, in Greece they used clay to hold the wine and no one is clamoring to bring back amphorae, are they? Few wax rhapsodically over the good old days when wine was aged in cement vats, right? Any rational person must accept that traditions change and what is or is not even considered a "tradition" is quite relative to the time scale one applies to the question at hand. Do people get bent out of shape if a Riesling gets bottled in a Bordeaux-shaped bottle? Alright, some of you do. Now, scram. The point is that cork taint effects roughly 5-8% (if not more) of all wines bottled with regular cork closures. And we should want to do all we can to avoid the musty, old newspaper or cardboard scents associated with cork taint which always ruin the romantic enjoyment of the wine, period.

If wiser heads prevail and the aesthetic arguments against alternative closures fail to inspire, there remains another paramount issue. Namely, aging wines. Most alternative closures are still so new that there is no even semi-conclusive data regarding how wine ages in bottles closed with synthetic corks or screwtops. Cork allows miniscule amounts of oxygen into the bottle over years or decades and this contributes mightily to how a wine will age and develop desired secondary characteristics. If alternative closures are too perfect and do not very closely replicate the behavior of natural cork, the aging process will be retarded or perhaps even nonexistent. No one wants to open a 20 year old bottle of Bordeaux and have it taste like the day it was bottled, this defeats the purpose of aging wine. But no one wants to open a 20 year old bottle of Bordeaux after so many years of anticipation and find out the bottled is "corked" by cork taint either. Sadly, there are no shortcuts here and only decades of experimentation will get this down right. It may be too late for us but think of the children! They have the chance to grow up in a world free of cork taint and enjoy well-aged claret! When this happens history will, as Hegel predicted, finally end.

While on the topic of bottles and all that nonsense, here's another Hanes holiday wish! More half bottles! There are so many wine lovers out there who can't seem to get it through their soggy heads that wine already comes in the perfect single-serving size of 750 milliliters. But in the holiday spirit we shouldn't cuff these numbskulls about their ears. Rather, we should exhort wineries to put more of their product in 375 milliliter half bottles so that these fine teetotalers can sip their Merlot or Greco di Tufo without feeling they are wasting wine they can't consume. Beyond a doubt there are increased costs involved with producing and distributing more half bottles rather than full bottles but the good will and market share wineries will gain can be realistically expected to offset a lot of these expenses. In Hanes's experience in retail and as a consumer it's mainly pedestrian, large production wines that come in half bottles. While this is a start, it's time for smaller outfits to leap into the fray and experiment. It can't possibly be that difficult to do -- and, hey, you have Hanes on your side! What else do you need? Incidentally, a FOH (Friend of Hanes) recently opened a wine bar in Brooklyn that serves nothing but half bottles (hi Patty!) so at least you know you can sell these guys what's left over from your production of 375 ml bottles...

More on bottles! It's no new complaint but — message to wineries! — enough with the odd-sized, 50 pound bottles slathered in wax! Winemakers, stop listening to some fancy pants marketer with an MBA and just put the product in a regular bottle that won't easily break or impair proper aging. Trust that the product inside the bottle will differentiate yourself in the marketplace and not the shape or weight of the glass. Or put more money and effort into label design! This insidious problem is most prevalent with domestic wines, not a surprise given the American attitude that bigger must always be better (and stop buying gas guzzling SUVs too!). Believe it or not, a major factor in Hanes dropping off some Californian winery mailing lists was that the bottles were too heavy and they practically doubled the shipping costs to get the stuff to New York. Hanes is no 98 pound weakling but when he has to stop and rest every other block when carrying a case of wine home, you know the bottles are too heavy. Just to be fair, you consumers are to blame some too. If you let fancy packaging or capsules sealed in wax get you off (and try getting that wax off!), you're part of the problem and not the solution. Open the bottle, pour the wine into a decanter and throw the damn bottle out the window. Maybe providence will smile and a winemaker will be just then walking by your apartment building...

That's a nice segue into Hanes's next wish. When will common sense, decency and The American Way finally allow for direct winery-to-consumer shipping in all 50 states? Right now, shipping is only allowed among 26 states, with varying levels of access. In all other cases, wine must travel along the "three tiers" of winery-to-wholesaler-to-retailer before the consumer can make the purchase. Hanes won't go into all the pro and con arguments (you can find them at www.freethegrapes.org among other resources), but suffice it to say that most arguments proffered by the evil Wine & Spirit Wholesalers of America are bogus at best and intellectually insulting at worst. The universe won't end, industries won't be eviscerated and hordes of children won't get drunk on wine purchased on the internet if direct shipping is allowed. Very, very few people have the foresight or energy to order wines days or weeks in advance of consumption. Hanes suspects that the vast majority of wine purchases are made for consumption (or gift giving, etc.) within 24-48 hours, making direct shipping a very poor way to go. Thus, the three tier system will remain vital, necessary and profitable for all interested parties should direct shipping become a reality. If you've got a cogent argument against direct shipping, send it Hanes's way, he'd love to hear it.

Here's another easy transition to the next wish. When will New York City consumers ever see meaningful sales in retail stores? Daily, Hanes receives emails and mailed catalogs from retailers across the land offering Hanes sweet deals he has never seen in NYC. Closeouts, one-day sales, annual sales, pick your poison — you can get them in Chicago, Seattle, Los Angeles, San Francisco or Chapel Hill. New York City? Fugeddaboutit. Sure, some NYC stores have better prices than others. And some stores have the odd sale now and then. But 10% off of NYC prices rarely beats prices Hanes can find elsewhere, even when factoring in shipping. It has reached the point where Hanes probably buys 2/3 of his wine from sources beyond NYC. That's sad. But he's not alone and the number of likeminded consumers is only bound to grow.

Hanes's attitude towards NYC retail stores may be about to be tested. With the arrival of two proposed mega-wine stores run by out-of-town outfits, we shall see if their non-NYC retail prices and sales really translate into the Manhattan skyline. Why is it that Hanes doubts these new places will provide prices any better than the extant competition? Hmmm... In any event, the only thing that could stop Hanes from buying most of his wine from retailers far away from NYC would be if they charged taxes! Adding the cost of taxes to shipping (for those damn heavy bottles) would most likely eliminate the cost savings of buying from afar. As a result, Hanes would only buy stuff he couldn't find locally and just had to try. Let's hope this doesn't happen. (And if it does, say goodbye to your Amazon.com stock too...)

The next holiday wish is also price related. Hanes wishes for more restaurants to allow "BYO" ("bring your own") with either low or no corkage. OK, this is actually two wishes rolled up into one. Yes, Hanes wants the option to bring his own wine to restaurants for no fee or a low "corkage" fee (for example, $5 per bottle or $10 per person regardless of number of bottles opened). This is a mostly selfish wish, since NYC restaurants usually markup their wine 300% of what they paid for it. (It's good work if you can get it!) And most of the time Hanes would bring a better wine than what's being offered by the restaurant.

But it's the second part of the wish that isn't that selfish and redeems the first half! Hanes wishes that restaurants would finally stop utilizing a financial model wherein the lion's share of the profit comes from selling alcohol and not the food. This practice is really retrograde and Hanes has yet to hear a compelling defense of it. It ends up "punishing" many people along the way. People who do not drink pay less on the whole, since their meal is subsidized by the huge margin other patrons are paying on the booze. But they often lose because the wait staff knows that their tip is based on the total amount of the bill and a bill without booze on it, why, that's no bill at all! And no tip at all. As a result, service may suffer quite a bit. (Alas, if these abstainers were drunk maybe they wouldn't even notice.)

Conversely, those who do drink are knowingly subsidizing the meals of those who don't drink. Why should Hanes care if you want to breed and can't drink? Hah! Recovering alcoholic or on medication? Stay home! What Hanes would fervently like to see is restaurants equalizing the relative prices of the food and the alcohol. Charge more for the steaks frites or roasted salmon in wasabi glaze and less for the Chianti or Sam Adams. Just don't create two different "classes" of customers, those who drink and those who don't. That's unfair to everyone. The level of additional service needed and ancillary costs associated with serving alcoholic beverages is a strawman argument. There's no excuse for this disparity in markup between food and booze. But we let restaurateurs get away with it everyday. Rise up against every corner bistro and usher in a new age!

OK, while Hanes is busting on restaurants, why not really pile on? It's a pet peeve that can't be levied against all restaurants but for those who count, Hanes wishes away. Please, mighty sommelier, do not put wines on the wine list that are too young to drink! Too often Hanes is handed the wine list in some swank hash house and the names of the wines get Hanes all salivating and howling at the moon. Then he notices the vintages and realizes that he should have called them last night to start decanting the wine, if even that would help it unwind. If a restaurant truly respects the wines they serve and isn't just listing trophies for dumbass investment bankers to buy, they should ensure that the wines are ready to drink before being offered to their customers.

Beyond a shadow of a doubt, this is a costly request. We aren't talking about a quaffing Chardonnay or humble Côtes-du-Rhône, wines meant for early consumption. We are talking about wines that only come into themselves over an extended period of time, counted in years and not weeks or months. The restaurant would then have to incur the storage costs or choose to purchase already mature wine. This cost ain't small potatoes. Storing cases of wine for years in a proper temperature-controlled environment will add a pretty penny to the cost of the wine when it is finally added to the wine list. Taking all this into account, Hanes still feels that both the restaurant and the customer should be willing and happy to accept these added costs because the wine will truly be all it can be and, as importantly, will enhance the meal in ways it could not have in its youth. If fine dining is the end goal for both parties, this is a no-brainer. Otherwise, don't blame customers who know better and want to bring their own wine!

OK, who gets pummeled next? Let's pick on the wineries some more! Everyone loves that! There is a problem that is more widespread with the larger producers than the smaller ones but Hanes has seen this abuse happen with all types of wines, be they made in 50,000 case lots or 500. We need regulation here in the U.S. of designations such as "Reserve," "Grand Reserve," "Special Reserve," "Private Reserve" or other chicanery such as "Vintner's Selection" or "Proprietor's Selection." Here in the U.S. no regulatory authority monitors these designations, making them meaningless. It would be funny if it wasn't potentially harmful to the consumer, who may end up thinking she is buying a special bottling when it's just a marketing tool to sell more product with no guarantee that the wines merit special status within the producer's portfolio or vis-à-vis other producers' wines. Nothing like 35,000 cases of "Special Reserve," eh? Other countries have done decent jobs of regulating these designations and on the whole these regulations represent positive attempts to make it clear to the consumer what they are buying. While United States wineries are the biggest culprit here, let's not let other "new world" countries off the hook because, as far as Hanes knows, there are few regulations governing these designations in places like Australia, New Zealand, Chile, Argentina or South Africa too.

Now that we have beat the crap out of producers and those along the delivery channel, let's be fair and wish for some improvements on the part of fine wine appreciators and average wine consumers. What, you thought you'd get off easy?

As an universally respected and adored wine reviewer, Hanes makes every effort to select wines he suspects will merit his seal of approval. He can do no less for his followers, who would be all but lost without his beacon's light to guide them in their wine purchases. Yet, despite his Herculean efforts some readers do not follow his recommendations. Why? They are afraid of the labels!

Yes, even after years of reading Hanes's incisive tasting notes, many readers end up like deer caught in the headlights when faced with, for example, German labels that sing out to the buyer with whispers of "Schlossböckelheimer Kupfergrube Spätlese" or "Meddersheimer Rheingrafenberg Kabinett." Why fear "Kammerner Lamm Alte Reben" when a beautiful Grüner Veltliner lies within? What is gained by passing on a great inexpensive wine simply because you couldn't remember if "Côtes du Rhône Villages Saint-Gervais Vieilles Vignes des Cadinières" was a good thing or a bad thing? People, the journey of a lifetime starts with but a single step! While these labels may appear on the surface unreadable or inscrutable, there is much to be gained by trying to learn what certain words mean. Heck, Hanes has written many screeds on how to read labels from various countries and he will do so again. Moreover, it should always be kept in mind that wine appreciation is in many regards a competitive sport and making the effort to understand that "Terras do Sado" is a wine region in Portugal and "Boekenhoutskloof" a winery in South Africa will help you get a leg up on the other guy. It's really, really not that hard to slowly build up a store of knowledge about such basics. And not doing so hurts you because not only do you miss out on a world of killer juice, you keep the English speaking "ruling class" in power where they can rest on their laurels and raise prices while rarely needing to push quality to higher levels.

On the flip side of the same coin, it's tiring for Hanes to continually witness the "reactionary vanguard" wail about malevolent hordes of winemakers wielding their evil 100% new oak and wine concentrators across the scorched land. It's cool if you like Loire Cabernet Franc or Barolo that needs 20 years to soften to drinkability but attacking ad nauseum other winemaking styles which favor making fruit-driven, round, approachable wines is paranoid and in the end demeaning. Demeaning to the hurler of the invective since she doesn't trust that the style she prefers can survive on its own merits, ignoring that there's zillions of different wines made every year and since you can't drink them all, who cares if 99% of them are overoaked blueberry shakes? Geez, that only leaves you with literally thousands of wines to choose from! Poor baby! But it's also demeaning to the person who enjoys those creamy tropical Chardonnays as it is assumed paternalistically (if not condescendingly) that these fools don't know no better. Uhh, you know what happens when you assume, right? Everyone needs to be educated at some point and most want to be educated too. But true respect for difference of opinion and taste means sometimes you have to accept that for some fully autonomous human agents Pride Mountain Cabernet Franc is better than Chave Hermitage.

Which brings us to Hanes's final wish. Which is that wine lovers on either side of the "divide" between old world and new world, traditional styles and international styles, food wines and meals-in-themselves wines get it that enjoyment and appreciation of all these disparate styles of wine ARE NOT MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE. Hanes tries to, as much as humanly possible, take each wine on its own terms. He asks himself what the wine appears to be seeking to achieve and then whether or not said wine achieves this goal. By doing so, he has been so far able to maintain an interest and delight in wines which -- even if crafted from the same grape and region -- have barely a passing resemblance to each other. If there is one group of winos Hanes has little interest to pop corks with, it's those who believe that because you like a supercharged, fruit bomb Australian Shiraz you are incapable of truly grasping the intricate nuances and subtleties of a top notch grand cru Chablis. This is pomposity and snobbishness at its worst and for those who express such opinions or simply smirk knowingly to themselves Hanes has but one holiday wish. Begone!