An Imprecise Balancing Act

(Originally published November 2004)

Way back in April of 2001 Hanes discussed some of the issues involved with how he decides what should or shouldn't be in a tasting note. That is, what is important for (a) capturing the essence of the wine and (b) satisfying the needs of the reader in guiding her future wine buying decisions. Without duplicating that effort nor getting too technical about tasting note writing, Hanes would like to briefly touch upon a conundrum which has plagued him more over time. To wit, how does a wine reviewer balance the needs of the wine neophyte with those of the learned expert?

One could make the case that the most important part of this balancing act occurs way before the first cork is popped and the pen starts scribbling. We are all quite aware of the insane number of wines on the market for purchase. Even your humble scribe Hanes tastes but the merest fraction of them despite all efforts to the contrary. Herein lies the crux of the matter? Which wines "should" Hanes be drinking to please his finicky palate and demanding audience?

As it has always been for Hanes, the wines he drinks come from all sorts of directions and places. There really isn't a "game plan" guiding his actions. If there is any overriding concern determining things it's the finitude of Hanes's financial means. Even if he had the time to taste more wines and the strength to carry more bottles back to his already cramped studio apartment, even Hanes has reached the end of his credit line. That said, it should be noted that Hanes usually spends over $1,000 per month on wine which is not a shabby amount and absolutely beyond rational defense.

So, outside of making sundry wine retailers very happy to see him, where do the wines come from and how does Hanes decide what to taste? As noted in other reviews, Hanes attempts to attend as many big distributor tastings as possible. With the hundreds of wines arrayed for sampling, the natural emphasis there is on the "big boys" which means expensive or hard to find wines. There are also other large tastings to which Hanes is invited based on regions, grape varietals or other such themes. These constrain the choices a bit which may result in less expensive wines being assessed and written up. Or not. At all these events Hanes is his usual selfish self, living large on Dom Perignon or Lafite. Wake up Hanes!

Anyway, these wines probably appeal more to the "collector" reader of THWR as they aren't really everyday drinkers nor are they in many instances easy to find. But they are free for Hanes and that has to count for something. There is a measure of guilt in passing up less expensive wines at big tastings but soon all the wine makes that fuzzy enough to go away.

Another way Hanes tastes a lot of wines at once is at (semi-) organized wine tastings with wine loving buddies or pals in the wine trade. For instance, in this month's edition there's lots of 2003 German wines because he attended a tasting with 20 people in the biz at a fun BYO Chinese restaurant and wrote up many, many wines. At these types of events the participants usually bring high quality wines, wanting to show up all their lame peers and prove that their entrant into the field vanquished all comers that night! As a result, while there are some less expensive wines present, they mostly fall between $20 and $50. For the casual wine drinker, these are not the sort of prices one associates with Tuesday night dinner.

Yet another major source of fodder for the wine review is Hanes hanging out at the wine store he writes for. Writing up the monthly "top ten" wines usually provides a few winning cheapies for inclusion, as do the weekly in-store tastings for the customers where Hanes gets to fill his crystal Riedel wine glass up nicely while the rubes have to settle for tiny plastic cups. Bwaaah! Additionally, at the store the staff will often open a bottle of wine to try that day. These are usually under $25 and since the staff chooses them there's a good chance it will be interesting and worth noting. Occasionally, a wholesale distributor representative pours samples for the store buyer to taste while Hanes happens to be there and naturally he cuffs him/her about the ears until generous samples are poured for Hanes's delectation.

Beyond this there's other means of finding wines to review. Sitting in a wine bar with a glass of this or that. Tasting wines at parties where the guests bring random stuff. Scribbling during breakfast or dinner in a restaurant. Garbage can diving. All sorts of ways.

As the statistics have borne out over time roughly 30% of the wines reviewed are under $15, 30% between $15 and $25, 30% between $25 and $50 and 10% over $50. This seems fair but Hanes often feels this distribution makes for a review of more interest to seasoned wine drinkers than the novice. And this bugs poor old Hanes. After all, he is the champion of the everyday man, the humble soul who carries his lunch pail to work and punches in for an honest eight hours. Hanes remembers being pissed off when a six-pack of Sam Adams jumped to $7.99 and now he would look askance at any bottle of wine that cheap. Where did it all go wrong?

Novices or the casual drinker need two things. They need affordable recommendations, the good Chardonnay for $10 or Shiraz for $12 that isn't either insipidly sweet or shrill. And they need to be slowly introduced to alternatives to the mass market wines they are most likely familiar with. For example, a gentle prodding to try a Grüner Veltliner or Aglianico, especially if the price is more or less equal to the Merlot they would have otherwise purchased.

Hanes recognizes that he rarely reviews wines with large enough productions to be available in most markets across the country, that it is frustrating to read about a $15 Vouvray that sounds tasty but only 100 cases made it to the U.S. It's hard to learn about wine when you can't find the damn wines! For novice or veteran, there's little utility in reading about wines one can never hope to find. Hanes has yet to find a truly acceptable way to tackle this problem. Should he review more Rosemount or Mondavi products? This isn't going to appeal to the experienced wine drinking reader and, since the review will probably be negative or neutral, it is debatable how it will aid the newbie find better wines. Hanes prides himself on the fact that, unlike many other wine reviews, THWR includes the good, bad and ugly of the wine world. Yet, an edition with 100 wines rated 83 points is not necessarily maximizing value.

Hopefully Hanes's readership understands that this endeavor can never be a "one size fits all" kind of thing, that a good deal of care and concern goes into choosing the wines to be reviewed. But that, since UPS doesn't deliver boxes of free samples to Hanes's doorstep each day, the wines available to review are many times out of Hanes's control. Consequently, this paramount process of selecting the wines is not going to find a final resolution anytime soon. The hope is that things in this department just work themselves out well enough to have more new readers coming on board than people requesting deletion from the distribution list.

Hanes hopes to redress some of this imbalance via his ever so funny and informative "rants." In addition to freeform thinking out loud (like here) he does attempt to educate in such a way that the beginner learns as much from the article as the person who has worked in the business for 20 years (and sometimes the beginner knows more anyway!). With luck, the information provided in these articles is more enlightening than esoteric. That is for you, kind reader, to decide.

Otherwise, there are the tasting notes themselves. No doubt, at first glance they seem geared more towards the wine geek with a steroidal wine vocabulary than to the person who has had a bad day at work and wants a foot massage and glass of wine. To underscore, Hanes tries to assess the color, scents and flavors of the wines as deeply and descriptively as possible. And with an eye on capturing the "feel" of the wine in case the primary descriptive verbiage doesn't make sense. This is important because if a reader doesn't have a preference for lilacs over honeysuckle or bell peppers over garden herbs it is incumbent upon the writer to frame the wine in a way which will let the reader know if it is "her kind of wine" or not.

For instance, lots of people care about a wine's color. Some don't. Hanes doesn't know which one you are. Hanes remembers watching a customer in a wine store pick up virtually every bottle of Pinot Noir in the store looking for the color he desired. Nothing Hanes could have said about how the wines tasted would have made a difference in the customer's buying decision. The lesson learned is that in something like wine assessment more description is usually better than less, and the hefty tasting notes will hopefully include the information each individual person is looking for. That's the idea anyway. So, all apologies to those who want to pool their money together to hire Hanes an editor. Hey, quick scanning is what the numeric score is for! You can zip over the numbers to quickly see what wines you should look for. Then after you taste the wine, you can see what Hanes wrote and compare notes. Naturally, if you then disagree with Hanes's note you better take another sip until you get it right.

Hanes will leave you with this final thought. Many scientific studies have been conducted comparing the recognition and identification of wine scents, flavors and textures among wine experts and wine novices. It has been shown that experts are not strikingly better than novices at processing the perceptual properties of wines. Experts differ because they have a well-developed knowledge of a wine's expected properties and practice the "game of tasting" more often. There is nothing different in wine experts' perceptual abilities or "wiring." So, with more practice any of you can be as garrulous as Hanes! Ain't that something to look forward to?