What Types of Wine Get Reviewed?

(Originally published May 2005)

Let it never be said that Hanes doesn't have a conscience! After ripping inexpensive Australian wines a new one last month it has become more obvious that Hanes should address a truly fundamental question. It may seem almost besides the point to ask, but what IS wine?

Technically, wine is simply an beverage containing alcohol which has been made through the fermentation of the juice found in grapes or other fruit. While even this basic definition can be quibbled with (and you quibblers know who you are), it is interesting to look at how the wine industry views the question. For example, let's look at how The Wine Institute in California (via a Gomberg-Frederickson Report) segments wines for the purpose of yearly sales analysis. Here are some statistics for 2004, segmented by retail price.

“Jug Wine” is considered to be wines below $3.00. These wines comprised 31% of cases of Californian wines sold in 2004.

“Extreme Value Wines” are considered to be wines between $2.00 and $3.00. These wines comprised 4% of cases of Californian wines sold in 2004.

“Popular Premium Wines” are considered to be wines between $3.00 and $7.00. These wines comprised 33% of cases of Californian wines sold in 2004.

“Super Premium Wines” are considered to be wines between $7.00 and $14.00. These wines comprised 20% of cases of Californian wines sold in 2004.

“Ultra Premium Wines” are considered to be wines over $14.00. These wines comprised 12% of cases of Californian wines sold in 2004.

Taken together, wines $7.00 or under comprised 68% of cases of Californian wines sold in 2004. Taken together, wines $7.00 or over comprised 32% of cases of Californian wines sold in 2004.

(It should be noted that the percent of winery sales revenues makes the $7.00 or under category 36% and the $7.00 or over category 64%, in effect flip-flopping the percentages. That is, although a lot more cheap wine is sold, the real money is to be made at the higher end of the price spectrum.)

Now, for the purpose of understanding what The Hanes Wine Review is about we need to analyze these statistics some. While 68% of Californian wine sold costs $7.00 or less, wines reviewed by Hanes costing $7.00 or less is like 0.05%, if that. It cannot be too strongly underscored that the vast majority of wines sold fall solidly outside the purview of Hanes's scribbling. He just doesn't drink the stuff. Does this make him a snob? Well, he doesn't think so. But his loyal readers are free to disagree. Perhaps that haughty so-and-so will get a pie thrown in his face at the next wine tasting he attends as the revenge of an aggrieved proletariat. Will serve the bastard right.

So, as a rough baseline, we are looking at a minimum of $7.00 per regular 750 ml bottle to even just get past the velvet ropes into THWR. As a point of comparison, Hanes has for the last three years tracked the wines he reviews by price categories. Since the inception of this data analysis, this is the current breakdown (covering 3,330 wines):

Under $15: 30%
From $15 - $25: 30%
From $25 - $50: 30%
Over $50: 10%

There has not been, nor is there expected to be, much deviation from these percentages. By now, Hanes basically guzzles wines regularly along the price breakdown above. It is important to compare how wine industry groups such as The Wine Institute break down price ranges for analysis versus how Hanes does it.

Hanes tried, and failed in doing so, to find industry statistics which provide more nuanced price breakdowns above the “Ultra Premium Wines” over $14.00 category utilized by groups like The Wine Institute. This lack of additional price category breakdown is woefully inadequate and ignores the ongoing “upscaling” of many consumers of wine. It's also a pain in the neck for Hanes because it makes him look even more like a wine snob, leaving him no useful statistics with which to defend himself. By these industry statistics Hanes drinks like 30% “Super Premium Wines” and like 70% “Ultra Premium Wines.” Sounds pretty high-falutin' don't it?

Getting back to our fundamental question, Hanes has presented these statistics to put into high relief what “wine is” to him. As the wines he reviews falls into that 32% bucket of the total amount of Californian wine sold in 2004, one thing wine is definitely not is cheap! Beyond the quantitative, there are really two basic qualitative wines Hanes could possibly review and herein lies the rub.

First, there are just basic wines (most of which would fall into the “Super Premium Wines” category). To Hanes, most of these cost like $12 or less and their ultimate goal in life is to represent an easy drinking, accessible style of wine focused mostly on clean fruitiness, a round and soft mouth feel, low tannins and/or acidity and, in many cases, plenty of oak barrel-derived creaminess and flavoring. The idea is to achieve consistency of product year after year and as much as is humanly possible, eliminate vintage variations stemming from differing climatic conditions. Humanly, as many, many of these wines are manipulated by winemaking techniques to achieve this consistency. While most of these wines can be quite delicious they are more or less “products” not unlike beer or vodka. And consumers' expectations are the same as for beer or vodka. While there is nothing existentially flawed with this type of basic wine this is not really where Hanes's head and liver are at.

So, secondly, there are wines which are intended to represent the numerous nuances of the (a) distinct flavor profiles of the grapes grown, (b) particularities of place of origin as well as (c) the specific characteristics of the vintage during which the grapes grew. Wines which strive to hit the bull's-eye in these three areas are the kinds of wines Hanes wants to drink, review and advise others to drink. If the grape grower and winemaker do strive for this, the end result should be a wine with a distinct personality and character, capable of beauty yet with the flaws organic life brings necessarily.

Of course, not every wine of the second group achieves its goal. Hell, lots are nasty! But whether the wine is a $10 Muscadet or $100 Hermitage it wants to both stand out and represent well it's “type” of wine — grape, region, vintage. If it were easy to find these type of wines there would be no need for THWR and Hanes would have an awful lot of free time on his hands. Instead, Hanes uses his growing experience with wines as well as the trusted advice of his wine geek pals to cut through the crap and attempt to get to the good stuff. He is not always successful and that's why his review is full of wines to avoid - negative knowledge is knowledge too.

And, if we return once more to the price breakdown of the wines Hanes drinks and reviews it is also clear that wines of the second group are, on the whole, expensive by most people's standards. Recall that wines $7.00 or under were 68% of Californian wines sold in 2004. It can be very difficult to make a wine with personality and typicity yet those who admire these wines are willing to pay a premium (“Super Dope Phat Da Bomb Premium”?) for them. Sure, lots of $50 wines are misshapen by bogus pipeline winemaking techniques. But these wines are just for people who would be drinking “Extreme Value Wines” but are super-rich and cannot afford to spend $50 on wines that taste like $3 wines!

If in the end you are more or less satisfied with solid basic wines around $10 or so (like those bodyslammed by Hanes last month) chances are THWR will not prove to be your cup of tea over the long-term. Sorry about that, yo. That said, if you want to explore wines of more distinction then lift your nose in condescension along with that patronizing elitist Hanes and keep on reading!