Not On Hanes’s Dime

(Originally published March 2007)

No time for a great deal of research this month so Hanes will once more just riff on a topic that suits his fancy. It’s a topic that comes up fairly frequently during casual conversation among wine lovers. This being… what wines do you avoid buying because they represent bad value?

Naturally, every category has its exceptions and anytime someone just slams a category, those who disagree will leap out of the woodwork, offended and overflowing with displeased outrage and vexed aggrievement. Well, that’s life, buck up sonny and get used to it. You want to vote with your wallet, you go girl, but Hanes is keeping his few pesos for other stuff. Note that just because Hanes doesn’t buy them does not mean he does not taste them, so no lame arguments about the need to “revisit” these wines today, thinking they have changed for the better, either qualitatively or in terms of price. So, without further ado, let’s start slamming!

Brunello di Montalcino - Since about the 1997 vintage, this has been Hanes’s #1 poster boy for bad value. These Tuscan wines can be very good but more recently they all seem to be cut from the same cloth and taste the same. And the ageworthiness they purportedly possess which helps separate them from other comparable wines such as Chianti Classico may no longer obtain. These days one is better off buying a Chianti Classico Riserva for 1/2 to 2/3 the price of a Brunello. Hell, there’s probably a lot of good “IGT” Sangiovese you could buy in the $20-$35 range which give many Brunellos a run for their money. Brunellos get the “points” but not Hanes’s moolah.

German dessert wines - Be it Eiswein, Trockenbeerenauslese or Beerenauslese wines, the usual stratospheric prices rarely match what’s in the bottle. And it’s always a half-bottle anyway. Yes, these wines are incredibly hard to make, especially the Eiswein. Yes, the production amounts are miniscule. Yet, when compared to the quality levels of dessert wines produced elsewhere it’s hard to justify the vast disparities in pricing. This criticism can be levied at more than few Austrian producers of dessert wines as well. Canadian dessert wines are maybe better values but, these days with global warming and such, how many vintages create truly natural icewines and are not grapes intentionally frozen by human beings? Especially when 95% of a winery’s revenue comes from icewine? Inquiring minds want to know.

Oregon Pinot Noir - None for me, thanks. The most overpriced domestic wines as a group being made today, even allowing for Napa Cabernet. Few reach the level of finesse and elegance the grape arguably should achieve and the prices have been stoopid right from the start of the wine industry there. At least in California one can find some nice sub-$20 Pinots but you have to be awfully lucky and good to find an Oregonian example that succeeds vintage to vintage at such a price. Can’t even remember the last time Hanes bought an Oregon Pinot Noir.

Any Spanish red wine over $40 not from Rioja - With a few “blue chip” exceptions such as Vega Sicilia or Clos Erasmus, most of the pricey Spanish reds out there today are fruit forward, structureless grotesqueries which won’t come close to developing worthwhile tertiary flavors before they implode of their own mass. Be they from Priorat, Toro, Ribera, Montsant, Jumilla, etc. they are mostly flash without true pedigree. Now, if they were uniquely flavored in their youth, that would be one thing, then take advantage and drink them young. But they are oaky, fruity and lacking in, shall we say, a “sense of place.” There’s many “new wave” Rioja wines out there but at least there’s enough old school producers left to warrant continued attention to both aged and ageworthy Rioja wines.

The Southern Rhône - Ohh, how the times have changed. Just a decade or less ago, this region would have been near the top of the list for best values in the wine world. But with the weak dollar, vastly increased popularity and visibility of the top wines, and a wine buying market that can’t say no to overripe fruit, the prices for Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Gigondas have gotten all loopy. Under the right climatic conditions these are wines which can mature admirably and reward a collector’s patience. However, young they can be awkward if not at times sloppy. They are also susceptible to green herbal qualities and prematurely raisinated fruit, detracting from their enjoyability. Hanes buys maybe 3-4 bottles a year now when he used to buy 10-15. Sorry, Charlie. This phenomenon extends through the other named villages of the Southern Rhône, whose prices now are at levels CdP’s used to be at ten years ago.

Barbaresco - This may be a tougher one to defend. But Hanes has always wondered, why pay all that money for Barbaresco, which can be awfully nice if not downright stunning, when for a few more bucks you can buy Barolo instead? Better overall policy to save up and buy one jawdroppingly good bottle of Barolo than two of Barbaresco. Of course, your mileage may vary but that’s what makes the world go around. And Barbaresco wines selling! Notable exception: Produttori del Barbaresco wines, which are almost always worth the much lower prices they sell for. As any wine geek will attest.

New Zealand Pinot Noir - Hanes is tempted to just copy his complaint against Oregonian Pinot Noir and paste it here. For every superb Kiwi Pinot Hanes samples, there’s half a dozen pedestrian wines that enter his gullet. However, they’re all priced the same, ka-ching! The more moderately priced NZ Pinots are usually stemmy and lack length. Again, it’s not that these wines suck, it’s that the represent poor value. It’s odd to say it, but these days Burgundy is the place for value Pinot. Hanes would take a basic Bourgogne rouge from a top producer over most $40 New Zealand Pinot.

Argentinean Malbec over $20 - OK, what’s the point here? We know you can do it but why? There’s a veritable sea of perfectly fine, high quality Malbec which can retail for $8 to $15, enough with the “But we make world class wine!” stuff. If Hanes is laying down $30, there’s already a zillion other wines he’d spend it on first. Once more, it’s not a question of these wines not being extremely tasty. It’s more an issue of, given limited financial resources and time to consume booze, what makes anyone think these wines should compete at higher price points with all the other stuff the world produces? No shame in making a solid, everyday $12 bottle of wine. Sorry if you are of Argentinean descent, no harm, no foul.

Classified Bordeaux - This is a new entry to this list. It primarily holds for the 2000, 2003 and 2005 vintages but it’s sure to be true of any decent vintage the future brings. Too much worldwide demand for the roughly 60 producers who were listed in the 1855 Official Classification of the Médoc red wines. Even given the huge output of these wines - as well as the top wines of Pomerol and Saint-Emilion - demand among established economies and the newly surging economies of Asia are sure to keep these wines out of the hands of anyone but the landed gentry. Hanes was just born too late to really get in on these wines. Damn you, Mom, damn you.

South African wine over $30 - While there’s more winemaking history here than most casual imbibers realize, the recent revitalization of the industry doesn’t warrant fetching such prices quite yet. At these price points, one may aver that the wines should offer degrees of complexity, both in youth and old age, not consistently found. A lot of the newer players have taken the lazy path, beat the crap out of the juice with toasty new oak and jack the price up by 50%. Yes, oak barrels are expensive. But, err, they are also unnecessary in many situations. For every $30+ South African wine Hanes tastes and enjoys, there’s many more which just make him mutter and shake his head.

Californian Wines from the Central Coast down through Santa Barbara over $25 - Now that the hegemony of “Napanoma” has been broken, there’s a virtual flood of expensive wines coming from other parts of California. Some have pedigree and track records, most do not. They’re the new flava, something familiar (i.e., it’s California and the labels are in English) yet trendy (i.e., the Silverado Trail is SO 1999!). Hanes can’t keep up with the explosion of new wineries from these areas, they’re mushrooms after a rain storm. And close to none are entering the market with prices in the teens. It’s getting to the level of white noise, where you just start to tune it out. Mostly Chardonnay, Syrah and Pinot Noir, the quality is mostly there but a consistently high bar of value not always reached. This point is driven home every time Hanes tastes a wine from the same regions (usually not a “single vineyard designate”) that tastes every bit as good as their more expensive brethren but only costs $16. Look for the cheapies and save some coin.

Australian Shiraz over $20 - Does Hanes even have to say it?