Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Alcohol, Part 2: How Many Pears Can You Eat In Two Hours?

"There are people who write me off as an idiot, because how could I know what I'm talking about if I don't taste?"

-Tim Hanni MW, recovered alcoholic

Do you think anybody who strictly follows the medical establishment's guideline for healthy alcohol consumption--"up to one drink a day for women or two drinks a day for men"-- is a recognized expert in any part of the wine, beer, or spirits industries (accountants and other interchangeables excluded)? I don't. I don't think there's anyone who even comes close. The motives for deciding to spend your working life creating or promoting intoxicants are scarce in temperate souls.

Typically there's more to this than spreading the crunk gospel. Some amount of affection for the poison you peddle, and by "affection for" I mean "fascination with", and by "fascination" I mean "infatuation", is not really optional in this game. And when all that stands between you and the object of your infatuation is a screwcap, the next scene kinda writes itself.

If you sell wine, you need to be able to describe it at length. If you make beer, you need to know the styles you craft so intimately that you can accurately imagine your saliva tastes like any of them. If you write about single malt whisky for a living, your credibility is up peat creek if anyone ever out-nerds you in public. Book-learning is essential in all instances, but only as a compliment to tasting, endless tasting. If the nectar isn't coursing through your veins, you're wilted.

So you taste as much as possible. It's not a chore since you love it deeply. And you're in the business, so the next opportunity is probably in a few hours. And then there's that voice telling you that if you skip the tasting tonight, your colleagues and competitors will still go and have an edge, however small, over you tomorrow.

When your lofty desire for expertise, your animal desire for your next drink, and your professional survival instinct are singing in mellifluous harmony, you're getting drunk. Formal tastings aren't the only place where this happens. The same weakness is exploited at dinner parties where all nine of your oenophile friends bring at least one bottle, at craft brew meccas where the beer menus resemble phone books (remember phone books?) and everywhere else hangover fuel can pass itself off as a database that's both necessary and fun to assimilate.

Of course, everyone knows the solution to this dilemma: You spit. Just like you return all your library books a day early, and volunteer your weekends to clean the Steel Reserve cans and Coney Island whitefish from under the highway overpass. Yeah, some pros actually do spit everything at tastings and other feeding frenzies (and they're probably near the top of their field), but ask them if they've never left one and been nervous about driving home or glad they didn't have to. While you're at it, ask them for an itemized list of what they drank yesterday. Remember, one for women, two for men!

Spitting may or may not exclude something important from the tasting experience. To this wild guesser, it does. A quality common to every "great" wine I've had is a boom of intensity that only detonates at the back of my mouth, at the event horizon, the point where the swallow reflex is just beginning to kick in. Obviously I'm swallowing anyway, but if the crazy idea to spit Chambertin ever did hit me, I'm sure this goosebump-inducing crescendo would never leave the orchestra pit. Jancis Robinson would say I'm wrong, but come on, which one of us are you gonna believe???

Speaking of pretty English ladies, I wish it were easier to find Alice King's book High Sobriety here in the colonies because, if the blurbs and reviews are fair, it covers most of this ground with a lot more authority.

Ms. King was plumbing the pipedream, getting paid a lot of money to drink exquisite wines and write about them. The ego-inflation alone could make one lightheaded, but that wasn't cutting it for AK-47 (not her real nickname as far as I know, just what I would call her if she were my friend). For her it was wine, more wine, lots more wine, lots more vodka.

The seeds of all-out alcoholism were of course sown in her from birth, but backstage access to the finest wines and the ever-present escape pod of "don't worry it's my job!" were effective fertilizer. Then, impressively (though I suppose there's nothing inherently impressive about doing what you have to do to stay alive), she called a cab and left the party.

As did Tim Hanni, one of the first two Americans to get the #1 recognition of wine omniscience, the Master of Wine. Here's a really interesting guy--a trained chef who fattened a goose pheasant in his college dorm closet so he could roast it in his toaster oven. He got into wine, got really good at it, got even better at being drunk. Finally he fell down the same fetid well Alice King did, and similarly clawed his way out.

The cool thing is: Not only is he still in the racket, he's one of the few people attacking the orthodoxy of what quality is in wine. And I don't mean he's part of the "CRUCIFYPARKERONACROSSOFNEWFRENCHOAK" rabble (who I can't believe anyone still takes seriously--where's the counter-backlash?). Instead, Mr. Hanni has compiled serious analysis of how our tasting organs work, and more importantly how they vary.

This has led to some nonconformist conclusions (maybe every wine can pair with asparagus, and maybe white zinfandel isn't the devil's magenta urine after all), that would be really hard to believe if they weren't asserted by someone who could recite more facts about wine in an hour than you or I could memorize in a year, and could probably eat a tube of toothpaste and still ace any blind tasting.


There's no way around the fact that a drop of wine on Tim Hanni's tongue could ruin his life. So perhaps he has forgotten the intricate details of how wine tastes--I don't know for sure that his detractors (opening quote) are wrong. But they almost certainly are if they think his ability to spew some cliches about minerality and Bosc pears has any bearing on the unique work he's doing.

Those of us less motivated to think outside the box can continue to chase some version of the mastery Mr. Hanni won and then threw away. We will keep tasting. What other option is there?

A couple of years ago I would flip to a random Wine Spectator tasting note every Sunday and try to taste each named component in its actual form over the course of the week. This regimen had some happy results--the spike in fruit consumption helped my digestion, and I smoked a couple of great cigars. It also had some ignominious ones, the low point being when my landlord stopped by and caught me licking a cast-iron skillet (thanks Molesworth). What it didn't do was make me a much better taster. As this became clearer I desperately increased the volume of apples, lavender, rocks, etc. I shoveled across my sensory transom.

Protip: Eating forty figs in one afternoon is not the fast track to an MW.

The takeaway was that reference points are good to have, but only tasting wine can make you better at tasting wine. And I've accepted that tasting at every opportunity is compatible with doing right by your body in theory, but usually not in practice.

At some point on this blog I may have said something about the negative health effects of being a boozy glutton not mattering to me, but since this is the summer of backpedaling and reversals, throw that stick on the pile.


Sam Timberg said...

1. up peat creek...
2. I would take your advice before Jancis. She's never even said Hi to me...
3. You're only defending Parker because he loves Contado Mankas.
4. Where was I for the excellent cigars?
5. Another great piece.

JBH said...

what is this contado mankas you keep bringing up? :)

Tim Hanni MW said...

Hey JBH - thanks for the mentions but it would be nice to correct a few things:

I phattened a pheasant (named Phranklin), not a goose.

Your commentis accurate here: "The cool thing is: Not only is he still in the racket, he's one of the few people attacking the orthodoxy of what quality is in wine. "And I don't mean he's part of the "CRUCIFYPARKERONACROSSOFNEWFRENCHOAK" rabble (who I can't believe anyone still takes seriously--where's the counter-backlash?)."

Right on that I am not part of the "crucify Parker' gang - because people are different, different point systems and wine styles are all appropriate - we just do a crap job of understanding our differencesirecting people to the other people and systems that would best suit them and end up fighting over who is right or wrong. Parker is perfect for people who share his sensory physiology or systematic approach. Dan Berger is at the other end of the sensitivity spectrum - no wonder he hates the wines (and the system) Parker loves.

"There's no way around the fact that a drop of wine on Tim Hanni's tongue could ruin his life."

I do taste and spit, I cannot recommend this for ANYONE in recovery - a very personal and serious part of any successful recovery. I very, very rarely need to taste so it is very rare for me. I also help others in the industry and take my role very seriously to demonstrate you can be sober and have a shitload of fun in the industry. 18 years of sobriety this December and NEVER had more of a blast than I am having now.

And to your water post (loved it!!) - a salesman who called on me when I was a retail buyer used to come in to my store early some mornings and proclaim, "the greatest mystery in the world is that I can drink SO MUCH in an evening and wake up SO F%&$ING THISRTY!"

Let me know if you ever want to chat.

Tim Hanni MW said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JBH said...


Correction appended, with humble apologies to Phranklin's memory.

I knew from the WSJ piece that you still sip and spit at times, which I found especially remarkable knowing how hard it is for many people in recovery to even be in the same room as alcohol. That line in my post was written in admiration for your ability to pull off something that would be so risky for most others.

Out of curiosity, when are the instances in your work when you find you need to taste?

My axe to grind against the anti-Parker crowd has to do with their shrieking insistence that his preferences, the 100 point system, etc. are objectively harming the "wine world" for everyone but RP's buddies and minions. Clearly BS. The people supporting him (myself included, mostly because I tend to like the rich, extracted styles that--if you believe the hype--get high WA scores) seem to take more of a "drink and let drink" approach. I have yet to read an article or book arguing that Dan Berger or Alice Feiring is ruining the party for everyone, or that unoaked, high-acid Chinon is "garbage".

So anyway, that's another reason I think what you're doing is cool... one more step towards making the self-styled, hyper-opinionated "experts" look like the clowns they are :)

Tim Hanni MW said...

JBH - I consult with wineries on everything from the ground up including product ideation, develeopment and refinement. This will often require I am tasting the stuff! Currently I am helping clients by looking at the Vinotype clusters and ensuring the tasting panels they use and the flavor profiles they are creating are in line with the intended market. Really fun, very surprising insights and it requires production tastings with the growers, winemaking and marketing teams.

I did this with Trinchero 10 years ago and take responsibility for the current Moscato craze - quite seriously! I had meetings with the Gallo folks that led them in the same direction.

Also, "one more step towards making the self-styled, hyper-opinionated "experts" look like the clowns they are :)" - may be this is simply what we all are??? Ouch. And Dan Berger is a wonderful, passionate and hyper-hypersensitive taster. You are right on that no one is railing against him or Jancis (a smack-in-the-center Sesnitive vinotype).

BTW, Phranklin phorgives you.