Below is a recent exchange I had with an acquaintance:
“So, what is it that you do?”
“I am a Wine Inspector.”
“Oh, so you get to sit around and drink wine all day.”
“No, not exactly. You’re thinking of Harry Caray.”
“Ok, so what does a Wine Inspector do then?”
“Well, I’m not sure where to start…”
In all honesty, I should have a quick and ready answer for this question as it comes up fairly frequently, but answering it is more challenging than it may seem.
You see, there is more to wine inspection than merely cataloging and evaluating wines for sale. Certainly that is a big part of it, but there is a whole host of other responsibilities as well. These range from evaluating the conditions of a cellar, to repeatedly lifting cases of wine onto a refrigerated truck (cases often filled with obscenely heavy bottles – I’m looking in your direction Merus), to assiduously documenting the labeling practices of every Château, Domaine, or Estate that has passed over our inspection tables. The list truly goes on and on.
So, in an effort to answer the question, “What is it that you do?” we present a series of blog posts in which we delve into the many and varied aspects of wine inspection. This first post will look at the cataloging processes and the sorts of things we inspectors are on the look out for when gazing upon a bottle.
The first and perhaps most basic task for an inspector is to correctly identify and catalog the information on the label. This is seemingly straightforward until you consider that each country, each region, each appellation, and each producer has its own unique way of presenting information. Further complicating matters is that some of the information on the label is absolutely necessary to document while other information is superfluous or, in its own way, redundant (at least for the purpose of selling the wine). Spend a week inspecting bottles from one of the finest German collections ever assembled and you will know what I mean – is this a blaulack or a himmelblaulack? Keeping track of all this information is like herding cats.
At HDH, we take pride in the fact that the wines we sell are precisely what they say they are. Any given bottle is looked at and verified a minimum of three times before being shipped out. We staunchly adhere to Mies van der Rohe‘s dictum, “God is in the details.” This attention to detail is what separates us from our competitors and ensures that our clients receive exactly what they ordered. Proper cataloging is central to our inspection process and one that we take very seriously. Key to cataloging is having a firm grasp of the categories of wines one will encounter. Understanding these categories then dictates how the inspection process will proceed.
Recently I watched the Errol Morris documentary “The Unknown Known,” about former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The film, among other things, parses Rumsfeld’s controversial statement that: “as we know, there are known knowns; there are things that we know that we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.” I’m the first to admit that the epistemological musings of a Defense Secretary are, at first glance, far afield from the world of wine inspections. Having said that, there are some interesting parallels as the categories of what is known and unknown line up nicely with how we approach the cataloging process. Let’s take a moment to look at each of these:
First there are the known knowns. These are wines that we have seen before, inspected before, and know what to expect from the label, the capsule, the type of paper stock, the bottle shape, etc. The vast majority of the wines we encounter fall under this category. Some examples are: La Mission Haut-Brion, Silver Oak, Gaja, and Penfold’s Grange. There are very few surprises here and our team knows where all the information is located on the bottle.
Second there are the known unknowns. These are wines we know exist, but as of yet, have not had the opportunity to inspect. Most often these are new bottlings (e.g. a new single vineyard) or a new vintage from a producer we know. An example of this is the 1937 Rheinhessen pictured here. There are so few bottles of this wine in circulation that it took some time for one to actually cross our inspection table. We have seen documented instances of wines such as this in the market, but that is different from actually holding one in your hands. We are always excited to see a bottle like this as it gives us an opportunity to research, gather information, and add it to our database. It’s like getting the Ace of Spades you needed to complete your royal flush.
Lastly, there are the unknown unknowns. While this very rarely happens, there is the occasional bottle that comes through that we haven’t previously encountered and have never heard of. Most often, these wines are from producers that have long ceased production or an exceptionally rare bottling from a producer we know. Identifying these bottles in the cataloging process is important as they require a higher level of scrutiny when it comes time for inspection. When we find a bottle that falls into this category the inspection team will work closely with Consignment Operations to determine its provenance and any other pertinent details. “Medicinal Tonics” from the Prohibition Era are an excellent example of the unknown unknowns.
Once the inspection team has cataloged all of the bottles in a group the inspection phase can begin. More on that later…