By Laura Ness
Tim Hanni, one of the first two Americans to receive the title Master of Wine and well-known industry myth-buster, would like the wine industry to stop foisting untruths upon an unsuspecting public. “The whole business of wine education is sadly wrong and does no service to consumers,” he says. “It’s group think. We really don’t know anything about consumers. The industry has its head up its anatomy.”
Having studied the world of wine and gastronomy since 1966, Hanni, Certified Wine Educator, is fascinated by the history of wine and food and is also a professionally trained chef. He says Jancis Robinson called him “the guru of food and wine pairing.” He claims to have been the first to use the term “umami” on an international level thirty years ago. This came about by working with scientists outside the field of wine. Says Hanni, “You must work with people outside your area of expertise to see your own biases.”
How did he, one of the more highly educated and you could say indoctrinated individuals in the business, become such a reactionary, such a Cerberus barking at the gates of Hades? Simply put, he attended a writing workshop (in a funk after failing his initial MW exam) for electrical engineers on disruptive thinking. The workshop honed communication and definition skills to help engineers improve product development with consumers in mind. Hanni says the poster child for the workshop was the clock on the VCR, which for most consumers at the time relentlessly blinked zero. It turned his thinking upside down.
One of the lessons he learned was that the more expert you become in a field, the less able you are to communicate. “It made me critically re-think everything I’d learned about wine,” says Hanni. “When critics said ‘this is fabulous!’ I’d think, ‘what the f&#ck!’”
Like technology companies who focus on the geekiness of the gizmo, instead of what that gizmo can do for the end user, the wine industry focuses on the product and not the consumer experience. He feels the wine industry as a whole needs to gain a deeper understanding of consumers and “stop spewing BS.”
He advocates for “a new conversation,” where the industry doesn’t look at consumers with disdain and instead has a different vision. He’d like to see more somms and wine stewards who actually help people feel ok about their own tastes, which are often demeaned by the industry. “Imagine a hospitality industry that focuses on the consumer first: before product development,” he posits.
Hanni explains that we are physiologically disposed to love sweet wines, and says that many French Champagnes were very sweet up until World War II, some with upwards of 6% RS. He says 1947 Cheval Blanc, one of the greatest red wines in history, was actually 3% RS. “This should be common knowledge to wine experts, but it’s not. And consumers who love sweet wines are portrayed as flawed.”
He laments that wine writers starting “spreading BS” about sweet wines being bad and hiding flaws. “It’s ok to like sweet wine. I predicted that Moscato would be the next big thing back in 2007 and it was. People talk dry and drink sweet and there’s nothing wrong with that. We need a healthier and more diverse market to sell product into. We need to change consumer perception about terms like sweet, acidity and bitterness.”
Hanni may be best known for his experimental research that divides wine drinkers into different Vinotypes. In order of pickiest to least picky, he uses four Vinotype buckets to describe palates along a continuum of sensitivity, including Sweet, Hypersensitive, Sensitive and Tolerant. He says that Vinotypes are influenced by a combination of genetics and environment and that tastes change over time with experience.
About 15% of people fit in the Tolerant bucket: they live in a diminished sensory world, Hanni says. They tend to like big, bold, tannic and high alcohol wines. Some 35% of tasters fall into the Sensitive bucket: they are more likely to be male than female and are the most adventurous. They get a lot out of delicate whites and are context-oriented. Hanni adds that many seem to make great managers of people.
The Sweet and Hypersensitive buckets encompass 50% of the population. It’s easy to find the Sweet folks: they tend to like soda and lots of salt on their food. A good 70% of them are female, Hanni observes. The Hypersensitive folks are super-picky and live in a world all their own: the thermostat is never right, they are picky eaters and they can’t stand tags in their garments.
Hanni says Sweet Vinotypes tend not to like Cabernet, Pinot Noir or Sauvignon Blanc: they are genetically tolerant of only low-alcohol sweet wines. You can determine your Vinotype at myvinotype.com, although Hanni admits it works best for those new to wine.
Barbara Drady of Affairs of the Vine, who had Hanni administer his Vinotype test at one of her wine events, says that even if she doesn’t totally subscribe to his theory, she sees validity in his observation of wine drinkers today. “The bottom line should be, if you like the way it looks and like the way it smells and like the way it tastes, it’s good wine. The US population has been raised on sweet drinks. It’s no wonder most lean toward sweet wine,” says Drady.
Hanni claims that what he is doing resonates with the vast majority of consumers, but that it doesn’t sway those who have already bought into the industry “technology.”
“People don’t like their collective illusions shattered,” says Hanni. “Just ask any kid about Santa Claus.”
At least one industry educator thinks Hanni is definitely onto something.
David Stevens of Davon International, a winemaker and industry colleague of Hanni’s who directs the OIV Marketing Program at UC Davis, had this to say. “Tim has been the (often) unsung hero reminding the wine establishment of what should be obvious… that NO individual experiences things in exactly the same way as any other individual! Duh. And from experience comes liking or animus toward a stimulus. Duh again. So, there is no such thing as a ‘one-size-fits-all’ wine or ‘one-size-fits-all’ wine critic or a ‘one-size-fits-all’ wine recommendation. In essence, Tim believes, I think, that Somms are taught a rubric, based on that flawed assumption (and no scientific data) that wine X goes with food Y for everyone, all the time. This boils down to madness when the customer doesn’t like wines in the style of wine X in the first place.”
Hanni says things are changing. He points to Fleming’s restaurant as getting on board with the concept of “give people what they want.” They started to include a sweet wine section in the body of their wine list, not buried in the back under Dessert wines. This is what Hanni sees as the next big thing. It’s an opportunity for the industry to offer a greater spectrum of wines to consumers in a new way. “I want my Mother-in-Law to be able to order the wine she likes in a restaurant without being embarrassed or bullied. We need a revolution in thinking about who consumers really are.”
One of Hanni’s biggest pet peeves is the myth of food and wine pairing: the one that disses white wine with anything red and red wine with anything white. “What a monster we have created!” he exclaims. “It’s all crap! This business that you need a red tannic wine to go with gamey meats – or that you can’t drink Cabernet with oysters. It’s all pseudo-scientific nonsense.”
“Take a piece of strip steak or a ribeye and cook it without seasoning,” Hanni instructs. “Try it with a strong red wine and it becomes more astringent. The wine gets more bitter with each bite. Now add salt, and you’ll see how the wine gets smoother. Salt suppresses bitterness.”
He talks about French cooking and how sauces are made using wine. For example, Bourguignonne and Bordelaise rely on the acid of wine, along with the fat of butter and the addition of salt to tame bitterness. With such a sauce, you can now drink any wine with whatever meat you wish.
Besides, he argues, pleasurable interactions of food and drink are all in your head anyway: it’s a protein connection in the brain that has replaced reality with an association.
Renowned Chef Jeremiah Tower bolsters Hanni’s thinking. “The food menu must always be made after the wines are chosen, since the food can be changed and what is in the bottle cannot.
As for cheese and wine, that old bit about ‘always red wine’ insults Germany and Alsace. My belief is that some ‘wine-killing’ cheeses are actually not when served with big Chardonnays and Gewurtztraminers.”
Tower provides some examples: “All those triple cremes need big Rieslings and any Gewurtz. Only reds with cheese are young Gamays or similar style with the blues, though only Sauternes and similar with big blues like Roquefort. Stilton kills port, but not those Alsatians.” He prefers artisanal Gruyeres and Comtes with a big Australian or California Chardonnay, saying, “The cheese fat doesn’t kill them.”
Hanni is encouraged that the advanced WSET program eliminated their standard food and wine pairing and rewrote it using his principles. They are also starting to do their own version of his Vinotypes concept. Further, a recent study by Michigan State University supports Hanni’s claim that existing food and wine pairing is bunk and should be scrapped in favor of a more consumer-focused approach. Authors of the study said that sommeliers should take into account the consumer’s vinotype when recommending wines.
“The palate rules – not someone else’s idea of which wine we should drink with our food,” claims Carl Borchgrevink, associate professor and interim director of MSU’s School of Hospitality Business, a chef and lead author of the study. “They shouldn’t try to intimidate you into buying a certain wine. Instead, they should be asking you what you like.”
Hanni likes to point to Ariel Jackson, daughter of noted Napa Valley Register Wine Editor, Sasha Paulsen, as an example of someone persecuted by the prevailing myth that sweet wine lovers don’t have a “sophisticated palate.” Nonsense, he says. Sasha couldn’t agree more, sharing these thoughts on Hanni’s theory.
“My daughter Ariel was adamant that she didn’t like wine until she met Tim. The summer that he and I were working on his book, she was home from school and began listening to our conversations. Discovering that she fit the model of his classic Sweet Vinotype, she said, explained more than why she didn’t care for big, bold Napa Cabs, but also why she couldn’t stand tags in clothing and spent hours searching for the right shoes. Tim’s simple theory — different people have different tastes, so embrace it — gave her confidence, and she actually became more adventurous in tasting different wines. There is a power in knowing you have every right not to like something.
As the wine editor at the Napa Valley Register, I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve met who are so intimidated by wine. Unlike Ariel, instead of simply saying they just don’t like wine, they beat up on themselves for not liking the ‘right’ wine; they’ve absorbed these myths that they can learn to like the right wines, and they have to if they want be a sophisticated wine drinker. They are terrified of making mistakes, and the notion of wine as a pleasure seems to be lost for them.
It’s so simple when you think about it: people like different art, music, vacations, cuisines; why not wines? The power of Tim’s work is that he is restoring, not only the freedom to choose the wines you like, but also the pleasure that wine can be, once it is liberated from so much of the pretension and silliness that often surrounds it.”
If Hanni has his way, hospitality programs worldwide will adopt this approach that emphasizes the power of the individual palate. Students will go out into the world and instill this tenet in their own beverage programs. He feels wineries need to rethink their portfolio development, along with their tasting room offerings and experiences. Above all, make sure you have an engaging tasting room staff.
Hanni is currently working on a new system of vinotypes, along with Point of Sales materials to help wineries sell their products to consumers in a more forthright manner, and to help somms and wine directors to more coherently assemble and communicate their wine lists.
Hanni’s ultimate take away is this: drink the wine you love with what you want to eat. Rejoice, Cab drinkers: eat the Dover sole special or those succulent oysters and sommelier be damned. Enjoy it to your heart’s content. And tell the Somm to bring another bottle of the wine he or she told you wouldn’t be the best pairing. After all, it’s up to you to pick your poison, along with your poissin.
If you want to read more, Hanni has written several books, among them, “Why You Like the Wines You Like: Changing the way the world thinks about wine,” and “The Sweet Wine Lovers Manifesto,” both available on Amazon.