Tim Hanni’s interest in wine was initially piqued at age 14 when he picked up a copy of the weighty encyclopedia of gastronomy, “Larousse Gastronomique.”
He figured one day he’d have a career in the food or wine business, at first focusing on becoming a chef. But in 1979, that focus shifted to wine and, he’s never looked back.
He did more than swirl, sniff and taste, however. Hanni studied all aspects of viticulture and winemaking and earned the respected title Master of Wine.
Hanni has worked at wineries, he has written books, he’s given lots of advice and helped launch several industry trends, including the latest rush to knocking back moscato. He even put the wine program together for the Olive Garden restaurant chain.
At the moment, you can find him on a praiseworthy soapbox exhorting consumers to drink what they like, long-standing wine metaphors and axioms be damned.
He’s insisting that wine drinkers look to their own palates rather than trying to fit the mold of “cabernet with steak, white wine with fish, sparkling wine with oysters,” et cetera, et cetera. After years of research he’s conducted and studying the efforts of others, he’s certain that we should stop trying to mold our palates to someone else’s criteria. There’s no such thing as “one size fits all” when it comes to enjoying wine and food, Hanni maintains.
“There’s a huge discrepancy in what we perceive when it comes to smelling and tasting,” Hanni said as he discussed a new effort to make people feel good about their wine choices.
For Hanni, it’s all about “learning what your vinotype is. In doing this, it opens up the conversation about wine.”
Hanni has teamed up with Fish Story in downtown Napa to explore assertions from his latest book, “Why You Like the Wines You Like.” He’s on a mission to provide consumers an alternative to traditional food and wine pairing. His book explores “how differences in our individual makeup determine the wines we like best.”
“Are you the kind of person who might consider ordering a cabernet sauvignon with fish, or a sauvignon blanc with steak?” Hanni asks. “We are inviting you to play with your food ... and wine.”
Hanni notes there are consumers who enjoy sweet wines with all manner of food. But they’ve been told for years that it’s not OK to do that, so many have stopped drinking wine.
His goal is to address “people who feel intimidated and get them engaged and feeling good. They shouldn’t be tasting the metaphor ... (but rather) enjoying the experience.”
To that end, Hanni has put together a brief “taste sensitivity” quiz to ascertain individual sensitivities and tolerances, resulting in what he calls one’s “vinotype.” The questions focus on salt preferences, coffee, tea, sugar, artificial sweeteners and strong spirits.
When one adds up his or her score, the individual is classed into one of four vinotypes — sweet, hypersensitive, sensitive and tolerant.
“In the general population of wine drinkers, about 30 percent of people fall into the sweet category, 25 percent into hypersensitive, 25 percent sensitive and 20 percent into the tolerant group,” Hanni points out.
But even Hanni hedges his bets. “Keep in mind that the more experienced and confident you are around wine, the more you will have already developed strong wine preferences through those personal experiences,” he adds. “You may look at your score and change your vinotype to best fit the wines you love the most.”
Personally, I’m glad he added that caveat. That’s because my score was zero; those who score zero to six are in the tolerant vinotype classification. The identifiers for this class:
• Love things bigger, faster and stronger — Not me.
• Prefer full-bodied, intense reds — I enjoy them but not to the exclusion of great whites and rosés.
• Linear thinker — I’m organized but that’s about it.
• Decisive and bottom-line oriented — Not me.
• Can’t fathom why others favor watery and weak wines — That couldn’t be further from the truth.
• Speak loudly — Mon Dieu! I hope not.
But Hanni has allowed me to move into the sensitive vinotype class. That individual enjoys the widest range of wine styles, is a great mediator, is adventurous in both food and wine and is a team player. That’s me.
Categories aside, his goal is to “give people permission to drink what they like,” something Bob Mondavi preached in the latter years of his life.
“People are living in different sensory worlds,” Hanni points out. He notes that we don’t all like the same music, the same airline, the same vacation mode, the same burger, the same apple pie. Then why should we, as drinkers, be expected to like the same wine.
To that end, we tasted through a number of dishes, showing that a cabernet sauvignon did as well, if not better, than a moscato or sauvignon blanc with chef Scott Ekstrom’s shrimp louie. And talk about oysters ...
“Just in case you run into a combination that makes your wine taste thin and bitter, try adding a tiny squeeze of lemon juice and a pinch of salt to your food,” Hanni advises. “The result is the wine becomes rich, round and mellow.
“However, chef Scott Ekstrom is employing this type of flavor balancing to more and more dishes, so you may rarely encounter a taste conflict. If a restaurant like Fish Story in red wine country can do this, I think other chefs can get on board with flavor balancing.”
He said restaurants need to organize “progressive” wine lists, that range from sweet wines on up through big, full-bodied reds.
With the help of chefs, winemakers will be able to recapture former wine drinkers lost to the cocktail set, Hanni said.
“We’ve lost chenin blanc because we didn’t know who to sell it to. Wineries need to tell people, ‘If you like our moscato, we’ve got some other wines you might like.’ It’s all about understanding, embracing and cultivating consumers.”
You can get additional information about Hanni’s efforts at MyVinoType.com.