Women for WineSense are a savvy lot, so there was more than one raised eyebrow when Master of Wine Tim Hanni proposed they have a dill pickle with their cabernet sauvignon.
“Try the wine, eat the pickle and then try the wine again,” he instructed them.
“Surprised, are you?” Hanni asked when they had complied, gingerly munching a slice of pickle before taking a sip of Markham Vineyards cab. “How many of you guessed that a pickle could make the wine fuller, smoother, richer?”
Hanni, however, was not advocating pickles and cab as a new miracle pairing.
He was, instead, demonstrating a principle of flavor balancing, which he advocates in place of food and wine pairings. Hanni, a former chef as well as wine educator, is among those who support this method of adjusting the salt and acid levels in a dish to allow diners to enjoy the wine of their choice with any dish.
“Wine pairings are a fraud,” he said, as he addressed the Women for WineSense annual holiday dinner at Markham Vineyards in the Napa Valley. A fundraiser for their scholarship program, it’s titled “Wine on America’s Table,” and Hanni was advocating that one way to get more wine on American tables is to make it more consumer friendly.
Getting rid of outdated notions of food and wine pairings is one way, he said. “You should pair wines to the diner, not the dinner,” said Hanni, who has challenged many popular practices of current wine education in his book “Why You Like the Wines You Like: Changing the Way the World Thinks About Wine.”
Sweet and umami — the savory taste found in meats and cheeses — can make a wine taste thin and sour, he said. Add a bit of salt, and acid restores the balance. He most often uses lemon to adjust acidity, but in this case it was pickles.
“Try it,” he urged his audience. “Think of the most supposedly incorrect pairing you can and try it. Have syrah with oysters, white zinfandel with steak. Consider it a wine ‘unpairing’ dinner.”
Hanni said it would be to the wine industry’s advantage to embrace the variety of tastes in consumers, especially those who prefer sweet wines.
“There are physiological as well as psychology reasons for your wine preferences,” Hanni said, noting that the number of taste buds a person has often forms the basis of their wine preferences. “Some people have as many as 11,000 taste buds while others may have as few as 500.”
“Contrary to the popular misconceptions about sweet wine drinkers,” he added, “they are the ones with the most taste buds, the most sensitive tasters of all. The high-alcohol, intense wines are actually unpleasant to their highly sensitive palate.”
The dominant attitude toward sweet wine drinkers, that they are unsophisticated beginners and will “move up” to prefer drier wines, “has disenfranchised a huge segment of potential wine drinkers,” Hanni said.
“How many people here like sweet wines?” he asked the group. Of the some 70 diners, one hand went up, but it was that of Hanni’s wife, Kate.
“This is my point,” he said. “Sweet wine drinkers don’t go to wine dinners because they don’t think they’ll like the wines, and they’re probably right. At other events, you don’t see them with a glass of wine; they’re drinking cocktails.”
At the foundation of Hanni’s ideas, which he terms “The New Wine Fundamentals,” is a return to genuine hospitality.
“I was looking at a copy of ‘Larousse Gastronomique,’” he said, referring to the culinary classic first published in 1938. “Looking at old menus, there it was: With your chateaubriand, serve one of the great French red wines — or if the guest prefers, one of the great sweet wines, like a Sauternes. ‘If the guest prefers,’ that is the key to hospitality and what we should be practicing today. Embrace, cultivate and enjoy — that really is what I advocate.”
“And if you know a sweet wine drinker, I want you to go apologize to them,” he concluded.