Tim Hanni’s learned assertions about wine and food do not match long-held beliefs.
In fact, what Hanni writes in a newly released book — “Why You Like the Wines You Like” — contrasts so much with conventional thinking that it fairly shouts for a response, although up to now it has barely been whispered about.
What Hanni says about pairing that some in the food industry will find outrageous is that it doesn’t exist. To wit:
• “There is no wine and food matching. That’s all a big delusion. All the principles of wine and food matching are a complex set of metaphors that actually have no basis whatsoever. I’m just saying ‘Stop it!’ We all know that Santa Claus doesn’t exist, but we tell our children he does. It’s something called group think. Group think is when you accept something that you know not to be truth, but we do it because everybody does it and we’d look silly if we didn’t. So people do wine and food matching because they think they should.”
• “The whole pairing thing is filled with absolute delusion ... that this wine is going to overpower the fish or this or that will happen. It’s all crap. This wine and food matching is all made up. ‘Delicate and lemony and this, and this, and this ...’ with halibut. I can serve you this big, intense merlot or cabernet with the halibut and it would be absolutely delicious. It doesn’t have to be white wine.”
• “Wine and food pairing is a fraud foisted on the unknowing. You want to pair wine with the diner, not the dinner.”
If Hanni was something other than what he is, the foregoing might be dismissed out of hand. But he is one of two American Masters of Wine and quite possibly one of this nation’s — if not the world’s — consummate experts on food and wine.
Hanni came into the world of wine from the vantage point of a trained chef. When he moved to the Napa Valley in the ’80s, he became a communications director for Beringer.
His book was written after three decades of research along with Virginia Utermolen, M.D., of Cornell University. One of its main points among others taken from all this commitment is that there is a physiological basis for wine preferences that breaks down into four distinct palatal types — sweet, hypersensitive, sensitive and tolerant — which he labels “vinotypes.” He has introduced his vinotyping method to tasting rooms in the Napa Valley and to seminars in China, where he has been beckoned on two occasions by a monolithic Chinese real estate and construction company with a wine division in Houston.
Because Hanni’s book went into print only a few days ago, the response to it among the culinary and wine industries has yet to be heard. But for a sampling of what they might say, the Star presented excerpts from its interview with Hanni and other sources to Christine Machamer, head chef for B Cellars, a Calistoga winery.
While Machamer said she agreed with Hanni to some extent, she added, “but it’s a yes and a no.”
“I agree that a lot of the rules that we have lived our life by, such as pairing white meat with white wines and red meat with red wines, are antiquated,” Machamer said. “But I think a case can be made for low-fat foods. Saicim, the chemical component you’ll find in chili peppers, for example, only dissolves in a sugary substance. So something spicy like Mexican food or Thai food with a white wine, or even a red wine that has a little bit of residual sugar, it’s going to be a great pairing because we’ve already proven the effect that’s going to happen.
“If you have halibut with any kind of buttery component, you’ll immediately want to go for a chardonnay,” she added. “But if you use lemon and drink a cabernet, you’re going to notice more fruit because the acidity is going to intensify the food flavors of the wine. It’s going to make tannins more powerful and it’s going to be a great meal.”
But, she said, “Every palate is different. That’s why we make different wines.”
Given her age — she is 30 — Machamer’s credentials are not on a level with Hanni’s. But they are nevertheless good enough to qualify her as a spokesperson. In the food and wine business since she was 16, she is a certified sommelier working on an advanced certificate and balances that with a course of study at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
She won the fourth season (2008) of Gordon Ramsay’s “Hell’s Kitchen” reality TV series on Fox Network by winning nine of 14 challenges. Later she worked at Bouchon in Beverly Hills.
Does she disagree with Hanni?
“Yes,” Machamer said. “Maybe he just doesn’t taste any difference in the wine with the pairing.”