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Why You Like the Wines You Like
By Rebecca Murphy
Apr 23, 2013
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Tim Hanni, MW has been a wine guru to me for many years, so I was interested in reading his newly released book, Why You Like the Wines You Like:  Changing the Way the World Thinks About Wine.  He’s been professionally involved with wine for more than 20 years.  I think it’s safe to say he’s a wine geek, but he became dissatisfied with much of the conventional wine wisdom he encountered in his career.  The result is a chronicle of his quest to understand taste physiology and how it affects our wine and food choices.

I can’t remember exactly where or when met, but it was a long time ago.  He was immediately appealing because of his quirky sense of humor and vast depth of knowledge.  He trained as a chef and he, along with Joel Butler, was one of the first Americans to pass the rigorous Master of Wine exam and be invited to become a member of the elite Institute of Masters of Wine.

He has spent most of his career puzzling over why people like the wines they like, the reasons why wine and food pairings work or don’t, learning about the physiology and psychology of taste and attempting to debunk what he considers the dogma of the wine world.  Do you believe that only certain wines can pair successfully with certain foods?  Do you believe that the only “good” wines are big, fruity, high alcohol reds?  Do you think that people who like White Zinfandel or sweet Moscatos are ignorant?  If you answer these questions in the affirmative, you may not like what Hanni has to say.

For example, he has found that people have different levels of physical sensibilities that strongly influence what kind of wine they enjoy.  Some people will never like a big, high-alcohol red because, quite simply, it hurts them.  Additionally, Hanni suggests that much of the language used to describe wine may be relevant only to the person describing the wine, because what smells deliciously like strawberry, cherry, tobacco with hints of forest floor to one person, does not necessarily sound pleasant to another.   Moreover, he would tell you to stop worrying about the perfect wine and food combination and “match the wine to the diner not the dinner.”

The first Hanni tasting seminar that I remember attending was in Dallas.  He was working for Beringer Vineyards.  The tasting included three or four different glasses of iced tea, a beverage quite familiar and unintimidating to any Texan.  I thought it was an inspired way to discuss and compare flavors, aromas and tastes.  People can get very nervous when asked to describe a wine, but iced tea?  No problem. 

At another seminar, Hanni offered a range of Beringer wines from White Zinfandel to Cabernet Sauvignon with a plate of food including asparagus, lemon and white mushrooms.  He had us quickly taste all the wines, noting a preference, if any.  Then in various sequences, he had us taste each wine with each of the foods.  If the combination turned a wine from pleasant to not so pleasant, he had us add a bit of salt or a squeeze of lemon.  All of a sudden the wine tasted good again.

He was demonstrating the principles of flavor balancing for wine and food pairing, a concept Hanni developed with Beringer chefs including Jerry Comfort and Sarah Scott.  The idea is that it’s the interaction between the acidic, salty, bitter, sweet and umami flavors in food with the acidity, bitterness or sweetness of wine that affect how well the pairing works.  The flavor elements that make wines taste bitter are umami in foods like asparagus, tomatoes, cooked mushrooms and meats and bitterness in foods like radicchio and charred foods.  Hanni says to add a bit of lemon juice and or salt to the food to change one’s perception of the wine’s taste.  Sweetness in food will make a wine with less sweetness taste thin and acidic.  Just make sure that the wine is sweeter than the food. 
I love this approach because, while I enjoy selecting just the right wine to go with a food, I believe that such a fuss is made of wine and food pairings that many consumers are intimidated or turned off by the whole idea--and serve a beer instead.  When people anxiously ask me about the best wine for a particular food, I like to remind them that no one has ever died from an “incorrect” wine and food pairing, and that they should drink the wine they like with the food they like.  Hanni’s approach can help make the wine and food work well together.  
Under Hanni’s direction I have had my tongue painted blue so we could see how many taste buds I have.   Counting the number of taste buds, or papillae, gives an idea of how sensitive one is to bitterness.  Apparently, I have a lot of taste buds, but not as many as a “supertaster,” a term coined by Dr. Linda Bartoshuk to indicate people who find the taste of the chemical compounds phenylthiocarbamide (PTC) or propylthiouracil (PROP) to be “horribly and intensely bitter.”  The media went crazy with the supertaster term, making it sound as if a supertaster was someone with a great ability to discern and distinguish a multitude of flavors.  As Hanni points out, a supertaster in Bartoshuk’s study was someone who was super sensitive to the bitter compounds.   People with lots of taste buds are more likely to be sensitive to bitterness, so a high-alcohol, big red wine will likely not be appealing.  People with fewer tastes buds will love that big red. 

It was while Hanni was working with Virginia Utermohlen, MD, on a study concerning the physiological and psychological conditions that affect our personal preferences, that he came across a term that gave him an “ah-ha” moment.  The word was phenotype, which is defined as “a set of observable characteristic of an individual resulting from the interaction of its genotype, or genetic makeup, with the environment.  “  He created a new term, “vinotype,” which he defined as “the unique combination of sensitivities and values that comprise one’s personal wine preferences.”

Hanni has defined four different vintoypes:  Sweet, Hypersensitive, Sensitive and Tolerant.  Sweet Vinotypes are among the most sensitive and bitter-averse.  Their wine preferences are sweet, low alcohol wines with plenty of fragrance.  Hypersensitives prefer lower alcohol, fragrant, complex wines that are dry or perhaps off dry.  They may also prefer
low oak red wines with smooth tannins.  Sensitives like a wide range of flavors, and may be the most adventurous wine drinkers, enjoying many wine styles.  Tolerants prefer intense, big red wines almost exclusively.   He adds seven Vinotype genres to explain how our tastes may change over time or even day to day.  The genres concern how involved a wine consumer may be, ranging from someone who simply enjoys wine to someone who merits description as a wine geek. 

The point of all this is to help consumers better understand why they like the wines they like.  On that basis, he also tries to help them overcome the embarrassment that can result from a discrepancy between what they like and what the “experts” say they should like.  His wish is that consumers become more confident and “demand that those selling wine to them understand and custom tailor wine recommendations.”  Regarding winemakers, marketers, retailers, restaurateurs and wine writers, Hanni hopes that they will recognize that there is no one wine that will appeal to all of us, and to respect individuals’ differing taste preferences. 

After more than 20 years of research, Hanni is seeing his work become more widely accepted in the wine world.  His wine and food principles were adopted last year and taught as part of the Advanced Diploma curriculum for the Wine & Spirits Educational Trust.  The Society of Wine Educators is incorporating his principles into their curriculum.  If this brief description of Hanni’s thoughts intrigues you, or if you would like to discover your Vinotype and its non-wine related attributes (like sensitivity to scratchy clothing or loud sounds), his book offers much more detail.  And his quirky sense of humor makes it an enjoyable read.