Taste sensation

An interview with Tim Hanni by Robert Joseph

Tim Hanni
Tim Hanni

After training as a chef, Tim Hanni became one of the first two Americans to become a Master of Wine. Working as an educator and academic – at faculties including Sonoma State University and Cornell University – and for commercial clients such as Trinchero, Gallo, and UK distributors Bibendum, Hanni has focused on applying original research to individual consumer tastes in wine. The creator of the concept of genetic Vinotypes, he is also credited as having predicted and helped to drive the recent trend towards sweeter wines such as Moscato and red blends in the US.

MEININGER’S: How has your background in food influenced your work on wine?

HANNI: I started out as a classicist, following food experts like Escoffier, Raymond Oliver, and [US television cook] Julia Child in the 1960s with my dad. I was a fully immersed, wine-and-food-matching traditionalist. Spellbound!

MEININGER’S: So what changed?

HANNI: In about 1989, when I started the Master of Wine programme, I was becoming more and more aware of the polarised opinions people may have with different wines, and with wine and food pairing, which I now believe to be a complete fantasy based on pseudo-science and metaphors. In 1990 I happened to attend a three-day workshop for electronic engineers that focused on critical thinking, disruptive innovation and change, and how people living in a bubble of expertise and collective delusions often lose touch with the market they are working to connect with. This in turn leads to products that do not meet the needs of the market and have to be ‘pushed’ on consumers. The key signs of this are ‘having to educate’ the market.

MEININGER’S: What did your research into different preferences lead you to believe?

HANNI: We are all genetically pre-programmed with attractions and aversions. Changes in preferences, from about four years old to very late in life, are largely reorganising what certain sensations represent. So, with observation, culture, peer pressure, and learning we adapt to associate things we didn’t like with aspiration or attainment – something we often refer to as an ‘acquired’ taste. We also equally associate things in a negative light, ‘disposing’ of tastes as well, such as the current hysteria over sweetness in wine for those who have become more ‘sophisticated’. Disposing of sweetness is easy for some people and impossible for a huge segment of the global market, and our insistence on dry wine as ‘good’ wine is ridiculous and does not serve the wine industry or reflect the history and traditions of wine.

Dry wines are the new fad (in relative terms) not the historical standard; the 1947 Château Cheval Blanc had over 30 g/L (3%) residual sugar. Most prized white Rhône wines were vins de paille – dried on mats and made into sweet wines. Countless sweet wines, including Château d’Yquem, were thought completely appropriate with fish, beef, or oysters. Montrachet, in the greatest vintages, was very sweet, not dry. Champagnes, as consumed in France, often had 140 g/L (14%) residual sugar – a lot more than American Coca Cola which has 108 g/L (10.1%) residual sugar. The global sweet wine opportunity was, and still is, about 25% to 40% of the total available market. Things have just gotten out of control with the dry wine fashionistas. And keep in mind that as wine has gone dry, consumption in France and Italy has plummeted.

MEININGER’S: You talk about the link between neurology and taste leading to people having specific ‘Vinotypes’.

HANNI: I was misheard when meaning to say ‘phenotype’, but Vinotype works well to describe what we are talking about. Genetics defines your sensory physiology, which determines the range and intensity of sensations we perceive. Neurological processing determines the meaning we attach to sensations: good or bad, right or wrong, safe or dangerous, etc. People defined as Tolerant listen to music at a loud volume, and tend to like full-flavoured Cabernet Sauvignon that a Hypersensitive consumer might find intolerable.

If you have the genetic SNP (single nucleotide polymorphism) associated with making cilantro (coriander) taste soapy and horrible, it is simply disgusting. Julia Child had this, and it’s not something that can be overcome over time, contrary to what I hear from culinary and wine ‘experts’. We are now starting to work more and more with specific SNPs. One of these – rs61364 – is responsible for the way you experience ethanol. For people with no rs61364, ethanol tastes sweet, so they love many high-alcohol wines. Those with one rs61364 find it tolerably warming, while for those with two, even a 12% wine (especially combined with high phenolics) can be excruciating.

MEININGER’S: What differences – if any – in tastes are related to sex or age? 

HANNI: The differences can be profound. The range of taste buds from one person to the next can vary from 500 or less to over 11,000. Many other variables have to be taken into account, but this demonstrates a very general physiological set of traits. The idea that having more taste buds or a heightened sensory sensitivity is ‘better’ is a complete fallacy. There is no better or worse, just different. Take Dr Linda Bartoshuk’s term ‘supertaster’. Most people have no clue what it means or what her research is about, and I hear people exclaiming proudly, “I am a supertaster!” Don’t get me started…
Women do tend to have a higher degree of sensory sensitivity in general, but at the highest level (we refer to Sweet and Hypersensitive Vinotype) the ratio is about 70% women to 30% men. Statements like ‘women have better palates’ are kind of ridiculous, because many men live in the hypersensitive world, and there is no ‘better’ or ‘worse’. A Hypersensitive person provides a lousy basis for wine recommendations to a Tolerant Vinotype, and vice-versa. Just as someone who does not have the ‘cilantro’ (coriander) gene makes a poor guide to someone who has the gene and wants a recommendation for Thai recipes.

In terms of age, there are many conflicting studies, and most of our changes in preferences are neurological/psychological. We have created the ridiculous notion that our ‘palate matures’ over time, but it is much more likely the changes are in our head, not our physiology. There is a lot of evidence that our physiological capacities do not change much from the time we are about four years old. Some people seem to lose bitter sensitivity, but many people gain it later in life.

MEININGER’S: Given this range of Vinotypes, why has Robert Parker been so successful?

HANNI: Robert Parker has an amazing work ethic and I admire him greatly. His ability to taste and distinguish a huge number of wines in a day correlates to Tolerant Vinotypes, and he has a great system that offers perfectly targeted advice for Tolerant and many Sensitive Vinotypes. To the right people, his palate, method, and recommendations are perfect! His success is explained by a market begging for a better, more consistent rating system. The Tolerant Vinotype segment is male dominated, with linear thinking, decisive and financially successful people. For them, more plus bigger plus faster equals better.

MEININGER’S: Why do Italians have so much higher a threshold for bitterness – in coffee, chocolate, vegetables like endive, drinks like Campari, and wine – than Americans?

HANNI: Nurture, or more expressly, the effects of culture, family, peers, learning, observation, and life experiences play a huge role in our preferences. From a cultural standpoint your conditioning starts in the womb and a foetus has the capacity to smell and taste flavour molecules in the amniotic fluid.

MEININGER’S: Do people naturally shift towards ‘drier’, more complex flavours as they grow older?

HANNI: Yes, many, many people shift to ‘drier’ and more complex flavours, but a very large percentage of people will not. Our data shows clearly that our insistence on this ridiculous idea causes millions of consumers to migrate to beverage options other than wine (cocktails, light beers, cider, etc.). It is much easier to shift preferences if you are a Sensitive or Tolerant Vinotype. Peer and expert pressure is very powerful and this explains why so many people ‘talk dry and drink sweet’.

MEININGER’S: Red blends – usually with residual sugar – are currently the second-fastest-growing category of wine in the US. Is this a fashion or are they here to stay?

HANNI: A fashion that is here to stay.

MEININGER’S: Wine experts increasingly look for ‘minerality’ in wine. How do you see consumers reacting to this character?

HANNI: It is an insider thing. Consumers don’t really care in general, or it is one more pretence. I get what people mean but it is like being able to hear the ‘air’ from your system in the audiophile world.

MEININGER’S: You travel widely. Do you think US wine tastes are very different from those elsewhere, such as China?

HANNI: No, and please, please don’t think that ‘Americans like sweet wines because they grew up on sweet sodas’. This is the most ignorant and narrow-minded nonsense imaginable. Every human has to learn not to like sweetness. Look where mixing Cola and red wine is the rage – it’s Basque country Spaniards drinking their Kalimotxo, not China. But Asian genetics are certainly different, and we estimate 50% to 70% of Asians will favour sweeter, or dry and more delicate, wines. Do we want to create consumers or continue to support the red-wine-is-good-wine fashion and face statement? Asians have a predisposition for the aldehyde dehydrogenase deficiency that causes the red flushing of their faces and a low tolerance for alcohol.

MEININGER’S: Can you predict the kinds of wines a person will like from talking to them about other subjects?

HANNI: You betcha. People love it when I ask them if they have to cut tags out of their clothes because they have sensitive skin, and then talk to them about the kind of wines they are passionate about. I can often make wine preference predictions simply from observing their behaviour and personality traits. We are working to insert these ‘new conversations’ into hospitality and selling wine.

MEININGER’S: How important are the look of wines to the way they are perceived?

HANNI: Metaphorically ‘bigger’ wines come with heavy bottles, heavy price tags, and are served in bigger glasses, and with meat from big animals. The colour is important too. The work of Morrot and Brochet in Bordeaux illustrates how dramatically the look of a wine can influence the neural connects to re-cognate elements of smell – when we see a wine colour we tap into the part of the brain that stores the appropriate descriptors. And texture – primarily dictated by a combination or polyphenolics and tannins, alcohol, and umami – is essentially one of the most variable aspects of our perception differences. A high-alcohol, new oak-laden, extended maceration Parker bomb is smooth, sweet, and delicious to a Tolerant Vinotype. It is harsh, burning, and unbearable to [US wine critic] Dan Berger and others at the Sweet and Hypersensitive Vinotype range.

MEININGER’S: Are some people naturally more likely to accept ‘earthy’ and ‘gamey’ flavours traditionally popular in wines such as Rhône reds by nature rather than nurture?

HANNI: This really gets to the crux of our work. It can be said that nature is the genetic and physiological component of perception. Nurture is the realm of neural plasticity and how we adapt to environmental influences over time. One person may be hypersensitive to the compounds associated with Brettanomyces and find the smells horribly intense and unattractive. Another may have a very high detection threshold and tolerance for the smell, or lack the receptors and be oblivious to the smell and find no problem with the wines demonstrating this characteristic. Two people might perceive earthy and gamey aromatics at roughly the same intensity but one – like me – will associate the aromas with wines they drank in a certain era and love a fairly high level, while the other, trained to recognise faults – like my great friend Peter Koff MW – will find them commercially unacceptable.

MEININGER’S: And what about the music and colours of the place where the wines are being consumed?

HANNI: The colour of the room you are in, music, price, power of suggestion, anxiety, time of day, all affect perception. But the idea that the reactions to environment may be the same for any two people, or that anyone is immune to external influences (as some critics claim) is unsupportable.

MEININGER’S: How do you react to the accusation that your approach threatens the traditional importance of terroir?

HANNI: Terroir is a train wreck. The incredible diversity of wines in the world is suffering as people make wines that go against the climate and traditions of their regions. Terroir came from the Latin terra, or land, not terre, soil. Up until the recent re-emergence of the word in the 1970s, a vin de terroir indicated a ‘dirty’ microbiological spoilage character, like dirty diapers. We are working to match wines to people who are inclined to love them. “Here, try this intense, tannic, ripe, and highly concentrated wine, just what you should love,” for one person and, “you will love the pure expression of fruit, lower alcohol, and fragrance of this for your Vinotype.” How does that threaten terroir?

MEININGER’S: How have you applied your theories commercially?

HANNI: I was called into a marketing and production meeting with Trinchero, makers of Sutter Home, in 2007, and helped them reformulate their Moscato for Sweet Vinotypes, and to reposition it and raise the price. They went from 125,000 cases in 2007 to over 3m. I was also doing consumer insights work for Gallo, and they jumped on the Moscato bandwagon at the same time. While everyone was waiting for the ‘next big thing’, thinking it was Riesling, rosé, or the sommelier favourite, Grüner Veltliner, Moscato exploded. Recently, we’ve launched a Vinotype Assessment widget in seven languages for wine clubs, winery, and retailer websites that allows users to find their Vinotype and educates them on how to group wines effectively. If we can accumulate enough users, along with key wines they love, we can filter search results from other users with similar preferences.

MEININGER’S: Are we moving towards personalised wines? And if so, is that entirely desirable?

HANNI: Hasn’t success for the industry always been tied to personalisation? The role of a wine merchant, the wine waiter, the sommelier…it was to serve the wines appropriate for the guests and to serve the host. Not to lecture, not to look down on people because they wanted honey in their wine. Or a dash of cassis syrup, or a little water and cube of sugar if the wine was too strong. We as an industry have just forgotten about the most important thing of all – the person.

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