Tim Hanni is not the first person to thumb his nose at the pompous dogma of wine snobs. But his is no ordinary nose. A vaunted Master of Wine and professionally trained chef, he has spent the past 20 years working with sensory scientists, placing sacred beliefs under the proverbial microscope. His conclusion: Conventional connoisseurship, with its bias for bold, expensive reds and its rigid food-and-beverage-matching rules, needs an overhaul.
Hanni's populist manifesto is the subject of a new, self-published book, Why You Like the Wines You Like (available through Amazon). It's a compendium of irreverent, witty rants, science explications, food-and-wine lore and even workbook-style multiple-choice tests to gauge the reader's own style preferences – all designed to put novice wine lovers at ease in the company of geeks. Hanni spoke with The Globe and Mail from his home in Napa, Calif.
You coined the term vinotype to convey that people are to some extent physically hard-wired to prefer certain wine styles. Can you elaborate?
It's taken from "phenotype." There's the physiological, genetic aspect of an organism plus adaptations and changes in behaviour – nature plus nurture. Then there's something called phenotypic plasticity, how far an organism may or may not adapt to different environments. If you look at people at the extremes of the sensitivity scale, what we call sweet-hypersensitive at one end and tolerant at the other extreme, they have less natural inclination to adapt.
And you say that hypersensitive people tend to prefer delicate sweet wines, like white zinfandel, while tolerant tasters might go for fashionable, powerful reds with high alcohol. Do you know the percentage breakdown?
Sweet's the hard one, because they are in the closet. They don't want to face the recrimination of the hip people. But our estimate is that about 40 per cent are in the sweet-hypersensitive camp, while about 35 per cent are in the sensitive group. That leaves about 15 per cent in the tolerant.
Does this make wine criticism and point scores irrelevant?
Not at all. We keep waiting for the 100-point scale to go away, but there are certain vinotypes that it's absolutely perfect for. The question is, "What else is there for others?"
You make the point that sweet wines were all the rage until 50 years ago. How did dry become the standard of sophisticated taste?
All the early wine writers were wine salesmen. One of the things they started to do was distinguish that sweetness was used to mask flaws. Therefore, they reasoned that sweet wines are flawed and that the, quote-unquote, "sophisticated drinker" should drink dry wine. The year I was born, 1952, seems to be right at the peak of consumption of sweet wines around the world and it's declined ever since.
Isn't the stigma against white zinfandel based on the fact it's an uncomplex, industrial wine, the oenological equivalent of that cheesy poster of dogs playing poker? Critics are paid to teach us about Matisse, aren't they?
I think it's up to the individual. What if you went over to somebody's house and their walls are bare because they are so embarrassed about their art? It's just gotten a bit out of hand.
So, should critics award 95-point scores to Yellow Tail just because millions of people love uncomplicated shiraz?
You should say, "This wine's technically very, very well made, it's got a sweet edge to it. Those of you who want something a little sweet and predictable and whatever – no problem, you'll love it."
Aren't you reducing pleasure to mere physiological gratification? Some people find allure in geography and boutique craftsmanship. They drink the stories as much as the wine. Is that wrong?
No. It just means you're very studious. I've got an audio addiction. I can listen to Wagner one minute and then turn around and listen to Lyle Lovett and His Large Band, which is exquisitely engineered, and I love it in part for the sound engineering. That [technical appreciation] opens the door to make more people enthusiastic.
You encourage people to try the "wrong" wines with food, like red with delicate fish or oysters, and white with steak. Does that approach work?
It almost invariably works. Try this for a while. For a month, have all the wrong wines when you get the chance, like pinot grigio with steak. If my mother-in-law hates red wine, she's not going to like red with her steak. She's going to want something delicate. That's what she is genetically predisposed to like.
So, pair the wine to the diner, not the dinner?
Exactly. "Welcome over to my house, I've got a leg of lamb. Who wants red? Who wants white? Who wants sweet? Who wants dry? Who wants a beer? Thank you for being here."
Is there any wine style that, in your experience, everybody will like?
I don't think so, unless you've got an expert at the table and then they're reacting to the expert, not to the wine. The more training we gain, the less natural our reactions to the wines are.
This interview has been condensed and edited.