Tim Hanni: Hate Sauvignon Blanc? Try blaming your childhood

By Jim Boyce

“If you hated mowing the grass as a youth, you might just hate Sauvignon Blanc.”

“There is so much stress on luxury goods that we would rather people not drink wine if it’s the ‘wrong’ brand.”

“Imagine you are trying to sell shoes and you don’t realize people have differently sized feet. If a shoe doesn’t fit someone, you wouldn’t tell them, ‘Well, your foot isn’t mature.'”

These are some of the intriguing comments made by Tim Hanni when he spoke to a small group of China wine industry people in JW Marriott’s Pinot Brasserie in Beijing on April 8. Hanni is a wine researcher and educator, one of the first two Americans to become a Master of Wine, a founder of Napa Seasoning and training company WineQuest, and director of the Lodi International Wine Awards.

I first read about Hanni in this Wall Street Journal piece and then interviewed him for Grape Wall of China last month. I tim-hanni-beijing.JPGlooked forward to getting his take on the wine scene and he didn’t disappoint. Over nearly four hours, he covered everything from his experiences with the Master of Wine exam to chemistry, biology and etymology (What do we mean by ‘palate’?) to the history of wine and food to his rock band (that’s a whole other story).

Hanni took the Master of Wine test in 1989 and “failed it miserably.” He knew he had the technical expertise, but was poor at essays, so he signed up for a three-day writing course. The course ended up being for engineers, he took it anyway, and this led to an epiphany.

“It was brilliant. We learned to take words that we think we all know, and to then agree on what they mean,” he says. “It occurred to me that with much of the language of wine, we think we know what we mean, but deep down there is a lack of agreement.”

Forget about notes of gooseberries and hints of cloves: Hanni says he has been talking to wine makers, sensory specialists and others for 20 years just to discover what we mean by “flavor” and “taste.”

“You have all this wine education going on and nobody’s taken time to answer the harder questions, such as “What’s a palate?” Or about the biggest piece of the puzzle, “How do senses work with the brain?”

He speaks of scientists who do brain scans to gauge the impact of our senses on it, of how atmosphere, color and music can affect wine drinkers, or of the power of suggestion (he says one study found that people gave different evaluations of a white wine and then the same wine – unbeknown to them – dyed red).

He goes so far as to make wine sound like therapy. Take Sauvignon Blanc, a wine often associated with a grassy smell. “We find that people who dislike Sauvignon Blanc have grass allergies; have bad memories of childhood summers; have bad experiences with lawn mowing and lawn moving equipment.”

Which is all to say that why we like or dislike a particular wine is individual, a product of our senses, of our memories and preconceptions, and of a myriad of other factors that argue against a “one size fits all” philosophy.

“People are anatomically different – one size does not fit all. And the size that is being pushed on people is dry wine,” he says.

“Imagine you are trying to sell shoes and you don’t realize people have differently sized feet,” he says. “You wouldn’t say, well, your foot isn’t mature.”

On Friday, I will have part two of the Tim Hanni talk, which covers how he categorizes wine drinkers as well as the food and wine demonstration he gave us.

(Thanks to Arcy Y. for the photo.)

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