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What Kind of Wine Taster Are You?

Know what you like in a wine? Tim Hanni explains why in his new book.
© Fotolia/Tim Hanni | Know what you like in a wine? Tim Hanni explains why in his new book.
W. Blake Gray talks to Tim Hanni MW, author of "Why You Like The Wines You Like," about his research into "taster types."

Master of Wine Tim Hanni told Gary Vaynerchuk to call his mother and apologize for giving her morning sickness.

The two met in Houston and Vaynerchuk told Hanni that as a young boy he had hidden under the kitchen table to eat spoonfuls of salt. Hanni suspected the sensitivity of Gary V's palate would have caused his mother to suffer while pregnant. Vaynerchuk made the call.

"His mother yelled at him, so loud he had to hold the phone away from his ear," Hanni says. "She said, 'I had morning sickness so bad...'"

Hanni, who became America's first Master of Wine in 1990, theorizes that sensitive tasters cause their mothers to suffer worse morning sickness during pregnancy. It's just one of many unusual theories he's developed. Despite having given up drinking in 1992 after deciding he was an alcoholic, Hanni has since devoted himself to researching and preaching about the phenomena of taste. 

As part of that, he has photographed tongues and counted tastebuds. He suggests that there are four types of tasters – "vinotypes" – sorted by sensitivity, and moreover, that people's sensitivity extends beyond their mouths to their reactions to loud music, silent alarms and tags in their clothing.

Hanni thinks Robert Parker became famous because of his lower level of sensitivity. And he believes that people who prefer the sweetest moscatos with their meals are actually the most sensitive tasters.

Hanni has some credentials in the taste research world beyond being an MW. He calls himself the "Swami of Umami" because he was the first to talk about the reaction between the taste of foods high in umami – which few Americans had heard of 20 years ago – and the taste of specific types of wines.

But I found it very hard to get other taste researchers to talk about Hanni's theory and his new book, "Why You Like The Wines You Like." The world of taste research is small, and the two leading American experts, Hildegarde Heymann at UC Davis and Linda Bartoshuk at the University of Florida, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on Hanni's theory.

Hanni claims Gary Vaynerchuk's palate is to blame for his mother's morning sickness
© Erik Kastner Wikimedia/Tim Hanni | Hanni claims Gary Vaynerchuk's palate is to blame for his mother's morning sickness

Hanni's four types are Tolerant, Sensitive, Hyper Sensitive, and Sweet. Hanni says people in the Sweet vinotype actually have the most taste buds. "The world is just a cacophony of sensation to them," he says.

Hanni believes the 100-point scale arose because of the dominance of Tolerant tasters, who love things that are bigger, faster and stronger. They prefer fuller-bodied reds and can't understand why anyone would like watery, weak wines. They speak loudly, are linear thinkers and bottom-line oriented. They're about 15 percent of the population, Hanni says, and almost entirely men – which makes them 30 percent of all men.

Tolerant tasters "tend to be financially successful and that's why we have the tyranny of the 100-point system," Hanni declares. "It's how they look at the bottom line of a business. The tolerant taster gets less of a spectrum of taste and less gradations. They hear less bandwidth. Things need to be turned up. It's more black-and-white for them."

It follows, then, that in Hanni's view Robert Parker bases his tasting process on the Tolerant Taster model.

"Louder, faster, better," Hanni says. "It explains why Parker and some other people can taste a monumental number of wines. They have a system. It's organized. It's very easy for Parker to be decisive. To be consistent."

Hanni's work expands on groundbreaking research done by Bartoshuk, a renowned scientist, who said some people are "supertasters," with heightened sensitivity, and others are "nontasters," for whom taste sensations are not as intense.

"Linda Bartoshuk now says this is the wrong term," says Hanni. "Everybody wants to be the supertaster. But people are living in different sensory worlds. It's not better to be a supertaster. 'Supertasters' often can't even stand wine. It's too bitter, the tannins are too dry, the alcohol is too intense."

Hanni thinks these people might enjoy sweet wines, but one of his constant themes, for more than a decade, has been to tell the wine industry that it should stop chasing these consumers away.

There are four vinotypes, according to Hanni
© Tim Hanni | There are four vinotypes, according to Hanni

When he was employed to analyze wine sales at the U.S. restaurant chain Olive Garden, he discovered that for 90 percent of servers, the more wine training they had, the less wine they sold.

"Wine appreciation is a Pandora's box," Hanni says. "The wine-training program would teach them about the 'Big Six' grapes. They sold a lot of sangria and white zinfandel. But [those grapes] are not in the Big Six. So they would recommend something else, and the customers wouldn't like it and wouldn't have it when they came back."

Hanni makes a lot of historical points about sweet wines, saying that wine consumption dropped in Europe when wines got drier, and that Montrachet used to be sweet in great years. He says tasters who prefer sweet wines today will order cocktails instead because restaurants don't do a good job of stocking wines for them.

And here's a big difference between an MW and an MS: he thinks food-and-wine pairing is vastly overrated, so much so that he rewrote the Wine & Spirit Education Trust's advanced curriculum to eliminate food pairing entirely.

"We train sommeliers not to be hospitable about wine," he says. "What if we can reinvigorate the wine and food community to stop terrorizing people about what they can and can't drink?"

Hanni likes to demonstrate this by showing that cabernet sauvignon goes better with oysters than you'd think. He smiles when you agree, but he doesn't retest this pairing himself. That would be drinking.

* "Why You Like the Wines You Like," by Tim Hanni, is published by New Wine Fundamentals at $24.95.

Related stories: 

Parker's Perfect Napa Dozen 

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  • Comments

    Bob Henry wrote:
    09-Feb-2014 at 23:05:27 (GMT)

    Christopher, You had me busting a gut with this anecdote: "I've almost gotten into arguments with guests because they would say 'I'll have whatever YOU think' and upon asking them what they like they would reply again with 'I'll have whatever YOU think.' I would tell them, I THINK you should tell me what you like." Regarding your observation . . . "Want a good litmus test for sommeliers? Ask them to pair a wine with the simplest or better yet, the most complicated dish you can imagine. If they spend more than 5 seconds analyzing the ingredients or worse, never ask a follow up question and head for the cellar, they are not a good sommelier." . . . I cite this advice -- an excerpt from Robert M. Parker, Jr. Interview Decanter Magazine (circa 1999): Decanter: What is your approach to food and wine matching? Parker: [Quote] I am 100% in agreement with Michael Broadbent’s view of simple food with great wines and vice versa. [End quote.] And Tim, I can recall the uproar that ensued among the "chattering class" in the wine world when Los Angeles Times investigative journalist David Shaw wrote in his 1999 profile of Parker that he purportedly ordered oyster to go with his bottle of Harlan at Pinot Blanc restaurant in Napa. Excerpt: "The maitre d' at Pinot Blanc takes Parker straight to his table, and Parker immediately orders a dozen oysters. As soon as he begins scanning the menu, he abandons his plan for a quick, light dinner with no wine. "It's not even 6 o'clock,' he says. 'Let's have some mussels, too. And I think I'll have the veal cheeks after that.' He asks for the wine list. 'They've got Harlan Estate,' he says, beaming. He's given recent vintages of Harlan scores of 98, 99 and 100. He says it's 'maybe the single most profound wine in California.' After his first sip, Parker's cherubic face takes on a blissful glow. He has said that he 'gets chills' when he tastes certain wines, and this is one of them."

  • Christopher Hoel wrote:
    08-Feb-2014 at 04:00:20 (GMT)

    As a career sommelier with over 20 years in the business, most recently 4 years at The French Laundry, I have to agree with Joel and disagree with Tim. Saying that "We train sommeliers not to be hospitable about wine," sounds like a function of bad training. Often I would tell my staff that a wine pairing has three equal elements: the dish, the wine and THE GUEST. Listening to what the guest likes is the most important part. If they just like red wines and have fish coming next, there's a wine. There's always a red to go with fish or whatever goes against the standard "norm" of wine pairings. I've almost gotten into arguments with guests because they would say "I'll have whatever YOU think" and upon asking them what they like they would reply again with "I'll have whatever YOU think". I would tell them, i THINK you should tell me what you like. The appreciation of wine is largely dependent on mood and surroundings. If you're nervous to drink something new with a certain dish and walk in with trepidation you will probably not like the wine. People have comfort zones when it comes to wine and a good sommelier recognizes that and makes a recommendation accordingly. A sommelier should suggest a wine that alights with a guests palate, dish, budget and serving size. Selling a magnum on a table of two don't deserve 'high fives". Then serve it correctly (right glassware, correct temperature, decanting if necessary, constant service, etc...) and that's it! Most sommeliers (typically the younger ones) think it's all about them, it's not, it about THE GUEST! Just because so many sommeliers get it wrong doesn't mean all of them approach it incorrectly or that the role of a sommelier isn't needed or welcome. I know chefs that have been in the kitchen for 10 years and can't poach an egg! It's called poor training and it starts from the top. Want a good litmus test for sommeliers? Ask them to pair a wine with the simplest or better yet, the most complicated dish you can imagine. If they spend more than 5 seconds analyzing the ingredients or worse, never ask a follow up question and head for the cellar, they are not a good sommelier. I drink milk on ice with my red sauced pasta, I drink fino sherry with M&M's and I put way too much Campari in my Negroni's, but that's the way I like it and it makes me happy!

  • Joel Butler MW, WineKnow LLC wrote:
    09-Jan-2014 at 00:16:57 (GMT)

    Not a big deal, Blake, but actually, Tim was one of the first two MW's resident in US, along with myself. As for Tim's ideas, we have kicked the can around the table a lot over the years! I have been in his camp, effectively for at least a decade. I still think that my palate confounds his hypotheses--while I drink my coffee black (espresso), I have a low threshold for both tannins and alcohol, and also love good sweet wine in addition to the usual suspects! I guess I could be called a "footnoted supertaster"! You know from our talks about my book "Divine Vintage" that historically, a lot of the best ancient wine was sweet, and that until the beginning of the 20th Century, the preferred style of Champagne was also sweet. Ironically, most German wines were dry--go figure! I should take exception to the artificial conflict you built between MS and MW relative to Tim's POV. While I agree with Tim that one should not worry about food pairing but enjoy whatever wine you feel like with a dish, most people like some direction when they dine out, as they don't have the wine experience as we professionals do. The best sommeliers I know don't dictate what someone should drink, but guide people to think about an appropriate dish. As always, Tim provokes a lot of food (& wine) for thought. Joel Butler MW

  • Martin A. Cody wrote:
    07-Jan-2014 at 18:15:54 (GMT)

    Several years ago I had the pleasure of sitting in Tim's Napa kitchen and being mesmorized by an impromptu tasting "experience". Tim was treating me to "umami" as a taste by providing me numerous examples of this new "taste". It was otherworldly. We then explored the disfunction of American cuisine, namely having salads first and dessert wines last. He produced an ancient (I believe it was over 100 years old) book from Bordeaux describing the "proper" order of both wine and food sequence throughout the meal. It was quite an enjoyable evening. His incredible passion, generosity and comedic wit was on display all evening and I left, as most do after meeting Tim, being a better, more informed person. Definitely getting the book! Cheers Tim! Martin Cody President Cellar Angels

  • Tim Hanni wrote:
    04-Jan-2014 at 16:33:56 (GMT)

    In fact taste and smell are completely separate sensory systems. We rely on a combination of the separate sensations of taste, smell, touch, sight and hearing to identify things. Yes, taste and smell together are very powerful but the "garbage" is to say that "'taste' is in fact smell." This is an example of the blatant misinformation being disseminated. I know that taste research is a huge scientific area - I work with cutting edge researchers around the world. In fact, your sense of 'taste' is BETTER more acute when you cannot smell - you simply do not get the additional aromatic clues our olfactory system provides.

  • graham wrote:
    04-Jan-2014 at 00:06:08 (GMT)

    This is utter garbage, "taste" is in fact smell. Our tongues are relatively crude, without the nose we cannot "taste" the difference between lemons vs oranges. Taste research is a huge scientific area. Look it up in pubmed!








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