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'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.
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.