Maverick wine guru Tim Hanni rethinks the pour

Wine industry consultant and 'Master of Wine' Tim Hanni in his home in Napa on Wednesday, March 25, 2015. Tim Hanni is a legend of wine who coined the flavor term "umami," and is a recovering alcoholic who continues to work in the wine industry. Tim, who recently authored "Why You Like the Wines You Like," has also conceptualized "vinotyping," a way of helping consumers understand their own flavor preferences and sensitivities.
Wine industry consultant and 'Master of Wine' Tim Hanni in his home in Napa on Wednesday, March 25, 2015. Tim Hanni is a legend of wine who coined the flavor term "umami," and is a recovering alcoholic who continues to work in the wine industry. Tim, who recently authored "Why You Like the Wines You Like," has also conceptualized "vinotyping," a way of helping consumers understand their own flavor preferences and sensitivities.

Throw away your Wine Wheel. Disregard the precious pairings from restaurant sommeliers. This Master of Wine insists that much of what you’ve been taught about fermented grapes is just plain wrong.

Allow Tim Hanni to demonstrate.

In his two-story home on the edge of Napa’s tony Silverado Resort and Spa, Hanni lines up a selection of wines on the kitchen island. Notion No. 1 to be debunked: Red wines are “heavier” than whites.

Hanni mixes a pour of white zinfandel with cabernet sauvignon in a glass. The wines quickly separate into two distinct layers, like a bottle of unshaken Italian salad dressing. The cab floats on top, outweighed by the white zin and its residual sugar.

“People say the big, heavy red wine you serve in the bigger glass, because a BIG wine needs a BIG glass, even though it’s not bigger than any other wine,” he said. “We have legions of wine educators telling people untruths. We need to be more responsible about the information, the expectations and the false judgments we put on people.”

Many things in the wine world aren’t supposed to mix. Cabernet sauvignon and oysters. Moscato and rib-eye steaks. White zinfandel and good taste. Hanni says that’s a bunch of twaddle. People should be empowered to decide what tastes good to them.

In a multibillion-dollar industry that often insists on absolutes – the kind of wines meant to go with certain foods, even the kinds of people qualified to be experts – Hanni, 63, remains one of the highest-regarded and most iconoclastic figures. He’s a certified Master of Wine whose anti-establishment notions might raise eyebrows or elicit smirks from colleagues, but they have others in the business reconsidering ideas once viewed as sacrosanct.

He extols the virtues of supermarket-brand moscato, a wine that’s a punch line to the Riedel-swirling, first-growth-Bordeaux-collecting crowd. The best wine match for a “supertaster,” someone with nature’s most evolved taste buds? According to Hanni, it’s white zinfandel, perhaps the lowest-hanging fruit in the hierarchy of wine connoisseurship.

“The whole industry needs to be reset,” Hanni said on a recent March day. “We say, ‘This is wine education and we’re going to educate people,’ and the information is purely and simply wrong.”

There’s nothing cavalier in this message. Hanni, a gregarious presence with a hard laugh, has dedicated more than 30 years of his life to the grape. He’s a certified wine educator who has lectured in more than two dozen countries about flavor balancing, sensory sciences and culinary history. He’s written a book, “Why You Like the Wines You Like,” and developed food and wine pairing products. He popularized “umami” as a basic taste.

Much of Hanni’s current efforts center on the annual Consumer Wine Awards, to be held Saturday at the McClellan Conference Center in Sacramento. It’s the rare kind of competition where wine expertise won’t get you a seat at the judges’ table. Instead, regular folks pick the winners. It’s an event that embraces “diversity of both the wines of the world and the diversity of the people who love wine,” according to organizers. In other words, minutiae between a “gold” and “gold minus” sauvignon blanc will not be chin-stroked here.

Hanni co-founded the competition in 2009 as a way for the industry to better understand what people actually prefer. At the core of Hanni’s belief system: Matters of taste have too many variables and can’t be held to universal truths; it’s better to listen to the people, not the wine careerists.

It’s a revolutionary philosophy, especially for someone who has made a career in wine. But there’s one more detail to know about Hanni, and true to his character, it doesn’t pair well with conventional wine wisdom.

He’s hasn’t had a swallow of the stuff in 23 years.

Clouds in the wine

An addict’s final drink can occur almost anywhere.

For Hanni, it happened at JW Marriott Phoenix Desert Ridge Resort & Spa over a glass of Meridian chardonnay, which sells for about $10 a bottle. He was a company man on a business trip, selling wine for Beringer Vineyards. The date was Dec. 16, 1993.

His new wife, Kate, had recently checked into an alcohol treatment center. She’d quit drinking 12 years before, but relapsed after meeting Hanni, already a wine industry legend. In 1989, he became one of the first two Americans to earn the Master of Wine title, the Holy Grail for certified wine professionals. Even an advanced sommelier is a mere mortal compared to a Master of Wine, who must conquer a series of grueling tests that fewer than 10 percent of participants pass.

A founding member of The Young and the Decadent, an influential group of burgeoning wine professionals, Hanni was coming to terms with a tough realization about himself: He was an alcoholic. Like his father, who also struggled with booze, Hanni was mostly a happy drunk, but his mood would darken after too many drinks. By now, Hanni was experiencing blackouts, drinking more and faster than ever. He knew it was just a matter of time before his marriage would crash and burn like his previous one.

Hanni could see his drinking days were coming to a close. The glass of chardonnay in his hand would be his last swallow of alcohol.

“I just knew I wanted to change,” he said. “I don’t know if I was declaring that I’d had it all – dozens of vintages of d’Yquem, 1947 Cheval Blanc, and eaten at three-star Michelin restaurants. What’s next?”

But with this decision came a future as cloudy as a glass of unfiltered chardonnay. A Master of Wine who could not drink alcohol was Mario Andretti with four flat tires, Eric Clapton on a no-string Stratocaster.

Hanni broke the news to his wife once he returned home from Phoenix. She worked in real estate, but Hanni was essentially the breadwinner. “The real estate market was dead at that time, and he’s a Master of Wine, which is a rare title to have,” said Kate Hanni. “I was frantic that it wasn’t going to work out.”

Hanni also had to tell his bosses that he was done with alcohol. He had recently been appointed director of international development for Beringer Vineyards, a signature Napa winery which was then owned by Nestlé. Hanni says his employers were supportive, and offered him work in non-alcohol segments of their parent company.

A trained chef, Hanni considered focusing on food. But his heart remained with wine, the subject he knew best, even if a swallow could send him into a downward spiral. Hanni used his vacation time and checked into a rehabilitation facility for 28 days. He hoped he could continue to work with wine, albeit with a different angle.

“By not drinking, maybe I could become a better observer,” said Hanni.

But it wouldn’t be long before he found himself with Bordeaux glass in hand once again.

New approach

Some people collect stamps. Others art. Hanni, who was born in Ohio and raised in South Florida, collects flavors: Experimental seasonings from Japan, monosodium glutamate powders, salts, spices, extracts and the sweet-tasting amino acid glycine.

“I have cabinets full of hundreds and hundreds of flavors and things,” Hanni said, poking through the garage, where he parks a beloved 2005 Lotus Elise autographed by Andretti. “I’m just so curious. I’m not diagnosed anything, but I am very OCD. I am very ADHD, and also generally to a degree dyslexic and really numerically dyslexic.”

Unable to enjoy wine for its intoxicating properties, Hanni obsesses over flavors and how they’re perceived, especially in terms of pairing the beverage with food. He’s proposing a new paradigm for wine appreciation, one that values personal preferences and accounts for the wide variety of taste sensitivities among people.

Hanni divides wine drinkers into different “vinotypes,” ranging from “tolerant” tasters who need big flavors to perk up their taste buds, to “hypersensitive” and “sweet” types who would wince at bitterness and other pronounced tastes. Hanni says you match the wine with the diner, not the dinner. Hard-and-fast rules about, say, a delicate fish requiring a light white wine don’t apply to Hanni. Sensitivity to taste is as unique as a fingerprint.

Hanni has worked with sensory scientists around the world to form his conclusions. He’s taken pictures of some of the industry’s most noted tongues, including those from gourmet grocer Darrell Corti and wine critic Jancis Robinson, to count their taste buds. In his research, Hanni found that some people have fewer than 500 taste buds, others more than 11,000. Hanni found that a number alone doesn’t mean much.

“You can count taste buds and make certain generalizations, but how many receptors are there at the end of each bud? Which kind of receptors?” said Hanni. “And at what intensity is the transmission of the connection to the brain?”

This quest to better understand individual taste led Hanni back to a practice that’s seemingly incompatible with sobriety: sipping wine. To be clear: He doesn’t swallow it. He tastes and then spits it out. It doesn’t happen often, he says, and he certainly doesn’t recommend this practice to fellow recovering alcoholics.

Though it’s dangerous for a recovering addict, Hanni said he felt confident enough in the taste-and-spit approach. Maintaining his marriage and professional standing were enough motivation to keep him from losing control again. His wife had seen him kick a three-pack-a-day cigarette habit and believed in his resolution.

“I can’t rationalize what I do,” said Hanni. “ (But) I’ve never at any point been at risk at relapsing. I don’t know why.”

The triggers would seem to be everywhere around Hanni’s home: The crystal decanters in a cabinet, the samples of distilled chardonnay under a counter, winemaking equipment in the backyard.

Dr. Michael Parr, a Sacramento addiction specialist, would never recommend this scenario for his patients. But he says maintaining sobriety while working in the alcohol industry can be accomplished under very select circumstances. Hanni’s case is definitely the exception, like an open spot on the Sine Qua Non wine club list.

“It’s potentially dangerous,” he said. “But can someone do it? Yes. It’s a very unique situation. It’s not an issue of morality or willpower. It’s being hypervigilant and always keeping in mind the fear of not wanting to go back to what it was before, that you’re just a drink or two away.”

Though Hanni doesn’t drink, he wants others to feel empowered with their wine choices, even if it’s the much-maligned white zinfandel. He says the wine is fine, especially for someone who’s a “hypersensitive” taster. A bottle of Petrus, though one of the ultimate red wines from Bordeaux, might normally make someone with a pronounced sweet tooth wince.

“If you’re truly a supertaster in the highest sense, you will not like cabernet, you will not like pinot noir or sauvignon blanc,” said Hanni. “You will genetically only be able to drink low-alcohol sweet wines. The true supertasters are drinking moscato and white zin.”

So break the rules. Decide what tastes best to you. It’s a message Hanni’s hoping other wine educators will embrace.

“We need to be more responsible about the information, the expectations and false judgments we put on people,” he said. “I’ve had successes and I’ve had failures, but ultimately I have a mission: To simply make wine enjoyable to more people, and not operate on any preconceived notions anymore.”

Call The Bee’s Chris Macias, (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias.


Tim Hanni leads a tasting session called “It’s O.K. to Play With Your Food and Wine,” which debunks popular notions about wine and helps consumers better identify their preferences. 9:45-11:15 a.m., and 2:15-3:45 p.m. Saturday at McClellan Conference Center (5411 Luce Ave., Sacramento). $50. Information: