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The Myths of the Palate: An Interview with Tim Hanni, MW | 1 Wine Dude

The Myths of the Palate: An Interview with Tim Hanni, MW

Vinted on October 26, 2010 binned in best of, interviews
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Master of Wine and Certified Wine Educator Tim Hanni has been lighting up the on-line wine world this week.

More specifically, what’s been lighting up the wine world is the release of a report of highlights from a study of wine consumer taste preferences that Tim has co-authored with Virginia Utermohlen, MD.

Titled "Beverage preferences attitudes and behavior of sweet vs. tolerant wine consumers," the sixteen page report is getting a hell of a lot more than sixteen pages worth of discussion, as it draws conclusions from a series of studies that focus on the market of wine consumers and how they taste – conclusions that challenge the conventional notions of how (or even if) wine can be judged objectively and empirically, and just how wrong the wine industry might be getting it in how wine appreciation is taught.

In summary, Tim’s report might just be the hot topic of the wine world right now, with several wine personalities from Jeff Lefevere to Steve Heimoff to Jancis Robinson chiming in with their (mostly fascinating) interpretations of Tim’s results.

As you might expect from someone who has been in the wine and food biz for over thirty years, and who was one of the first Americans to become an MW, Tim is not shy about is views. In fact, he’s been an active participant in the fray and debate about the results of his study since its announcement (for a great example, see GoodGrape.com’s take on the report, which is one of the best overviews on the topic published to date, and contains fascinating tête-à-tête reading in the comments from Tim and others).

Clearly, based on the reaction to the report so far, Tim’s views – and the manner in which he presents them – can be polarizing. As Tim put it in one of our email exchanges, "It is intriguing to me how the idea that people are different and that the topic of sweet wine and defense of sweet wine consumers can generate so much hostility."

Are the debates missing the point?  Maybe.  According to Tim, it’s not whether or not sweet wines are better or whether or not those that prefer them are superior tasters, but that there are significant differences in how we taste wine and food that is important: "This is a quote from Jancis Robinson MW from 4 years ago," he told me, "when I had my scientific mentors, Dr. Chuck Wysocki from Monnell Senses center, Michael O’Mahony form UC Davis, present data and conduct demonstrations at the MW symposium in Napa:

The main point of the session was to suggest that there are all sorts of populations of people who will perceive wine differently, thanks to our own sensitivities and preferences, and that the wine business is crazy to act as though one message, or even one sort of wine, suits all.’"

I had the opportunity to ask Tim about the study, his work with Virginia Utermohlen, and his views on how to bring the power back to the wine consumer people.  Whether you love or loathe Tim’s take on wine tasting preferences, few would challenge Tim’s passionate zeal for championing the empowerment of wine consumers, and I suspect few would find the following interview responses from Tim anything less than fodder for compelling wine conversation.

Enjoy!…

1WineDude: In a nutshell, what’s the most important take-away from your "Sweet" vs. "Tolerant" wine consumer study?

Tim Hanni: The most important thing we discovered was the idea that we can generate consumer phenotypes (a combination of physiology and psychology/behavior) using a number of preference markers, including non-wine preferences, to generate viable ways to segment the wine market. The Sweet vs. Tolerant comparison was not the study, simply a summary comparison of two extreme phenotypes inside of a broader study that show a continuum across the Sweet, Hyper-Sensitive, Sensitive and Tolerant groups.

Biggest takeaway is probably that the industry’s misunderstanding of who consumers are, and what they really want, is the source of the stigma of intimidation and arrogance surrounding wine and an impediment for expanding and cultivating the total market. Things like the myth “as your palate matures consumers move up to ‘better’ wines” need to be eliminated. Changes in wine preferences have much less to do with changes in one’s palate, the changes are psychological in nature and many consumers simply “opt out” of wine altogether. The wine industry will benefit by understanding, embracing and cultivating ALL wine consumers and we need to revise a lot of the misinformation that masquerades as conventional wisdoms and wine education today.

 

1WD: Do you think that the wine industry is ‘missing a trick’ when it comes to sweet wines, in that the industry could be capitalizing on sweet preferences more but is stymieing itself because established wine experts don’t like sweet wine, or view it as somehow inferior to dry wines?

TH: Yes. It is an interesting story of how we got here but sweet wines were always an important product segment in France and Italy, and Germany of course. Another myth that has to go is the idea the Americans like sweet wine because of Coca Cola. Sweet wine, really sweet wines, were always prized and on the table. What we consider dessert wines today, even Chateau d’Yquem, were considered table wines not long ago and ‘dry’ Champagne was typically 5-6% sugar. They were perfectly acceptable with oyster, lamb, you name it. Evidence also shows that great vintages of Montrachet were VERY sweet, not dry. More like Dolce than Kistler. There are some very serious flaws in our thinking and dissemination of wine information today.

…the industry’s misunderstanding of who consumers are, and what they really want, is the source of the stigma of intimidation and arrogance surrounding wine and an impediment for expanding and cultivating the total market. Things like the myth “as your palate matures consumers move up to ‘better’ wines” need to be eliminated…

 

1WD: In the "Sweet" vs. "Tolerant" summary report, you write that "the nerves that bring sensations from the nose and the mouth to our brain are closely linked to our emotional centers, our memory centers, and our centers for evaluation, judgment, and decision-making."  For me, this was as much of an "ah-ha!" than the actual findings. Do you think this explains why human beings like to categorize, judge, rate, and discuss pretty much anything having to do with culinary experiences (especially wine)?

TH: I am absolutely fascinated by this facet of human nature as well. Dr. Utermohlen and I met because I found some of the research she was doing and it turned out we a very similar approach to distinguishing populations of people by sensory sensitivity and then looking at their preferences, behaviors and personality traits. Human beings analyze, categorize, judge and rate everything we sense in life. That is fundamentally what our senses and neural facilities are designed to do. It is a necessary system for human survival and pleasure seeking. And, to paraphrase Dan Gilbert, a psychologist at Harvard whose work is really fun and amazing (Google ‘TED Dan Gilbert’ to see a Youtube video on how we synthesize the future), our brains were not designed for many of the judgments and tasks necessary to survive and gain pleasure today: “People aren’t stupid. They’re designed for a different world than the one in which they live… We are also very bad at predicting how much happiness, joy or pleasure we will get from things, for a variety of reasons, including that we compare present choices to past ones or use other inappropriate standards for comparison, and we value things we own more than others value them.”

Dr. Utermohlen studies not only food preferences and the like, but how sensory sensitivities impact human behavior, personality traits, learning, career choices. We are like two kids in a candy store learning and sharing around these studies. This has been a huge addition to the understanding of wine expert personalities and why there is so much dissention, even hostility, from one writer or critic to the next, between wine makers or wine makers and critics. People living in a differing sensory world have very little room for understanding someone else who may be experiencing things very differently. This is what we are committed to changing.

 

1WD: The report makes some bold statements regarding wine criticism, especially that wine professionals should be expanding their definition of high aspiration wine to include sweet wines as a benefit to both the consumer and the wine industry in general.  Of course, some of us have been digging sweet Rieslings for a long time now… :-)

TH: Expand our understanding of aspiration yes, but not that professionals or consumers have any need to change anything about their own preferences or passions. It is expanding an understanding of the market and is as relevant for cutting out the sniping at Parker and Laube as much as recognizing and honoring a large segment of the total available market wants sweet wine – just as they have in the past and will in the future. One of the things we are working on is the means to direct MORE people to the appropriate wine pundits: Tolerant tasters to Parker, Heimoff and Laube, Hypersensitive tasters to Dan Berger, passionate Sensitive and Hyper-sensitive tasters to Jancis Robinson. And it is easy to dig sweet Rieslings, unless you think they suck! Then they simply suck and you may not be the best person to help people who love them!

One of the things we are working on is the means to direct MORE people to the appropriate wine pundits: Tolerant tasters to Parker, Heimoff and Laube, Hypersensitive tasters to Dan Berger, passionate Sensitive and Hyper-sensitive tasters to Jancis Robinson.

 

1WD: There were just over 1400 respondents to the survey used in the "Sweet" vs. "Tolerant" study; is that enough of a sample pool from which to draw the conclusions reached in the report?

TH: This is one of three surveys totaling over 14,000 responses and spanning 8 years of research and development. The first, from 2002 to 2005 was 6,997 responses. This one about was 1,400 and another we ran simultaneously, and from which we are coming up with nearly identical results, was run in the UK with nearly 6,000 responses. Add to this nearly 20 years of observation and correlations to other studies on more specific elements of our hypotheses (Linda Bartoshuk’s work, salt preferences and sensitivity correlations, the who umami adventure) and the answer is yes – we have enough of a sample pool. AND we are going to keep improving, expanding the, revising and refining it every year along with the Consumer Wine Awards project that adds another dimension to our mission.

We are now working on defining a project for China as well using indigenous beverages and food preferences as the basis for segmentation in a country with little wine consumption and no ability to use product-based methodologies. That is what is revolutionary about our phenotyping and work in general – we start with the market, not the product.

 

1WD: Your study suggests that individuals are hard-wired or predisposed to like certain styles of wine, yet we see some cases where certain styles are culturally disdained such as the current backlash against sweet wines in Germany that have worked to drive sweet Riesling prices down within Germany.  How do you rectify those two seemingly opposing things?  Are individual preferences being stifled by the wine "cognoscenti" in that case?

TH: Year after year (for as long as I can remember) people are championing the campaign to promote Riesling – primarily more highly sensitive wine mavens, who are also often at the heart of the Anything But Cabernet/Chardonnay movement. Many of the champions of Riesling demand they be either very dry or very sweet. Another very vocal faction is calling for the dismemberment of Robert Parker and dissolution of the 100 point system. Lots of arguing and posturing and very little accommodation for understanding and working together. Our lack of basic understanding about differing perceptions and interpretation of sensations leads to war, quite literally, and also in the puny squabbles and dysfunction of the wine community.

I am not suggesting individual preferences are being stifled per se, I am saying that people have physiological predispositions to perceive different ranges of sensations at radically different intensities and that this is something to learn and recognize to stop stifling consumerism. Predisposition to liking a sensation is a cognitive function (judgment, context, memories).

Judgments are changeable responses to stimulus and not hard-wired due to what is called ‘brain (or neural) plasticity) and the ability to associate unpleasant sensations with positive memories over time. This is how we ‘acquire’ tastes and also part of aspirational behaviors. The opposite is ‘disposing’ of tastes – something we innately like but associate with bad health, peer disapproval, rotten teeth. Just like sugar! You are hard-wired in terms of the range and intensity of sensations you experience. If bitterness SCREAMS at you there is much less chance of changing your mind – just like people who get a soapy, horribly bitter taste from cilantro or disgusting taste from artificial sweeteners. Traits of the Sweet and Hyper-Sensitive tasters, by the way. When the preferences of a wine savvy individual get in the way and do not take factors of personal preference into account when making wine recommendations the consumer will be stifled. Our data shows this clear as a bell.

When the preferences of a wine savvy individual get in the way and do not take factors of personal preference into account when making wine recommendations the consumer will be stifled. Our data shows this clear as a bell.

 

1WD: What’s your tasting affinity group?  And has your affinity category brought you any realizations or "ah-ha!" moments in terms of your own enjoyment of wine and other beverages?

TH: My personal Affinity group is Sensitive with a passionate curiosity about people and wine preferences for red Burgundy and gobs of often useless wine trivia. My research focus is on defining Affinity groups – plural. Finding people with similar sensitivities and shared interests and passions to share wine recommendations and experiences. The “ah-ha” moments are numerous, including things like, “no wonder you hate this wine and I love it – I don’t get anything at all like you are describing.”

Also, I do NOT get the descriptors and vivid imagery so many people love to use. But that does not mean anyone should stop using it – just find someone else to convince that there is a smell of fenugreek and olloliberries (sometimes spelled ollalieberry, olallaberry, olalliberry, ollalaberry or ollaliberry according to wikipedia) that jumps out of the glass at you. And, I don’t doubt that that is what you are experiencing (well, maybe but I will keep it to myself). One of the big “Ah-ha” discovery is that high alcohol ‘tastes’ sweet for Tolerant tasters and burns like crazy for Sweet/Hyper-sensitive phenotypes. THAT explains a lot!

 

1WD: So I took your quiz, and it turns out I’m a Tolerant taster. Any wine recommendations for me?…

TH: You and I are neurologically unfit because our passions and personal opinions are so strongly defined. And the quiz is for everyday consumers – You tell me, what do you love? My guess is that it is all over the board, but Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio and White Zin are not high on your list! How about your wife – any differences in personal preferences?

[ Editor's note: on the advice of counsel I decline to answer! ]

 

1WD: Do you think I’m hard-wired to dig the music of RUSH? Because I could really use some expert evidence to bolster my case of playing their tunes while I work despite the pleas from my wife to turn it off…

TH: Perfect example because generally sensitivity in taste equates to sensitivity of smell, sight, sound and touch. There are lots of variables, but my guess is your wife is more to the Hyper-sensitive end of the scale and not only does she not have the emotional connection to the Rush music, she is predisposed to hear it at a high volume and the harmonic distortion is much greater due to the frequency bandwidth she is capable of hearing. Sensitivity differences are also responsible for the battle over your thermostat and she doesn’t WANT to put a sweater on (and truly Hyper-sensitive people have to cut the tags out of their sweaters), you insensitive bastard (Tolerant phenotype!  :).  Some of the weird, higher alcohol wines you like, food textures and things like Scotch, will probably always suck for her. But I am just guessing here.

[ Editor's note: I am now convinced that Tim has a secret video camera installed in my home...]

 

1WD: Any advice for lovers of sweet wine?  Should they be taking a more aggressive stance and demanding sweeter styles from their favorite wine producers?

TH: Yes – they should demand wine they like, with whatever food they want, and aggressively assert, “look goddammit, I have way more taste buds and this is about ME and MY values and preferences – not your false sense of oeno-superiority or pea-brained misunderstandings of human nature, tradition, history and culture.” Or something like that. I really wanna get on Oprah and have HER say that. Seriously – now wouldn’t that empower a few consumers?

…[sweet wine lovers] should demand wine they like, with whatever food they want, and aggressively assert, “look goddammit, I have way more taste buds and this is about ME and MY values and preferences – not your false sense of oeno-superiority or pea-brained misunderstandings of human nature, tradition, history and culture.” I really wanna get on Oprah and have HER say that. Seriously – now wouldn’t that empower a few consumers?

 

1WD: What’s next in terms of the study and the work you’re doing on researching wine tasting preferences?

TH: Getting ready for 2011. Any winery that enters wines in the Consumer Wine Awards at Lodi will receive our full report and we are planning to have that finished in about 2 weeks. It will be available for sale to anyone who did not participate and wants all the data on each of the phenotypes. Dr. Utermohlen and I are closely looking at wine language and descriptive factors, and will be putting a lot of focus on younger consumers. The neural/psychology aspect is an absolute blast for me and I am trying to arrange meetings with Dr. George Lakoff to learn more about his work around the neural aspects framing and metaphors creating the way in which we interpret the world. Plus more study on Dan Gilbert’s thoughts on the human capacity for ‘synthesizing’ the future and how it relates to imaginary wine and food fantasies.

Another thing we are looking at is trigeminal sensations in relationship to our complete sensory system and how it fits into the scheme of things. Trigeminal receptors are responsible for the tinge of bubbles, the burning of mustard, cinnamon, menthol and capsaicin, hot/cold and many more things all in concert with our other sensory capacities. And guess what – people perceive these things differently!

 
Cheers!

It is intriguing to me how the idea that people are different and that the topic of sweet wine and defense of sweet wine consumers can generate so much hostility.

(images: intravino.com, timhanni.com)

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