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.
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 ex-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 ex-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 ex-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!
(images: intravino.com, timhanni.com)
52 thoughts on “The Myths of the Palate: An Interview with Tim Hanni, MW”
I am glad Hanni's study points out the great opportunity to market wines to those with tastes for wines with more residual sugar. Small wineries on the east coast will tell you they have to make sweet wines with their hybrid grapes or they won't stay in business selling to the automobile tourists. I think the taste for sweetness is characteristic of less experienced wine drinkers. I can remember starting out on Mateus Rose' which was not much different than current white zinfandels. Remember that only about 15% of the adult population characterizes themselves as regular wine drinkers so the other 85% is where there have always been great opportunities to sell.
I am not suprised by Hanni's findings except when people misconstrue the results to imply that sweet wine lovers can taste flavors better. The problem is still about how to reach non-regular wine drinkers. Maybe this paper will get marketers thinking more about that 85% which they should have been thinking about anyway.
This is fascinating not only for what it says to the wine community not just about taste preferences but also the incredible potential to increase the number of people that enjoy wine (wines that people enjoy!), to improve how we market those wines to those people, and to develop a more cohesive, productive and enjoyable community of people who enjoy evaluating, commenting on and wine and the wine industry. Methinks my corporate career might have been more successful had I been able to phenotype my managers! Well done.
Ha! Willy, I think the Martians are too smart for that! Well, they used to be, anyway! :)
I think I'm most fascinated by this: "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."
To me, that seems to make so much sense from an evolutionary standpoint and also explains so much potentially about why human beings seem to love to talk about culinary experiences and analyze/debate/argue the hell out of them. I could read an entire book on that!
That's a great point, Arthur. I took Tim's stance on sweet wines another way, which is that the wine industry insiders need to treat sweet wines more consistently as viable wines (not just the expensive dessert wines of the world) and not make wine consumers feel like dorks for liking sweet wines.
Now, if they like wines that are poorly made, well, then they are just dorks, right? ;-)
You mean like "ice cube wines"?
(if I may): http://www.redwinebuzz.com/winesooth/2010/08/02/i…
Arthur – you may (and should always feel free to share links to your work)!
thought-provoking piece, btw!
You mean like "ice cube wines"?
(I still don't have an answer to the question in that post.)
Arthur – that in the world makes you think we are overlooking, "Sweet and delicate, simple wines already DO make up a large portion of the wines being sold in this country."? That is the whole point. We DO know that that huge segment spends a fraction of the dollars and that is exactly the point! The report is a summary and comparison of extremes. We know where the huge opportunity is, where they spend their money (appletinis, light beer, mochafrappelattedrizzles) AND we know they will 'move up', maybe to dry wines, maybe not. We are just not marketing to them smartly and on their terms, and most of the wine pundits and wine experts are embarrassing them, even when we have the best of intentions.
Go to http://www.yumyuk.com (still in production but now completely revised) and see how!
I read that Tim Hanni has not had a drink in 16 years, which, to me, negatively impacts his credibility as a wine expert, especially as an expert in pairing. More damning still, his last glass of wine was Meridian Chardonnay. Mr. Hanni has several business ventures that depend on his theories and opinioins, some of which are detailed above. One must take expert opinions with a grain of salt (or Vignon) when the expert will profit from their acceptance.
Oh Eric, stop it. What a low and puny thing – I am sorry but you are ridiculous. I really try to not get personal in my replies but this gets my dander up! 17 years of sobriety (this December) NEGATIVELY impacts my credibility. Nice reasoning, bubba.
I am on the Council (BOD) for the Institute of Masters of Wine, a Certified Wine Educator, I have lectured in 23 countries, and I am have been spending more than I make on this for 20 friggin' years. If an oncologist doesn'g have cance – should they not treat their patients? Or charge them? That is just stupid and narrow minded. I study why people like what they like, and from a high level of understanding of the product. Not drinking would benefit many people in the world. I love the history (true history), lore, sciences and trivia associated with wine. When you need a ride home from my house you will be delighted to have such a high level designated driver.
Actually, I am hoping to become the official designated driver for the Institute of Master of Wine!
Eric – I'm not one to ban comments (and I'm not going to do that in this case since Tim already responded) but I feel compelled to point out that while I encourage challenging comments and debate, I expect – and I'm pretty sure I speak for the 1WD readers here as well – that the comments are constructive, respectful and hopefully logical.
Your comment doesn't really meet that standard.
If you've got something to say about possible profit motives of Tim's work, I'm all ears (and eyes).
But if you think that Tim's sobriety somehow negates his knowledge and accomplishments (CWE and MW? honestly?) then I think you need to reevaluate your concept of "expert." That is so illogical that I don't even know where to start!
So I guess this is my way of saying you're on the line in terms of getting banned.
I have to agree with Tim here. That was a cheap shot.
And if anyone has any questions about my recovery that is fine. I get calls from all around the world about how I deal with my alcoholism, what my story is and all that.
My work is focused on how we, as individuals humans, perceive and interpret the world we live in. If I was busy trying to defend MY ratings, descriptions, critiques of wine I would never have had the aha moment to lead me to explore what I do, This is fascinating stuff! Evan feels he has a valid point of view that if I am a recovering drunk how can I be a wine authority? Well ask and find out dang it – don't attack so blindly. there is too much of that in the world.
And by the way, while we are on the subject, you probably have no clue that in ther early 90 Chuck Ortman was the winemaker at Meridian in a brand new, fabulous winery with fresh barrels and GREAT vineyards that Beringer Wine Estates was working. The wines were awesome. The brand went somewhere else, so did I and so did Chuck BTW, so you rcomment on the Meridian is not based on knowledge of the actual glass of wine I was experiencing.
And thanks, Arthur!
It's the ugly elephant in this room. How is one an expert on wine tasting and pairing when one does not drink or even taste often? Do you taste, Tim? I mean no offense, but let's look at other disciplines. A literature expert that no longer reads? Wine knowledge is largely acquired through tasting. Wine preferences evolve through drinking. Taste is largely acquired. How else can one explain cultural differences in preferences for food, not to mention wine.
I know that when I fall out of practice of formal tasting, my skills falter. When I abstain, wine tastes different when I return. I have the utmost respect for your accomplishment of 17 years of sobriety, not to mention your accomplishments and post-nominals, but I do not think abstention bolsters your credibility as an expert on tasting or pairing wine, though I certainly appreciate a safe ride home.
Ban me if you like, but this issue deserves debate.
I intimately study the history and traditions of wine and food, most of which bear no resemblence to what is conjured up to provide rationale for wine and food 'matching' today. I study the physio-psychological aspects of perception which simply put demolish anything you want to profess as any kind of hard fast rules of wine and food and/or wine quality. I critically think (the reason I could pass the MW exam) and mentor others on how to do the same, for free.
If Jancis Robinson called me a 'magician' for my sober wine and food techniques, Chefs Sarah Scott (14 years senior exec. chef at Mondavi), Jeremiah Tower, John Ash and 3 star French Chef Michel Trama (who sought me ought to learn flavor balancing) all champion my methods and techniques, would that be enough to qualify me. I am wondering what kind of person you are – fascinated in fact!
So here you go for a challenge: name a classic, traditional or somehow unassailable wine and food match. Provide the background on its history, where it began and rationale for why it works. I will tell you why you are wrong, or not.
BTW, I have a really fun car to drive you home in!
If you are seeing elephants in your room you whould seek help, Eric. This is from a Beethoven site. I suck as a musician (and a wine drinker) but I married the singer in our band.
"Generally it is not said anymore –as it was in his time, by some people– that the music was negatively affected by deafness. That he could NOT listen to the dissonant harmonies in some of his late pieces. That is risible, as if a musician like Beethoven, could have "forgotten" how dissonances would "sound".
It is now accepted that his deafness advanced slowly and erratically. Too slowly and erratically to influence in the music itself, EXCEPT in the "arguments" of certain pieces of music. In the loss of human contact that was also part of his lot. His personal fight against the fate of deafness, was an important part of his personal credo…
So, I would say that deafness contributed to what he was, but not determined it."
I work at a whole different level Eric and I don't think you have a clue about what I do. You are drawing me into this so don't go using this against me, but can a literature expert listen to someone else read? Or can a blind literature expert learn braille? I hear that Betethoven was pregressively more and more deaf from the time he was 28 – did that mean he coul no longer write music? Can a non-imbibing wine expert be fascinated why Dan Berger (hypersensitive taster – I have a picture of his tongue) can declare California Cabernet the worst it has ever been while the very same week Steve Heimoff (probably tolerant, his passion for wine runs that way) declares they never have been better, and then see if there is something missing in the scheme of understanding why? Did I need to drink wine to find out and introduce the ideas there is a primary taste called umami, one of the most important ones humans can distinguish, that is imperative to understanding the interactions of wine and food? People were levelling the same lame stuff at me back then and 90% of the people who speak and even educate others on umami have no clue what it is or isn't.
Eric, I trust Tim has put the question regarding whether or not abstention impacts his credibility in terms of his current work (let's remember that he is not releasing a ratings book of current vintages, etc., but is doing groundbreaking work on how human beings taste) to bed at this point so I'd like us to drop it.
I have to admit that at first, I thought Tim was talking about wine producers when he says that the wine industry needs to change its focus, and that is what made me agree with Arthur. But now, and after Tim posted elsewhere an anecdote about being in a restaurant, I see that he is talking about the extended wine industry family of critics, et al. That, I most heartily and fully understand, as well as agree with. But!
Always a but, hey.
What Tim suggests is a revolution to topple cultural underpinnings. Let's face it: critics and sundry pundits are generally motivated not by wine but by the size of their, er, I mean by their ego. This is why they can say with a straight faces and with complete confidence that they know what it is they are talking about and that they have the answer to what is right or wrong with a wine, a winery, a wine region, and the overall subject of quality–they are so convinced that they don't even need training and in fact ridicule those who want them to at least consider the possibility of learning something about their sensory equipment.
Couple the attitude of the arbiters with the cultural attitude in America that builds aspirations toward wealth and fame, and I see Tim up against not just naysayers but a truly powerful cultural force that won't die easily, especially since its power is derived from the aspirational not from the actual.
GREAT insight, Tom!
I've been thinking A LOT about that stance (critics giving **quality** scores based potentially on their **preferences**) and my approach is so different that it's going to be the topic of my first "Going Pro" article next week.
That is why wine should not be rated based on preference/enjoyment. This is what I've been talking about for several years: without a pre-determined set of criteria for awarding points (based on specific characteristics, or their absence, or the number/extent/complexity etc) each score is an indication of the taster's enjoyment of a few sips at a singular point in time.
Arthur – I am really coming around to that point of view, it's been a sort of biblical-style revelation for me this week.
Essentially, the way that the wine rating system has worked for the last few decades is that an expert provides an opinion and basically equates a wine's overall quality with their own preferences.
My own approach is fundamentally different: like you, I think there is a bedrock of at least somewhat objective criteria (flaws, typicity of location / variety, etc.) that form the basis of a wine rating EVEN IF I DON'T LIKE THE WINE PERSONALLY. Which is why I can say a Chilean Cab-blend with lots of green pepper notes but is really well-made and otherwise very solid is a "B+ wine" in my view, even if I'd never buy the wine.
I suppose I am comparing the wine in some respect to an Aristotelian model of "perfect" for that variety and region, built up in my brain over the last years of tasting and researching and certifications and etc. So I draw a pretty hard line between that and my personal preferences, which I am SURE impact the rating but not nearly as much as if I was rating the wine blind and ignoring the influence of my preferences.
So, your blog and Tim's work, and some other convo's I've had recently with other wine writers, have all kind of clarified this and crystallized it in my mind. Thanks for that! :)
As you go down this path of thinking, I offer this: there is varietal and regional (and vintage) typicity – it makes for complex permutations.
Those with the acuity, see these variations. If you are one of these people, don't let the tone deaf convince you there is no difference be ween a C sharp and an E flat.
Arthur – music to my ears, bro! :)
Actually, think back to your evolution as a musician and the dawning ability to discern pitch, overtone, harmony, mode, etc
Now, music is not just cool, rhytmic sound to you. You have learned a language and you have the unique ability to actually see how you experienced music before you learned its ins and outs.
Take my first sentence and replace "musician" with "wine evaluator", "pitch" with "aromas", "overtone" with "complexity", "harmony" with "structure", etc…………
Tom – thank you! but… :-)
But let me throw something else in to make thisw more bizarre. The mission is not to topple anyone! It is about engendering mutual respect and understanding for every point of view, and really getting how vastly different our points of view are, and why. What Steve and the gang over in his micro-culture don't get is that I think Steve is brilliant and a great voice for the people who share his passions and the qualities he looks for in wine. And I am even putting a link on my yumyuk.com web site to send people his way.
The point system makes all the sense in the world for Tolerant tasters in so many ways it would make your head spin. There in so problem with the system, it is just 1) easy to understand and 2) Tolerant tasters are much mor linear thinkers and work on systems that are much more quantitative, not qualitative in a psychological and behavioral sense. A lot of time, press and blog space is wasted trying to prove that one system is better or worse than another. They are ALL metaphorically based systems with words, icons or points and people respond to each in different ways. I work to understand the systems, the people and at the end of the day guide PEOPLE to wines they will love and the pundits, mavens, evangilists and critics they share the most affinities with.
See my comment to Joe – just above.
Then they run into Eric (sorry Eric, you are now a metaphor to me), demanding to know who the hell am I to study psycho-sensory phenomenon, confronting me, thinking because HE has issues with my credentials and behavior everyone should. The arrogance and intimidation surrounding wine is, for the most part, unintentional. It is deeply, deeply engranged in the wine culture now and if you don't want wine complex, if you drink simple wines, if you want a pinot grigio with your steak or, god forbid, you want something sweet then look out.
C'mon. What IS wine about? I sometimes hear it is about amily, community, the beverage of civility, exploration and discovery. Oh – but not YOU. You like THAT wine. We don't serve peop… er, wine like that. I am going to get kicked off for my posts being 3 parts!
Tim – you're part of the subject matter of the article so it would be bad form I think to kick yo off! ;-)
I invented a new word – engranged. I meant ingrained. More coffe…
"The arrogance and intimidation surrounding wine is, for the most part, unintentional."
I do not agree with that statement. I believe that, however subconscious it may be, the arrogance is intentional; it is a way of stroking one's personal ego, while it attempts to shield one's insecurities from the world.
Let me also say that I came to that conclusion through a combination of introspection and external observation.
Thom – While I don't think my take on a wine is the end-all-be-all, I do consider myself wholly awesome. Is that intentional or unintentional arrogance? ;-)
Tom – if you ever agreed with me straight away I would have a heart attack! :-)
"I believe that, however subconscious it may be, the arrogance is intentional; it is a way of stroking one's personal ego, while it attempts to shield one's insecurities from the world." is so amti what I am about. We ALL operate the same way – just different perspctives and points of view. Your answer supports my assertions. But you will probably disagree, further proving my point…
Seems to me the BEST type of individual to do research regarding wine is someone who does not drink the stuff. No preferences = no prejudice. Reference made earlier that Tim is not rating wines, 'nuff said.
Well, Roguer, I can't say I agree with you totally, however, it's often been stated that newbie wine lovers can be more accurate at some tastings because they are carrying less wine knowledge baggage with them when they taste.
Wow. An exhausting read, both the article and comments. Reminds me of university aesthetics class arguments.
I find the idea of different groups of people having different "types" of taste preferences perfectly natural. We've always tried to sort customers out at the table based on what wines they've had in the past that they've enjoyed, as their past preferences/choices give us clues as to what they might like to try. The interesting thing with Tim's work is now I might be able to classify them based on the type of taster they appear to be, and what kinds of wine/food those tasters enjoy.
Sounds like more homework and studying is in order!
And, based on Tim's theories, how could I possibly enjoy Rush, Tom Waits, Bob Dylan, and Edith Piaf equally? Is there a universal taste category, kind of like type-O blood :) Or possibly I have no taste at all….
C'mon, Dave – this is **still** shorter than any GoodGrape.com blog post! ;-)
I know. I'm gonna have to start taking time off work to keep up with the daily output of the wine blogging world.
I wasn't accusing you of being egotistical and insecure. I was commenting on your notion that arrogance in the wine world is unintentional.
But if the shoe fits… ;)
So how come the subscription to replies doesn't work? And why must I keep typing in my name and email address to comment? Are you trying to screen me out??? Wouldn't be the first time someone tried–in fact, one, no two, places actually have my IP blocked because some asshole accused me of being a hacker.
Thom – uhmm… NO.
My guess it's IntenseDebate getting flaky. You should be able to log in via twitter, fb, ID or OpenID…
Hi Rick, Thanks for chiming in. Have you read the report in question and our findings – it doesn't look like ti from your comments. Yes – a 'revolution' is necessary and revision of a lot of misinformation, bad science and distortions of history and tradition.
"People acquire a taste as the years go by. " is misunderstood and our study shows that MANY people just quit buting and ordering wine. People in the wine biz need to stop using this patent, oversimplified myth. What my colleagues and I are studying is the physiology and neurology of this phenomenon and studying the behaviors and preferences of consumers in valid clusters sorted by phenotypes. We need to lose this 'conventional wisdom'.
"Nobody, who makes a living selling wine, is telling a purchaser what they may & may not buy .." Expecially in restaurants this is just the case. I was doing an event at the Fairmount Hotel in SF – 700 wine and ONE sweet table wine. 1.
The biggest oversight in the conclusions drawn by the authors of this study is the notion that the wine industry has been 'wrong' in the way in which they have been marketing wine to consumes. This conclusion presupposes that the wine industry factors personal taste into their marketing strategies at all. To the extent that 'the wine industry' refers to large producers and larger groups of producers, a summary evaluation of their wines going back 10 years reveals an increasing de-emphasis on individuality of character. In other words, the wines all taste the same. Concurrent with this homogenization has been a pronounced focus on brand recognition and identity. This is something the big breweries in this country figured out a long time ago. They do not dare let the actual flavor of their product interfere with consumer preference. They endeavor to produce as bland and inoffensive a beverage as cheaply as possible and put their money and efforts into advertising.
Removing that spurious and, to some, inflammatory conclusion and the bottom line take-away of the study is 'people taste things differently". DUH !
What happened to "There never is a right or wrong, it''s simply what pleases?"
Ron dee – I think there's some of that in Tim's message based on his work, actually. At least when it comes to consumer wine preferences, that is.
Great site. Lots of useable information here. I’m sending it to some friends!
It doesn’t make much of a difference to me whether the wine is sweet or not. What’s important is to drink in moderation – especially with the sweet kind. Even the finest wine isn’t worth having a set of rotten teeth over.
Tim's work is so interesting, and I love the guy. I've had him present a couple of times at a little educational presentation we did for a couple of conferences. He guides the audience through some tastings of spices and foods to help you understand just what he is talking about… If you ever have a chance to attend one of his hands on seminars, I highly recommend it!
Thanks for such an in-depth look at what he's doing!
Mary – thanks, I think Tim is doing something important, which is encouraging a rethinking of how we approach wine education and criticism. Not an easy thing to do, but possibly am essential one and – if you’ll permit me to be so bold – likely something that’ll help us understand wine more deeply. Cheers.
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