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In through the Out Door with Tim Hanni

I’m convinced that Tim Hanni, the first American Master of Wine, now turned wine industry Provocateur General, is a teensy bit of marketing moxie away from radically changing the status quo in regards to how we view, review and consume wine in the U.S.

In everyday terms, his proverbial house is fit and structurally sound, but needs some curb appeal, maybe a fresh coat of paint and some blooming flowers.

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This fact is in plain sight to me, even if it’s not to most.  Spend any amount of time with him and you realize that his ideas regarding understanding palate preferences (not to mention food and wine pairing) are grounded, smart, pragmatic and, most importantly, needed.

Unfortunately, they fly in the face of prevailing wine wisdom.

And, in contrast to Gary Vaynerchuk, who carries a similar populist, “understand and trust your palate” torch, but a much bigger platform with attendant distractions, Hanni has the measured bona fides, absent the marketing acumen and mini-mogul status.

You wish they could change places for a week (or three).

In a global wine industry that markets almost entirely to a small set of educated customers while forsaking the engine of volume (the reasonably uneducated wine consumer), Hanni shines a light on that contradiction and indicates that, yes, “The wine business has it backwards.”

In doing so, Hanni is also the subject of journalistic affronts that glance surface deep without seeing an underlying intent – an intent that is obscured by his own tangential thinking that leaves holes in his message causing a general bewilderment.

One recent wine writer, after taking a third-party article completely out of its subtext, similar to watching “Waiting for Godot” as performed by the cast of “Rent,” went so far as to suggest that Hanni was disingenuous in at least one of his advocacy projects for general consumer wine empowerment while intimating that his approach had its own self-interested motivation.

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Harrumph.

Similar to Clark Smith and Fred Franzia in a “devil may care” against-the-grain approach to skewering sacred cows, Hanni focuses on the consumer side of the equation whereas Smith focuses on technology and Franzia focuses on the economies of wine from ground to shelf. 

All of them dress their message in a communicative format that is ill-suited for a broader platform of understanding and acceptance, regardless of inherent truth.

Hanni, in particular, interviews on a plane of consciousness that is 40 IQ points higher than his interviewer; his seemingly self-written press releases from his various business interests are difficult to parse with no nugget to grasp onto as an angle and the web sites for the same business interests look like Stevie Wonder grabbed a box of crayolas.

Despite this, there’s a lot to like regarding his twin passions:

1)  The element of umami as an integral bridge between food and wine pairing, opening pairings possibilities

2)  Understanding what kind of palate you have in order to understand an inherent wine profile

The cause for my examination of Hanni and his work is likewise two-fold:

1)  I’m investigating an agricultural fertilizer/fungicide/pesticide that is 30% glutamic acid trying to determine if anybody can substantiate that when sprayed on wine vines there is uptake that can affect grapes – principally red wine grapes that offer an inexplicable lip-smacking quality. On a sidenote, this would make a great Master’s thesis instead of blog research, and I’ll probably never get straight answers.  Hanni is something of the wine / umami expert so I’ve been following his work on the subject.

2) I saw a hackneyed press release for the Consumer Wine Awards organized by Hanni and others.  The results are nothing if not eyebrow arching – using an opt-in consumer panel of self-professed regular consumers of wine, the top three wines were technically sweet wines with a Barefoot Moscato leading the way with a score of “97.” Meanwhile, one of my favorite value wines, the Toad Hollow unoaked Chardonnay barely made the medal cut with a score of 80.  Robert Parker perennially scores the Toad Hollow in the 90-91 range, which is about right in my opinion.

Hanni’s point with the consumer wine awards (with eye opening scores for sweet wines) isn’t to do a Three Stooges eye poke with the conventional wine industry, but instead isolate the fact that modern wine marketing focuses on a consumer whose palate isn’t necessarily broad-reaching coupled with an over-emphasis on critical acclaim, whose collective palate similarly eschews wines that appeal to a “regular” palate, a palate that, in many cases, likes sweet wine.

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As a substantiation of his hypothesis, Hanni has devised a tasting questionnaire called the, “Tasting Budometer” that takes consumer palate preferences around coffee, use of salt and wine drinking in order to classify palates and make recommendations based on current consumption habits.  His methodology then classifies palates into four categories.  By understanding and classifying palate preferences we can then understand that one man’s Parker is another man’s Dan Berger and the translation to understanding who is making recommendations becomes much easier, with an inevitable rise of a peer, consumer class for sweet wines.

It just all makes sense if you can wade through the pseudo-science, backdoor logic and the Brady Bunch popcorn trail from beginning to end.

All of this isn’t intended to be a wet kiss for Tim Hanni.  What I am saying, however, is Hanni’s ideas are good, they are well-founded, they are smart and they need some marketing in order to be packaged into a message that can find a broad audience. Oh, the irony, huh?  In navigating widespread misperceptions about his ideas while he tries to isolate and point out that the wine industry’s conventional wisdom and marketing are askew in order to find a bigger audience, I’m saying Hanni needs to refine his message in order for it to find a bigger audience.

The net-net is, bad marketing notwithstanding, Tim Hanni has a problem with the wine business and is reaching out to consumers. Meanwhile, the wine business has a problem with consumers. The problem is, you see, Hanni and the wine business need each other and neither is willing to admit it.



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Posted in, Good Grape Daily: Pomace & Lees. Permalink | Comments (25) |


Comments

On 04/29, Joe wrote:

If I recall, this is the same guy who came on Vaynerchuk’s show and was promoting a “seasoning” that you put on food, then it would pair with any wine.  Seemed too-good-to-be-true (asparagus and maybe artichoke were used); wonder how that all went down.

I can’t tell how many times I bought “high scoring” wines back in the day, or friends got them, and we ended up being very underwhelmed.  Indeed, I’m so confident the palate of the general public will take a Yellow Tail Shiraz over a Cote Rotie 95% of the time blind.  Tell them before hand that the Rotie is 93 points and the Yellow Tail is 75 points, and you’ll still have folks that prefer the latter, but you’ll also confuse and intimidate many of the folks (“why didn’t I like the high scoring one more?  There must be something wrong with my palate.  I don’t understand this wine stuff.  I’m sticking to beer”).

I hate to see retail stores like “Wine Styles” sucking wind (hearsay), because I think they’ve made a step in the right direction:  eliminating shelf-talkers with points on them, then categorizing the wines they sell by different styles.  No longer is all the Merlot lumped together…some may be in the “fresh and fruity” and others in the “bold and intense”, or whatever they call them.  It’s a good, friendly approach that knocks wine down a few pegs to what it really is:  nothing more than produce.  Incredible produce, but not something that needs to be shrouded in mystery and pretense.

On 04/29, Arthur wrote:

Tim Hanni lacks even the most basic understanding of the neurophysiology of sensation and cognition.

The results of his crusade will be to make mediocrity in wine the status quo.

On 04/29, Jeff wrote:

Arthur,

Mediocre wine already is the status quo. Have you seen any volume sales reports lately?

That ship has sailed.

What he is doing, in my opinion, is at least trying to create order around this to advance education and knowledge.

But, as I noted, he is widely misunderstood, most of that by his own doing and he needs some marketing to bring cogent order to his ideas.

Jeff

On 04/29, Arthur wrote:

Let me reword that: “The results of his crusade will be to further entrench mediocrity in wine the status quo.”

Education is based in verified fact. Any information/awareness campaign that is founded in myth, untruth and reinforces misconceptions is not education. It’s not even knowledge but a collection of statements.

And that is my biggest gripe with what he is doing.

You have my #. Call and we can talk some more.

On 04/29, Tim Hanni wrote:

Jeff, thanks for taking the time to call me and ask the questions you did. Great article. With the exception that umami taste in food is not the bridge to good wine combinations, it is the culprit in many bad ones! More on that later.

Arthur - jeez, do I know you? Give ME a call anytime. I get that you have a gripe, think you may not know all of the ‘facts’ about what I do and what I am working towards. The ‘facts’ about wine consumers, and many about wine itself, are often way off base.

Come have lunch with me.

On 04/29, Arthur wrote:

Tim

No. I do not know you personally, but I have been following what you do and I stand by what I said.

Note that I am not flinging invectives at your person but, rather, your product and idea. That is the essence of an academic debate (rather than a personal argument).

That being said, I get the target audience and ideas and I get the construct of the Budometer - I just think they are grounded in flawed tenets which have been passed off as valid neuroscience. That is not education. Additionally, it has potential to (further) damage American wine culture.

On 04/29, Tim Hanni wrote:

Arthur,

If you ever want to learn more, let me know! Or you can just read things in bits and pieces and put them together how ever you like. Lighten up and give me a call! 707-337-0327. Sheesh.

On 04/30, Thomas Pellechia wrote:

I had a long talk with Tim a little while back. We in fact agree on many fronts. But then, there are always those disagreements.

When you pare down much of what Tim talks about—it’s rather obvious stuff. The idea that the wine world concentrates too much on the so-called upper level of wines is not really true. Even today, after all the hype, upwards of 95% of the wine produced in distribution is the kind of wine on which Tim wants to see the industry focus.

As for umami: a fine concept, if you like salt… wink

On 04/30, Tim Hanni wrote:

Hey Thomas! I am proposing we concentrate our focus on CONSUMERS a bit, not on the wine. And not for anyone to stop following there passions in any way shape or form. That is where people tend to get confused about what I do. It boils down to the question, ‘how do we embrace and cultivate all wine consumer?’ My focus is on the ones that often feel disenfranchised and intimidated. AND we are discovering a lot of very cool things. C’mon Arthur - talk to me!

This is not academic debate. This is “flinging invectives at your person”:
Tim Hanni lacks even the most basic understanding of the neurophysiology of sensation and cognition…The results of his crusade will be to make mediocrity in wine the status quo.”

On 04/30, Tim Hanni wrote:

OK - I am spending some time this morning pondering Jeff’s (and other’s) comments about the underlying intent of what I do, “subject of journalistic affronts that glance surface deep without seeing an underlying intent – an intent that is obscured by his own tangential thinking that leaves holes in his message causing a general bewilderment.”

My focus is on the wine consumer. How can we engage more of them? Build trust to engender a spirit of discovery? Serve them better in general? What is there that can be learned that we don’t know?

I honor and respect all of the wine critics, educators, experts plus rating and value systems. What I also know is that each one has a purpose and market. I am simply taking a different approach. I suggest instead of everyone arguing and fighting over which is the ‘best’ system we look at what is appropriate and valuable for which segment of the market or type/styles of wine? This completely shifts the conversation and based on physiological and neurological evidence there is a place for EVERY system. Not better or worse, just different approaches for different markets.

A lot of the things we take for granted as ‘facts’ or conventional wisdoms are nothing of the sort. We have some serious misinformation being perpetuated, folks. Come have lunch, or give me a call, to learn more on this front.

My mission is to learn how better embrace and cultivate ALL consumers, with my focus being those consumers that do not, and in most cases will not, buy in to the values, language, collective realities and rating systems currently existing. By my account (reinforced by most people in the business and also being formally researched) this is perhaps from 50-90% of the total available wine consuming market. I call that an opportunity waiting to happen.

This includes how to inspire consumers and build NEW systems that are relevant and build trust.

The areas I am exploring, with some of the most amazing individuals and organizations imaginable, are aspects of sensory physiology and neurology that shape and affect our individual (and often collective) wine preferences and value systems. YumYuk.com, the Consumer Wine Awards and other facets of what I do are works in progress, involving amazing teams of people, to collect information, learn and then improve. We are getting ready to launch a really cool new improvement for YumYuk.com for example, which has been dormant for many years while studying what we can do to make it really work. Announcements to come on that front.

Umami is a great example of the challenge of introducing new, valid and relevant information. I have been investigating this pehnomenon for 20 years and STILL people talk about it without know what it is (or isn’t). Call me or e-mail me if you would like to know - it is NOT any of the examples cited in this blog comment thread! JEFF - the glutamic acid in the fertilizer/fungicide/pesticide is adding a residue of the precursor for umami taste: glutmate. The umami taste provides a lip-smacking quality to food - and wine. I will send you my hypothesis on umami taste in wine, co-authored by food and sensory scientists at Cal Poly if you would like (or will post it on my timhanni.com website).

Arthur - you rock! I love your background and daresy that I think you will become part of the efforts I am forwarding. Please give me the courtesy of taking a little time to find out more about what is behind all of the tips of the icebergs you have encountered. “Education is based in verified fact. Any information/awareness campaign that is founded in myth, untruth and reinforces misconceptions is not education. It’s not even knowledge but a collection of statements.” I could not agree more.

On 04/30, Jeff wrote:

Tim,

Thanks for the comments and engagement here.  I appreciate it.

I think I have a fundamental understanding of your positions, but in looking at the way those ideas are presented, I think some work needs to happen around marketing and polish in order for them to find their rightful place on a bigger stage—that’s my point, here.  It’s not a referendum on the ideas themselves, it’s how they are dressed so a larger audience can understand and be influenced by them.

I was going to do a graphic that broke out the taxonomy that you suggest, but I was already running at a thousand words and that seemed better left for another day.

And, yes, please do send the Umami info.—I have a great deal of interest in this subect.  My email is:  jlefevere at gmail dot com

Thanks again, Tim

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This fact is in plain sight to me, even if it’s not to most.  Spend any amount of time with him and you realize that his ideas regarding understanding palate preferences

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