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Tim Hanni & the “Unchallenged Bunk” debate

Tim Hanni (lft); Oliver Thring (rt)

Tim Hanni (left); Oliver Thring (right)

The wine-related Twitterverse was abuzz this morning with reports of vinous blasphemy: US Master of Wine Tim Hanni has claimed that “Wine critics’ advice is unchallenged bunk,” or so says Oliver Thring in the Guardian.

And Jancis Robinson gets into it a bit on her summary of the Master of Wine Symposia in her Purple Pages as well. Surely others will have a thing or two to say over the course of the day.

It appears that Hanni–who is well known for his work in the area of psycho-sensory phenomena and how the human brain processes and interprets sensory information–has cast his pearls before peers to say, yet once again, that each person has a unique palate, and therefore the opinions of critics are–and can only be–subjective. What he’s getting at, of course, is that communication about wine is anything but objective and that what one person experiences may vary vastly from what the next person drinking from the same bottle.

Honestly, does that come as a surprise to anyone? We all have taste preferences, tolerances, and thresholds of perception that affect our wine choices. Ask a group of consumers whether they prefer Sauvignon Blanc or Chardonnay, and there you have some insight on their appreciation of acidity levels. Do they want their Riesling sweet or dry? Prefer their Cabs big and burly or subtle and silky? Pour a tannic young red and see who screws up their face in pain and who begs for more. Clearly, we have preferences.

How, then, do we communicate them? How do we guide consumers to wines they will enjoy? Is the advice of wine critics really bunk?

It pretty much boils down to how much relevance we place –and reverence we pay–to the experts. Hanni is not telling people that it makes no difference what they drink or that any old thing will do (as seems to be implied in some of the recent buzz), but he is telling people that they do not have to feel cowed into “liking” something that a wine critic informs them they must.

Hanni, who has worked extensively in the area of taste, brought the Japanese concept of umami (the fifth taste) into the wine world to aid in food and wine pairing. He has also worked on developing something he calls a “Budometer,” which works on the basis that the number of taste buds we have affects our level of perception of flavor and determines our preferences for strong, moderate, or subtle flavors.

It doesn’t stop with the number of taste buds, of course. Hanni kicks it to the next level to help people find wines they may like through a series of questions designed to determine one’s “Taste Sensitivity Quotient,” which asks about certain preferences with respect to salt, coffee, drinks, and sweeteners, etc., and then returns some pretty accurate results. Try it yourself: TSQ interview .

He’s got his own agenda, of course, but it certainly does seem that Hanni is on to something. He’s empowering the consumer by telling people to respect their own opinions, and in doing so, reminding the pros that snobbery does not sell wine to the masses.

So let the critics talk. Let them have their say. Let them make suggestions based on the vast accumulation of information they have gathered through experience and hard work over the course of their careers. And then let the consumer decide.

Tim Hanni (lft); Oliver Thring (rt)

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