Interview conducted by Melissa L. Michaels, Capiche Contributor/Strategic Partner, Michaels & Michaels Creative, LLC
Above: Tim Hanni, MW, with collaborators Danni Lin and Chris Cutler
America’s first Master of Wine and one of fewer than 500 in the world, Tim Hanni has collected epithets ranging from the wine anti-snob (The Wall Street Journal) to the Swami of Umami (memorialized by Pug Ostling, who awarded Tim the official Swami of Umami t-shirt in 1990) to flavor maven (Oregon Wine Press) to the King of Digressions (self-applied 😉) over his five-decade career in the wine industry.
As part of his crusade to shift the paradigm from snobbery to science, he authored the books Why You Like the Wines You Like: Changing the Way the World Thinks About Wine and The Sweet Wine Lovers’ Manifesto: Ending the Tyranny of the Dry Wine Fashionistas. Cofounder of eCode.me, myVinotype, and Wine Business Education (WBE), Tim has invented tools such as the Progressive Wine List and budometer. A Certified Wine Educator accredited by the Society of Wine Educators, he teaches in the Napa Valley Wine Academy program and Washington State University’s Wine Business Management Online Certificate. Tim has provided consulting services across the United States, Europe, and Asia and has lectured in nearly 30 countries. He created the market for Moscato, taking it from 300,000 cases sold per year in 2007 to 10 million cases in 2010. Hailing from a musical family, Tim also plays guitar in a Motown band, which is where he met his beloved wife and fellow musician, Kate.
Capiche’s Chris Cook played a pivotal role in the development of WBE’s Business of Wine online course, and she is about to join Tim in his latest endeavor, The Perception Project, which will harness the arsenal of enthralling scientific data on perception he and his colleagues have amassed over the years. Chris recognizes this is the opportunity of a lifetime and is thrilled to collaborate with Tim on the culmination of his life’s work.
Q: You are currently one of 493 Masters of Wine in the world and the first American, along with Joel Butler, to earn that prestigious title. What does it mean to be a Master of Wine, and how did you wind up as one?
A: The Institute of Masters of Wine was formed in the early 1950s. The credential is earned through a rigorous four-day examination comprising 1) a series of theory papers focused on the business and sciences of wine from the “ground to the glass”; 2) three practical blind tastings intended to demonstrate a technical deductive tasting ability; and 3) a formal research paper on a topic approved by the Education Committee. I am now one of the “Old Guard,” having passed in 1990 along with my friend Joel Butler.
The title MW had intrigued me for a long time—and keep in mind that I have been learning about wine since the mid-1960s. My curiosity began when I was 14 years old, and that is another part of my story I will get to. Many of the most respected wine professionals and writers held the title, so it was a designation I came across regularly.
Up until 1988, passing the examination and earning the title required that you know about business, marketing, and legal issues specific to the British wine trade. In 1988, they expanded the scope to a more global perspective and began accepting international candidates. I was one of a cadre of about half a dozen Americans to be accepted to take the examination. In 1989, I sat for the examination and failed epically. I had to completely revise my thinking, take a more business-like approach to wine, and retool my wine-tasting and evaluation process. To the astonishment of the institute—and myself—I succeeded and passed the exam in 1990.
Q: How has earning your Master of Wine credential influenced your work in the wine industry?
A: The two most important things that came from becoming a Master of Wine were learning about critical thinking—the ability to look at, then process different opinions and points of view—and the relief of not having to “prove” to others I had a strong knowledge base about wine. I could finally start asking questions that had bounced around in my brain for decades without apology or a fear of appearing stupid. As an avid student of wine and gastronomy, I knew there were so many inconsistencies and so much BS. Now, I had greater freedom to explore and see if I could find answers to these lingering questions.
Primarily, I had to learn more about the business of wine at a much deeper level. Rather than jumping to an immediate conclusion about wine-related topics, you must have the ability to look at things from multiple points of view—that’s where critical thinking comes in. This sums up my two areas of business today. One is the pragmatic aspect of creating courses teaching about the business of wine and devising financial calculators for the wine business. The second is my fascination for understanding more about the sciences of perception and what makes us all unique in how we connect to each other and the illusions of what we think of as “reality.”
Q: That brings up the concept of “Vinotype,” a term you coined in 2011 along with launching myVinotype.com. Tell us about Vinotyping and the science behind it.
A: The seed of awareness of our perceptive differences was first planted 40 years ago for me. One evening, after attending a high-level sensory conference with my friend and research partner/mentor Dr. Virginia Utermohlen, I got into a discussion with her and several others about the phenotypic traits (the combination of genetics and environmental adaptations of an organism) of people and how this correlates to wine preferences, behaviors, and attitudes. The word “Vinotype” just sort of came out—the individual genetics and environmental adaptations of a wine-drinking organism!
Q: What is your vinotype?
A: I am a “conflicted hypersensitive” Vinotype—irritatingly high sensitivities, but the conflicted part is added because my behaviors changed so I could fit in better with my peers. People with the highest sensitivities are often picked on, even punished, for their behaviors—“Why can’t you be like the other kids?”, “The good kids can go play, but you stay and finish your meal,” and “Why are you so picky?” So I started to adapt to fit in with others! It is a very common thing for hypersensitives to do.
As an MW who has been deeply involved in the wine world for nearly five decades, you understand the value of marketing to the wine industry. Why is it so critical for a brand to invest in marketing and establish an identity in the marketplace?
A: The wine industry, as any industry, is at yet again another turning point. Brand loyalty per se is very low in the wine market, and customer retention for wine clubs and general wine sales is challenging to create. This is also why the fundamentals of marketing are so important and why I adore Chris Cook so much. Having a lot of product knowledge, telling people what they should pair with their wine (unless they ask, of course), and learning the intimidating and illusory descriptive language of wine should not be confused with marketing. Marketing is about understanding the attitudes and behaviors of people—not trivia about the product.
Q: What special something does Chris bring to her marketing of wine?
A: In wine marketing, many people focus so much on learning about wine that they overlook having a solid foundation in the fundamentals of marketing. Chris Cook has that foundation. This is why she is so valuable to us as a partner in our programs and courses. On top of this, she is just a wonderful person who truly cares about the people she works with—and this provides her with an ability to genuinely connect with others. One only has to get to know her to understand you have a friend for life who is also the ultimate marketing professional.
Q: The Wall Street Journal christened you the “wine anti-snob.” What are the philosophical underpinnings behind being a wine anti-snob?
A: In 2008, I was approached by a journalist, The Wall Street Journal’s Katy McLaughlin, who was curious to learn about a recovering alcoholic Master of Wine in the wine business (see above note about starting when I was 14 years old!). We had a conversation about my work, and she asked if she could spend some time tagging along with me and learning more about the sensory research, tastings, and work with consumers I was engaged in at the time. This ended up lasting three weeks!
The philosophical underpinnings were simple: the wine industry is greatly out of touch with consumers, and we have twisted the history, traditions, and conventions of wine to the point of being ridiculous. I had just applied consumer data to the repositioning of Moscato wines for a couple of my clients based on hard data showing sweet wines were highly regarded in France and Italy (it is NOT an American phenomenon), the sweet-wine market was vastly undervalued, and sweet-wine drinkers typically have, by far, the greatest level of sensory sensitivity. They are not “uneducated, naïve, and unsophisticated.” My mother-in-law, Joanne, had become my inspiration—a White Zinfandel drinker with a PhD in economics, a semi-professional golfer, a university-level educator, and a wonderful human being whom the wine industry is bent on blindly and stupidly ridiculing. Moscato made her go, “WOW!”
Katie and the editors decided to lead with the wine anti-snob title. And it is gratifying to see the success of Moscato—since then, global demand and production have increased over tenfold for Moscato wines! Getting the wine elite to pay more attention to consumers and revise the misinformation about wine history and the ridiculous nature of wine and food “pairing” is more challenging, but I am persistent 😁
Q: Haha, you have become known for your controversial statements about food and wine pairing, a subject you have particular insight into as a Master of Wine and professionally trained chef who has also worked as an executive chef. Can you elaborate?
A: Long ago, I was referred to as “the guru of wine pairing” by Jancis Robinson, MW—one of my heroes in the wine industry. Over time, I started to challenge my own preconceptions about pairing. My classical training as a chef and passion for learning about gastronomy led me to the conclusions that wine and food “pairing” was never a tradition in Europe, that it does not take into account our perceptive differences, and—please excuse my directness—wine and food pairing is a miserable combination of misrepresentation of European traditions, pseudoscientific rationalizations, and metaphorical oeno-babble. But this is an entirely different topic and covered in depth in Why You Like the Wines You Like.
Q: You wrote Why You Like the Wines You Like: Changing the Way the World Thinks About Wine in 2012. How did the book come about?
A: In 2010, I was approached by a colleague named Harvey Posert, a friend who was the senior communications director for Robert Mondavi. Harvey had been a major force in the wine industry for 45 years. He’d read a report I had published that year with Virginia Utermohlen, MD, that focused on what can be termed “perceptive individuality.” We posited that while there are many similarities in how people perceive “the illusions of reality,” there can be vast perceptive differences between any two individuals. Why You Like the Wines You Like explores the nature of these differences and how the wine community—and certainly wine professionals—can do a better job of understanding personal preferences and personalizing wine recommendations.
One of the key arguments in the book is sweet-wine lovers are not the wine pariahs they are made out to be. We illustrated that the wine education system is riddled with errors about the traditions and history of sweet wines, and the notion that dry wine is more sophisticated is a seriously flawed proposition. Prior to World War II, for example, French Champagne was commonly much sweeter than Coca Cola—yet the misguided wine experts maintain Americans often enjoy sweet wines because they were raised drinking sodas, a completely false assumption! A large percentage of French, Italian, and Spanish wine-lovers coveted sweet wines over dry wines.
It turned out Harvey, an industry veteran and executive, was himself one of the disenfranchised sweet-wine lovers—along with Dr. Utermohlen, my mother-in-law, and about 40% of the global market. We are talking about millions of real people, which represents a tremendous opportunity for the wine industry.
Harvey declared, “You really need to write a book!” He personally spearheaded the project. And I am proud to say that his boss, Robert Mondavi, was a good friend and champion of my work as well.
I also wrote The Sweet Wine Lovers’ Manifesto: Ending the Tyranny of the Dry Wine Fashionistas. It is no longer in print, but the principles and background are covered in Why You Like the Wines You Like.
Q: Your book has been described as “paradigm-changing.” How have attitudes toward wine and pairing wine with food evolved since the book’s publication?
A: The evolution in revising and adapting the “conventional wisdoms” around wine is a slow process. Mistaken or misguided paradigms and attitudes are hard to change. We are just now finally accepting that Christoper Columbus did NOT “discover” America in our general education systems! The dissemination of misinformation about wine traditions and history continues for the most part, but my work is increasingly becoming adopted and a part of other education programs, most notably the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET).
Contrary to popular thinking, the French never gave much thought to “pairing” wine with food. And in the regions where most of the great wines were produced, the locals often drank imported, really cheap Italian, Spanish, or Algerian wines! The fine wines were too commercially valuable and exported for the most part. The tradition was to “match the wine to the diner, not the dinner.” And the French also loved sweet wines—before, with, and after the meal.
The “paradigm-changing” part mostly references my work in perceptive sciences and development of sensory-based market segmentation models aimed at more positively engaging, communicating, and retaining ALL wine lovers; helping people understand why they like what they like; and teaching them how to make recommendations that will earn their trust. The vast majority of consumers do not trust wine experts, and that is the paradigm I am working to change.