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Taking a fresh perspective on wine
By Ruby Gao and Sophia Fan


Wine master Tim Hanni is something of a rebel in the wine world. He has proposed what is viewed as a revolutionary, psychology-based way to view wine in order to combat the growing convolution and intimidation within the industry.

The world of wine has become increasingly complex, and ironically, this only discourages people from drinking wine, says the author of “Why You Like the Wines You Like: Changing the Way the World Thinks about Wine (2013).”

Hanni, one of the first two Americans to earn the title Master of Wine, has been hailed as the “Wine Anti-snob” by the Wall Street Journal as he seeks to simplify or reverse the direction in which the wine industry is progressing.

Hanni, recently in Shanghai for a wine event to discuss the current state of the industry, says he wants to help people understand their wine preferences and put themselves first by employing a more psychological perspective.

Through his people-first approach he emphasizes that the individuality of wine drinkers matters in their sensations and perceptions. Hanni touches on how some people are more sensitive to certain tastes than others; for example, those who prefer lighter, sweeter wines often have more taste buds than those who favor more bitter, intense wines.

As sensation and perception are intertwined, perception, or the process of organizing and interpreting sensory information, plays a significant role in wine preference.

Context matters and so does the natural workings of an individual’s mind. For example, one is more inclined to favor a wine when he/she is told it is extremely expensive, and one’s automatic associations are shaped to previous experiences. For example, one who is allergic to grass and has had an unfortunate experience with grass (maybe he/she threw up) may immediately feel nauseous when smelling a grassy red wine even though he/she may not even consciously realize the wine has grassy notes. This occurs because the mind processes many survival related associations on an automatic, unconscious level.

This latent learning, studied by psychologists like Ivan Pavlov and Albert Bandura, explains why some people “just don’t” like certain types of wine and can’t explain why.

Cultural values also play an important role in alcohol preference. New research has shown that red wine consumption has skyrocketed in China because traditionally, the color red signifies good fortune. The uniqueness of sensation and perception results in different responses to the same stimuli.

Hanni touches on a key focus of psychology — the interaction between nature (our heredity and biologically predisposed inclinations) and nurture (our external environment’s influences, our experiences and values).

He acknowledges that while the number of taste buds one has (nature) influences one’s initial, natural reaction to wine, gradually shifting experiences and evolving tastes (nurture) does still impact one’s wine choices.

Mei Ningbo, editor-in-chief at vinehoo.com, echoes this integrated approach. He believes one’s childhood experiences, the region in which one grew up and the corresponding cuisine one was initially exposed to play a large role in one’s wine preference. He uses a cuisine-based analogy that while a Shanghainese person may enjoy sweeter wines, a Sichuan-born person may be more inclined to favor fiery, spicy liquors. This concept is supported by Hanni’s research showing how the French, Italians, Spanish, and Germans have always been, and still are, the largest consumers of sweet wines.


Hanni is also determined to correct misconceptions about sweet wines. In recent years, the stigma surrounding sweet wines has grown so strong that it now borders on the ridiculous. He says it is fairly routine for a sweet-wine lover to be told that he/she can’t have his/her favorite wine with a main course. Wine critics almost always heap praise on drier wines while disregarding the credibility of both sweet wines and their drinkers.

Hanni points out the ridiculousness of the anti-sweet wine trend with the fact one can now buy a shirt with the slogan “Friends don’t let friends drink White Zinfandel” on multiple websites.

Even many of those well-versed in wine, such as wine educator Charles Guo, describe sweet wines as entry-level vintages with the potential to popularize wine-drinking in Asian countries (as sweetness is a universally attractive taste). While some aspects of this statement may be true, it still devalues sweet wines for what they are and echoes the popular yet groundless industry belief that everyone’s preferences gradually evolve to bitter and intense wines.

While Hanni spends much of his talk erasing the stigmas the wine industry and general society have built around sweet wines, the most controversial topic of his talk is still his opinion on food and wine pairings.

He claims that set food-and-wine pairings are unnecessary, illogical and most of the time plain nonsense. Hanni’s philosophy revolves around the saying “pair wine to the diner, not the dinner.”

Given his other views, it’s not hard to understand where he has a problem with food-wine pairings. He claims many of the pairings promoted by wine experts are ones they have not even tried themselves, and that even if they have, there is no guarantee everyone will experience this pairing in the same way.

In short, what may be delicious to one person may be disagreeable to the next, thus it makes no sense to have universal “rules” or pairings of food and wine.

In the end, wine is made to be enjoyed. While it’s true the wine industry has a notorious, inexplicable need to criticize over 40 percent of its consumers for liking sweet wine, it’s also true this is still a consumer-based society, and consumers and their opinions can produce real change.

Hanni urges consumers to recognize the individuality of sensation/perception and how this influences their wine preferences. He says it is imperative for one to understand and accept one’s natural predispositions toward certain types of wine. By understanding the psychology of wine, everyone can contribute toward a more inclusive, more enjoyable wine society.


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