Tim Hanni knows how to get wine geeks riled up. He’s a noted wine-business educator, author and one of the first U.S. Masters of Wine, and has long defended the supposedly unsophisticated tastes of consumers drawn to such sweet, mass-market styles as California moscato and white zinfandel, arguing that a predilection for sugar correlates with having more tastebuds and high sensory acuity.
But Hanni, who is also a trained chef, stirred the pot big time with a remark made at the Sauvignon Blanc 2019 conference in New Zealand in January. Speaking to an audience of about 400, he declared food-and-wine pairing – the sommelier’s central mission – to be a bunch of “B.S.” (Actually, that’s my G-rated abbreviation; Hanni uttered the full, eight-letter Monty for provocative emphasis.)
“We need to get over the notion that food and wine grew up together,” he said in the speech, which later drew wide attention in an article in the European journal The Drinks Business. “Food and wine matching is pseudoscience full of metaphors and misunderstandings.” Publicity-wise, it didn’t hurt that the respected publication ran the full curse word in its headline, discreetly inserting an asterisk in place of the “I,” like a pastie on a stripper.
And that’s when the “S” hit the fan. Predictably, social-media trolls blew a gasket, with some commenters branding him revolutionary and others a fraud.
“What he is saying is drop standards and stop educating the customer, just tell them what they want to hear,” protested Jonathan Kleeman, a Britain-based beverage director, on a Facebook wine-study-group page. “Small-minded, lazy, and I hope never to be invited to his dinner table.” More presumptuously, another commenter wrote: “I’m guessing his media clips and page views have been a bit thin lately so he’s decided to get ‘controversial.'”
I’m acquainted with Hanni, so I called him at his home in Bend, Ore., to chew the fat (without sauvignon blanc) and get him to elaborate. With the good cheer of someone who clearly enjoys ruffling starched shirts, he defended his latest salvo as the fruit of 30 years of sensory, linguistic and genetic research, some of which is laid out in his book Why You Like the Wines You Like.
“Red wine with red meat has become this delusion,” he says, citing the widely endorsed pairing of steak with cabernet sauvignon as a common example. It’s based in part on the rationale that big, heavy foods demand big, heavy wines. Yet, he notes that moscato, a generally sweet white, “is heavier than cabernet” because of its considerable residual sugar. What we’re unconsciously doing, he says, is pairing a big wine with food that comes from a big source, in this case a cow. But sauvignon blanc, a light, zesty white, is a fine partner for steak, he says.
“One of the big rages is pinot noir with salmon, and again, that’s totally metaphorical because pinots aren’t as big as a cab and salmon’s not as big as a cow, but it’s a bigger fish and it’s red,” he adds. In reality, if you cook salmon with no seasoning on it and take a sip of pinot noir, it’s “going to be absolutely disgusting.” To make the pairing work, you’ve got to bring salt and acidity – say, in the form of lemon juice – to the table. Only then will the pinot noir taste good, “but so will a cabernet, so would a chardonnay, so would a moscato or an albarino,” he says.
And while it’s well-known that sweet foods cause dry wines to fall apart, many a sommelier will instinctively choose pinot noir when presented with duck breast served with cherry sauce. Why? According to Hanni, it’s “because the wine smells like cherry. It’s all B.S. – if the chef doesn’t adjust the salt and the acidity, it’s just going to suck.”
Okay, what about port and Stilton? I ask. That’s a combo cited ad nauseam as a perfect wine-and-food marriage. Total bunkum, apparently. Many people will detest the port because they may have a genetic predisposition to a burning sensation from high-alcohol fortified wines, Hanni says. Others will turn their noses up at the salty, mouldy cheese. Even many who like the two ingredients in isolation will detest the combination because the cheese, for them at least, makes the wine taste metallic.
Maybe you see where this is all going. Hanni is essentially a taste relativist. He says we’re all induced to like certain wines or wine-and-food combinations, not just because of obvious external factors, such as education or social influences or cultural biases, but also because we’re hardwired genetically to prefer and hate different things. Take cilantro. “Somewhere around 4 or 5 per cent of people have a certain genetic cluster [that makes] cilantro a disgusting, soapy, horrible experience,” Hanni says. “Julia Child was one of those people.”
There can be no one-size-fits-all pairing, he adds, when you consider that “some people have well less than 500 taste buds in their mouths and other people have over 11,000. There’s no good or bad to any of that. We’ve got different shoe sizes too.” That’s why Hanni co-founded a website called myVinotype.com, which through a simple questionnaire helps consumers learn more about where they sit on a spectrum of wine-flavour preferences.
The theory that there is a perfect or best wine choice for any given dish is grounded in the false assumption that food and wine evolved together in France and other European countries over centuries, Hanni says. In fact, wines just developed on their own independently from local cuisine.
“Our call to action for what we should do now and in the future is match the wine to the diner, not the dinner,” Hanni says.
For what it’s worth, I’m on his side most of the way. There’s no denying that there’s a misguided emphasis on metaphors in many pairing suggestions. Often “experts” will recommend pink foods such as salmon or glazed ham for rosé wines, which from a flavour standpoint is nonsensical. I recall attending a winemaker’s dinner at a restaurant about 15 years ago, wherein the chef trotted out a dish of duck with cherry sauce to complement a Niagara pinot noir. I also recall unwisely sharing my distaste. The sweetness of the sauce dismembered the poor, unsuspecting, bone-dry wine, rendering it bitter and unrecognizable. More surprising to me was that others at the table pronounced the pairing inspired. I’ve also experimented with sauvignon blanc and steak and found it surprisingly harmonious.
And many other so-called classic pairings are plainly horrible. I’ve written before about the catastrophe of strawberries with Champagne. On that point, I even quoted none other than the global sales manager for Cristal producer Louis Roederer, who knows a thing or two about fine Champagne. "If you eat some strawberries, your palate will be full of sugar,” Frederic Heidsieck told me. “The Champagne is a beautiful balance between sugar and acidity. If you put some sugar in your mouth, you are in trouble. Some people like to have strawberries dipped in chocolate, which is even worse.”
I suspect the idea of strawberries with Champagne got off the ground more than a century ago, when, according to Hanni, “very typically, Champagne as drunk in France was up to 140 grams per litre [of residual sugar], which is 30-per-cent sweeter than Coca-Cola.”
And Hanni is right about the evolution of European cuisine. Nobody said, “Hey, let’s create boeuf bourguignon as the perfect way to highlight red Burgundy.” Pick any 10 people at random and ask whether they prefer the saucy beef stew with delicate, French pinot noir or instead with smooth, full-bodied California merlot and I bet most would choose the merlot. Also, I’m pretty sure osso buco in Piedmont has more often been washed down with barbera or dolcetto, not Barolo, as is mainly suggested by sommeliers and cookbook authors.
But here’s an example of where I think the relativist theory clearly falls apart. Forget wine and just focus on food. Ask 100 people whether salmon goes with dill, or whether pork harmonizes with sage and I’ll bet the vast majority would agree. A chef’s skill and success rests on his or her ability to combine ingredients in ways that are generally recognized as harmonious, not in asking each customer to name ingredients they want or don’t want to see in each dish.
In the end, wine-and-food pairing is a form of cooking. Wine, as we like to say in the pairing game, is a sauce that complements what’s on the plate. Sometimes it’s exciting and very satisfying to let a chef do the cooking and a sommelier do the wine picking.
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