I remember the first wine that flipped my pancakes. It was in the early 1980s, when tasting Sebastiani’s Blanc de Noir, Eye of the Swan—a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. I’ve always looked back at that and laughed, belittling my own baby steps towards acquiring a taste towards superior, drier wines.

Upon hearing my story, Master of Wine, Tim Hanni, might step in and defend the young adult who loved the light, slightly sweet wine. “Acquired tastes come from a positive association, reinforcement or payoff”, Hanni noted.

Tim Hanni
Tim Hanni
If you did not like a flavor in the first place, and you eventually found yourself enjoying it, a positive experience may have caused you to associate the food or drink with “delicious”. Waking up to the smell of fresh coffee may give children a sense of comfort: a mother is out in the kitchen taking care of them. Furthermore, the adults are drinking it, and you can’t have it, so coffee becomes something many people aspire to drink.

The same principle applies to those who no longer appreciate a certain wine because of a negative judgment associated with it. White zinfandel has such a reputation in the wine world. “Many times entire genres of popular wines are categorically dismissed as unsuitable for any food”, Hanni confirmed.

Hanni has worked with researchers who revealed not only that memories impact our likes and dislikes, but that there are vast biological differences among individuals’ palates.


Ask yourself the following questions, and then read below for fascinating definitions of the categories of tasters:

  1. How does scotch taste to you?
  2. How do you like your coffee?
  3. Do diet sodas taste odd to you?

The person attracted to light, sweet wine is not necessarily a novice drinker, but more likely a hyper-taster. Hyper-tasters actually have more taste buds. They comprise about 25% of the population and tend to be women. These folks have an aversion to bitterness and astringency, and heavy oak in their wine is unbearable. Alcohol can taste like gasoline to them, coffee is only tolerable if it is weak and has sugar and cream added. Diet sodas taste very bitter.

Surprisingly, hyper-tasters may also instinctively like salt, even if they have convinced themselves not to use it.. Salt has come to be considered a “bad guy” in our culture. While medical professionals focus on how salt affects health, culinary professionals condemn it for disposing of the taste. For hyper-tasters, though, salt offers the benefit of smoothing out bitterness in both food and wine.

As far as which wine varietals might attract hyper-tasters, generalizing is impossible. The differences among wines, even within each grape category, are too great. For instance, a hyper-taster might like the typical light and complex Pinot Noir, while those with fewer taste buds might be partial to a big Pinot Noir.

A restaurant study showed that hyper-tasters are often attracted to the culinary arts, decorating, graphics and marketing.

Examples of hyper-tasters:

  • Jancis Robinson: Master of Wine and one of the UK’s finest writers
  • Tim Mondavi: former winemaker at Mondavi, passionate about delicate wines
  • Tim’s mother-in-law, Joanne


At the other extreme are the hypo-tasters, who have the fewest number of taste buds, and therefore a high tolerance to bitterness and tannins. Hypo-tasters demand intensity. They can tolerate the most pungent, oak-laden wines, tend to like strongly flavored alcohol such as scotch and brandy, and prefer dark-roasted, black coffee. In other areas of life, hypo-tasters like their music loud and their houses cold, playing the Thermostat Tango with their incongruous spouses, as Hanni would say. Approximately 25% of the population fall into this category, with men outnumbering women two- or three-to-one. Hypo-tasters in the restaurant industry are inclined to be numbers-oriented, working in the business and finance sector of the field.

Examples of hypo-tasters:

  • Jean-Michel Valette: Master of Wine, Chairman of Peet’s Coffee and Tea; former Chairman/CEO of Mondavi
  • Bill Harlan: owner of Harlan Estate (mega-cult wines) and Meadowood Resort in St. Helena
  • Diane Maher: marketing wizard at Icon Estates


Not surprisingly, median-tasters have a medium number of taste buds, making them relatively open to various taste experiences. Bitterness is unpleasant, but not terrible, although each individual may have hypo- or hyper-sensitivity to particular tastes. “…Not too loud or soft, too strong or weak, etc. Maybe like Goldilocks?” Tim quips.

Fifty percent of the population are median-tasters, equally divided between men and women.


Tim Hanni has worked with a core team of researchers expert in the areas of biological individualism, the psycho-sensory phenomenon, sensory adaptation and the umami taste paradigm (explained below). The team included Dr. Chuck Wysocki of Monnell Chemical Senses Center, Dr. Michael O’Mahoney of the University of California at Davis, and Drs. Victor Kimura and Robert Bursey of Ajinomoto Company.

Research shows that two factors form the basis of why people like what they like:

  1. the genetically-determined, individual, biological responses to sensory stimuli
  2. the way the brain processes the sensory information and is influenced by life experiences and social interactions.

“Over time your instinctive reactions to gustatory sensations will be influenced more and more by memory-related brain regions that recall memories or associations provided by past interactions with our family, peers, society and culture. These learned or acquired responses to sensory stimulus may become more powerful to our behaviors and values than the sensations themselves.”

Hanni highlighted part of an in-depth study in Neuron, Volume 44, Number 2, October 14, 2004.“Brain scans of people tasting the soft drinks reveal that knowing which drink they're tasting affects their preference and activates memory-related brain regions that recall cultural influences. Thus, say the researchers, they have shown neurologically how a culturally based brand image influences a behavioral choice…

“…visual images and marketing messages have insinuated themselves into the nervous systems of humans that consume the drinks…”

Hanni adds, “Although the study was conducted with different brands of cola, the same phenomenon is replayed over and over again with aspects of wine and when pairing wine with food.

“…What this means in relationship to wine is that the name of a great producer, the points awarded by a critic or eloquent and evocative writing about a wine can all greatly influence the experience an individual might have with a wine.”

What? Are you talking to me?

Although the word may sound like an exclamation, it is actually a term that describes the delicious or savory taste in foods and wines. A Japanese researcher in the early 1900s, while investigating the strong flavor in seaweed broth, concluded that umami is actually one of the five basic tastes. More recent research uncovered that humans have actual receptors responsible for the sense of umami.

Umami is not an abstract phenomenon, but results from concrete substances found in food or wine: either glutamate or ribonucleotides. A food or wine could have one or the other, but the combination makes for an intense umami result, or an umama-rama, as Hanni would say.

Foods high in umami are certain meats and cheeses, seafoods, asparagus, fresh tomatoes, soy sauce, cooked mushrooms and potatoes, green tea and more. Drying, aging and curing foods intensifies the umami taste. Deconstructing any great dish will most likely expose glutamate and/or ribonucleotides among the ingredients. A prime example is demonstrated in the classic Caesar Salad: anchovies contain ribonucleotides and parmesan cheese includes glutamate.

Why does umami enter this discussion? Most people don’t know that the presence of umami in food can have the effect of making the wine you drink with it taste bitter or acidic. If you then add a bit of salt or a squeeze of lemon to the food, then taste the wine again, you will notice the wine is now smooth and soft. This action is the essence and solution of Hanni’s and his associates’ research. Each of us can like almost any wine with any food! By balancing out a food’s flavors with lemon or salt, you can enjoy a Pinot Gris with a grilled steak or a tannic Cabernet Sauvignon with a delicately prepared fish dish!

A presence of some form of acidity and sodium exists in just about every great European dish, which is why some Europeans drink the same “table wines” every day, no matter what the meal.

Umami is the single most important and good taste in food, but must be balanced with salt and acidity to pair deliciously with wine.


Whenever we throw a value at a wine and food combination, we intimidate those whose palates could take pleasure in the pairing. Certainly, the judgments that discard entire categories of wines lower wine sales. Hyper-tasters, who would have a proclivity for white zinfandel, might feel inclined to acquire a taste for drier wines to fit into the social norms of the wine world.

Consumers, and even most wine professionals, notes Hanni, can become confused by all the highfalutin jargon and contradictory terms tossed about the wine industry. Some get discouraged and may shy away from all wine, turning to beer and spirits. As we know, spirits dominate the alcohol market. Although wine revenues inch up, an overall attitude change among consumers and the wine industry might have tremendous impact on wine sales.

According to Hanni, “The wine industry, in general, is losing out because the public has been intimidated by erroneous, outdated conventions and misinformation.”

Most wines throughout history were notably sweet, and some of the most coveted were the sweetest. Only in the last fifty years have French and Italian wines become drier and higher in intensity and alcohol; meanwhile, Hanni explains that Europe’s wine sales have plummeted by 50%!

Ironically, although wine experts seem to accept that different people have different palates, they still continue to proclaim some wines to be superior and imply that others can be discarded as if one size fits all. Professionals have no idea how or why people’s tastes differ and what behaviors people with differing palates exhibit.

Tim Hanni likes to compare the wine connoisseur to the shoe peddler, who is passionate about his job, knows everything about shoes, the materials, etc., but doesn’t know that the buyers’ feet are all different from each other. The differences in peoples’ taste buds from one extreme to another is HUNDREDFOLD.

Hanni explains that everyone, especially the wine professional, should know the following three concepts:

  1. Wine and food pairing based on regional and traditional concepts is in dire need of revision to separate fact vs. fiction.
  2. All human beings are biologically different from one another, and may experience flavor sensations very differently.
  3. Personal life experiences shape and change people’s preferences and behaviors and are different for every individual.

The wine industry would be wise to try new marketing techniques considering this relatively new information. Hanni suggests devising creative wine lists that encompass every flavor dimension with verbiage such as “If you love mild, sweet wines, here are some that will knock your socks off. For those of you who demand huge, extracted, ultra-ripe red wines, have at these!”

Tim Hanni has started and would like to continue an underground movement to really educate consumers and change the thinking in the wine industry. If people understand their own sensory world, they can figure out what wines will most likely work for them. It’s about self-discovery, quieting negativity and really understanding individual preferences.

Because Hanni would like to enroll wine professionals in the possibility that there’s a whole new way to do things that does not have to infringe on what they love to do, he has presented seminars to chefs, sommeliers and the general public for the last several years, and just recently presented to an audience at COPIA, Robert Mondavi’s brainchild: The American Center for Wine, Food & The Arts in Napa, California. Many chefs and winemakers, from Jeremiah Tower to Dom Perignon’s winemaker Richard Geoffroy, have subscribed to the new understanding of wine and food pairing with respect to individuals’ palates. The new seasoning product, discussed below, is a culmination of Hanni’s and his associates’ work.


Napa Seasoning Company
Napa Seasoning Company
After extensive research performed throughout the last fifteen years using palate tests, in-depth customer surveys and interviews, Hanni and fellow researchers made up of scientists, chefs and sommeliers developed the following principles:

  1. Salt and acidity dominating a dish will make wine taste more mild (just like it will with Tequila, seriously).
  2. Sweetness and umami dominating the food will make wine taste more bitter, astringent and acidic (brush teeth, drink orange juice).
  3. Impeccably balanced food in terms of sweet, umami, salty and sour tastes is really great with any wine.

Upon reviewing the research, current Napa Seasoning Company partner John Stallcup proclaimed to Hanni, “Let’s put this stuff in a bottle and sell it!” Vignon was born. The seasoning consists of salt, dried Shitake mushrooms, Parmesan cheese, natural butter flavors, garlic, onion, carrots, soy sauce and lemon juice.

I tested the product myself in Hanni’s own kitchen in the beautiful burbs of Napa. We started with steamed asparagus and a glass of Shiraz.

Hanni’s Tasting Procedure:

  • Sip wine. My reaction: the wine tasted smooth and flavorful.
  • Eat asparagus tip with no seasoning. My reaction: the asparagus was aromatic and delicious.
  • Sip wine again. My reaction: the wine tasted a bit bitter and acidic.
  • Sprinkle Vignon on asparagus and eat. My reaction: the asparagus was even tastier than the first time (I happen to like salt, a characteristic of a hyper-taster).
  • Sip wine again. My reaction: the wine again tasted smooth and delicious. Suddenly, my thoughts were "This food was meant to go with this wine", but the reality was that the seasoning had the effect of making the food more savory and the wine softer.

Hanni then introduced me to two more dishes with the Vignon seasoning sprinkled in from the beginning:

  • Soft, mini mozzarella balls with minced basil and cherry tomatoes
  • Small scallops sautéed in cream with a dash of sherry

Once again, the food was heavenly, and the wine silky. Please note that the Vignon did not cover up the taste of any of the food, but seemed to draw out the flavors’ intensities.

Tim Hanni’s Vignon will launch at COPIA in approximately late June. After its introduction, COPIA has agreed to feature Vignon and explain Hanni’s wine and food pairing philosophy in their twice-daily wine and food seminars!

Once released, Vignon will be sold wherever wine is sold: at wineries, the winery section of the grocery store, etc.

I must say that in the midst of researching this article and interviewing Mr. Hanni, I found myself wanting to tell everyone about these discoveries and the product, Vignon. I would trap people in the kitchen at work, quizzing them about their coffee, diet soda and salt preferences. I’d bend my husband’s ear with each detail I’d recently learned.

If these discoveries really get some buzz, the wine industry will be TRANSFORMED. More importantly, normal eating and drinking will become WINING AND DINING EXPERIENCES. Tim Hanni’s dream is to “create a new foundation that generates more joy and delight at the table, for a greater number of people than was ever thought possible.”


Tim Hanni, Master of Wine, is an eclectic soul. Formerly a professional chef, and involved heavily in the wine industry, he now not only devotes time to the new Napa Seasoning Company, but also plays guitar with his wife, lovely singer Kate Moon, and sits on the board of WineQuest, dedicated to increasing wine sales through hospitality education. Hanni is a frequent keynote speaker, and conducts professional development classes at COPIA. His Progressive Wine List format concept has been adopted by restaurants world-wide. By the way, Tim is a median-taster, and his eleven-year-old, heavily-salting son is a hyper-taster.


Please write Paula Barker at [email protected] with your wine/food pairing subject requests.