Wine Myth Busting for the Holiday Season!

In 14 years as an Ohio winemaker, I learned an interesting fact about the wine-buying public: most wine buyers talk “dry” but buy “sweet. This is something we don’t discuss too loudly in the Ohio wine industry because it goes against the wisdom and pronunciations of the nation’s top wine pundits and publications. But, discreetly ask any Ohio winery owner (or even the largest California wineries) about their sales experiences and you will hear muted whispers about how wines with greater than 0.5 – 1 percent residual sugar are the cash cows of the wine industry, accounting for up to 2/3 of all wine sales. Some wine pundits, particularly those from California, would argue that Ohio wine drinkers are simply unsophisticated and disconnected from the real wine scene, but I never really bought into that idea and I finally found some expert justification for my skeptical feelings when I had the opportunity to recently meet and listen to. Tim Hanni from Napa Valley, California.

Tim Hanni is one of only two resident Americans to successfully complete the rigorous international exam and be credentialed as a Master of Wine. Tim is also a professionally trained chef and a certified wine educator accredited by the Society of Wine Educators. In other words, Tim is one of the most knowledgeable wine tasters and evaluators in the U.S.  today. However, you will rarely find his name as a reviewer in most of this country’s “loftiest” wine rating publications. That is because Tim thinks America’s recent generations of wine evaluators and educators have things completely wrong for the majority of the U.S. population. And after several months of study and reflection, I have become a true fan of Tim Hanni! Tim has devoted a lot of his time in the past 10 years to studying the physiology and demographics of our taste and smell organs, particularly as they apply to wine preferences, and he has published some startling, but enlightening findings.

First, most of us really don’t like dry wines (i.e., big, bold, dry Cabernets, etc.) – our taste organs are just not programmed (genetically) to find them agreeable to our palates. In fact, Tim has identified four main groups of people in the U.S., based upon their taste sensitivities, and the people who love the “big, the bold and the dry” fall into a minority group of about 15 percent of the population –  people who actually have the fewest numbers of taste receptors  (Tim calls this group the “tolerants”)!  Unfortunately, it is the “tolerants” who today tend to dominate the wine “education” platforms, and constitute the majority of writers and reviewers for most major wine publications. Please note: there is nothing wrong with dry wines and people who like them; tolerant tastes are just different than most people’s palates. The majority of people (the other 85 percent) find lower alcohol, off-dry (slightly sweet to sweet) wines far more agreeable to their taste buds most of the time.

Second, Tim Hanni states that the conventional wisdom on wine and food pairings is just plain wrong, or to use his own words, it is most often “highly subjective,” frequently contradictory and even polarizing.”  Tim proposes that the single most important factor in choosing wines for serving with food is “working with the personal preferences” of your guests (and yourself)!   In other words, there are no hard and fast rules for matching wines with foods. Taken to an extreme: if a sweet, grapey Concord wine makes your filet mignon an exquisite taste experience, don’t let anyone convince you otherwise! It is all about your taste buds and your experience!

Taken together, I find these two premises to be liberating new directives for the majority of wine drinkers. On one hand, we can stop feeling inferior, uneducated, or unsophisticated if we just don’t like big, bold and dry wines (particularly reds); remember, and get comfort from the fact, that most people don’t. Similarly, we can forget what we have been told about matching wine with food and start experimenting with our own taste buds in our own kitchens and homes. Don’t limit yourself to the old conventions of “red with red meats” and “white with white meats;” if you do, you will be missing out on virtually limitless and delightful new taste sensations! The holiday season is the perfect time to experiment with new food and wine combinations. One of my own favorite new discovered pairings:  a sweet Riesling Ice wine with well-aged blue cheese!

As the holidays approach this year  (up to 50 percent of wine sales in the U.S. are made during the holiday season), why not take some time to think carefully about what you (and your guests) might really like in a wine, and then go and buy something you might not have tried before. If you are looking for great prices and great flavors in off-dry (or even sweeter) wines, look for wines made from Riesling, Moscato, Pinot Grigio and even some Chardonnays. Blushes and Roses are also always good bets for the off-dry crowd, too. Sparkling wines can also satisfy a variety of taste buds. If you are looking for wines that can also satisfy the dry red wine drinker and still appeal to many less dry palates, then consider a lower alcohol (<12 percent) Pinot Noir.

Ohioans are fortunate in that there are more than 160 Ohio wineries, most of whom make an assortment of wines, from very dry to very sweet, and there is an Ohio winery within 30 miles of almost every resident in the state. Consider making a visit to one or two wineries near you to learn about, and even discover anew, your own true tastes and preferences in wine this holiday season. Most Ohio wineries offer an assortment of off-dry wines to suit the majority of people’s tastes and are more than happy to help you learn about what you do like, and not what you should like!  Look for some world class off- dry Rieslings, Pinot Grigios and Chardonnays, as well as a variety of less well-known varieties, such as Vidal, from a local Ohio winery. And if your tastes are for really flavorful and grapey wines, don’t discount the native labrusca wines in Ohio made from grapes like Concord, Niagara and Catawba. It should be some consolation to us that when Ohio was the country’s largest wine producer in the mid-1800s, our sweeter  Catawba and sparkling  wines were among the most highly praised and sought after wines in Europe! With people like Tim Hanni campaigning for the “silent majority” of wine drinkers, sweeter wines may someday soon achieve the prominence they once held!

For more information on Tim Hanni’s research, visit http://www.timhanni.com/.

For more information on Ohio wines or to find a winery near you, visit http://www.tasteohiowines.com/ and http://www.ohiowines.org/.

Happy Holidays!

Sadly, Dr. Kent Glaus passed away on Dec. 20, 2012.