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He Tries to Bring Wine Fans to Their Senses

November 05, 1998|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The Firesign Theatre comedy troupe once put out an album called "Everything You Know Is Wrong."

Wine expert Tim Hanni is telling wine drinkers everywhere the same thing, but few who listen to him are laughing. Most, in fact, are applauding.

What he's preaching is nothing short of revolutionary--that such traditions as serving only red wine with steak or white wine with fish have no basis in reality.

"Red wine with red meat was born after World War II as a way to sell French red wine in America," Hanni said at a wine conference at Dana Point last weekend. "These ideas about wine and food make emotional sense. They don't make any sensory sense."

He further denies that anyone who prefers sweet white zinfandel to tannic cabernet sauvignon "needs to be educated" or that their "palate needs to mature."

To acknowledge what he considers to be the reality of how most wine drinkers behave, he's developed a system that categorizes wines not by grape variety--i.e., segregated into chardonnays, sauvignon blancs and cabernet sauvignons, etc.--but arranges them progressively from lighter-bodied wines to heavier-bodied, and from fruitier to dryer wines.

The new Hanni-inspired wine list at the Terrace Restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton in Dana Point, for instance, finds R. Richter's 1993 Winninger Domgarten Riesling from Moselle, Germany, next to De Loach's white zinfandel from Sonoma County next to Cavit's 1997 pinot grigio from Italy in the light-bodied, fruity white and blush wine category.

Organizing wines by similar characteristics lets nonexperts move more easily from one wine to another and know what to expect. It also means they might find a good cheap wine right next to a gruesomely expensive one.

"The progressive list helps everybody--me, the customers and the servers," said Phoenix-based restaurateur Paul Fleming, who owns P.F. Chang's and is scheduled to open Fleming's Prime Steakhouse & Wine Bar in Newport Beach next month, where he'll serve 100 wines by the glass. Those wines will be listed progressively within six large categories, three white and three red. "It makes it easy to understand and to order wines. It's less intimidating."

According to Hanni, director of on-premises business development for Beringer Wine Estates in Napa, more than 1,000 other restaurants and hotels around the world have adopted the system in the two years since he started promoting it seriously. They include every Hyatt hotel in the United States and more than half the Marriotts; in Orange County, Bertolini's Authentic Trattoria, California Pizza Kitchen and the Ritz-Carlton in Dana Point, where the wine conference took place, are among those using it.

"The [traditional] wine list has been a hot potato," Hanni said. "Nobody wants it. The person who ends up with it is the designated wine geek. But they don't want it either, because they don't know what the other people like or how much they want to spend."

Hanni came up with his system after he grew tired of being the wine geek. After all, he is one of an elite group of wine lovers certified as Masters of Wine--only 234 people have been so designated since the course was started in 1953 in London, and Hanni was the first American to pass the stringent exam, given annually in London, New York and Sydney.

The progressive wine-classification list is half of a two-prong system Hanni describes as "a crude tool that makes it simple both for diners to find a wine that pleases them and for chefs to create food that allows wine to taste good."

At the kitchen end, he begins with a few basic premises such as sweet food makes wine taste more acidic and acidic food makes wine taste sweeter. The wine doesn't change, but the perception does.

Proper balance in a recipe depends on four basic elements of taste long recognized by the Western world--sweet, sour, bitter and salty--plus a fifth sensation that the Japanese call umami, which is rapidly gaining acceptance among researchers. Umami is said to exist naturally in foods including tomatoes, mushrooms and beef and is related to the flavors of curing and smoking. It's the same sensation triggered by MSG.

When food is properly balanced with those five elements, Hanni said, diners can order whatever dish they want and know that any wine they order with it will be shown to its best advantage.

Classic wine and food pairings become moot.

"We've used this sales and marketing stuff as a foundation for truth, and it's stuff that doesn't exist," Hanni said. "Red wine with red meat? Oh, that's classic. Where? There is nowhere in France where red meat is even an essential part of the [everyday] regional cuisine. It's a specialty item."

Among the proponents of Hanni's system is influential chef Jeremiah Tower of Stars Restaurant in San Francisco, who has been adjusting his recipes according to Hanni's method for two years.

Hanni's theories are being integrated into food science curricula at schools including Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, but not so far into UC Davis' celebrated enology programs. Hanni is undeterred.

"[The system] challenges a lot of what they do at UC Davis," he said. "But Davis has helped me a lot because I'm dedicated to making sure my information is as accurate as possible."

P.F. Chang's Fleming doesn't buy all of Hanni's ideas.

"You can't make every dish you do go with every wine," Fleming said. "I would never want to create a sauce to make a grilled steak go with white wine."

Though it's technically called the Beringer Progressive Wine List System, even competitors see its merits.

"After spending 25 minutes talking with Tim Hanni," said Mark Pighini of Franciscan Wine Merchants, "I threw everything I knew about wine and food out the window."

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