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Big, Dry Reds: Just a Fad?

March 2011
 
by Tim Patterson
 
 
The big, extracted, tannic, alcoholic, dry reds that rule the wine world have been called many things by their detractors: awkward, clumsy, overblown, freakish, flammable, undrinkable. But the cruelest cut of all may be simply to note that in the grand historical sweep of things, they’re just a passing fancy.

That’s only one of the implications of the latest salvo from Tim Hanni, a master of wine and longtime nemesis of conventional wine wisdom. Hanni has been known to get up before an audience of wine educators and open with, “The biggest threat to the wine industry today is—wine education!” This time he’s brandishing a fistful of consumer research studies that suggest there’s a huge potential market of folks out there who would love to drink sweet wines—if only the industry had enough sense to offer them.

While Hanni is perfectly happy to climb out on a limb by himself, this time he’s hardly alone, as a recent one-day symposium about sweet wines at the University of California, Davis, indicated. (See “The Case for More Sweet Wine” at winesandvines.com.) The tenor of the day was captured with the title of the opening talk by Darrell Corti, one of the country’s leading authorities on fine wine traditions, “Sweet Wines: The Finest Wines in the World?”

Consumer phenotypes and industry prejudices
For years, Hanni’s mantra has been that the wine industry should put consumers and their preferences at the center of their outlook, rather than adopting arbitrary definitions of good and bad wines and figuring out how to convince consumers to get with the program. For the past two years, Hanni has been working with Dr. Virginia Utermohlen, a researcher at the Cornell University Taste Science Laboratory, on a long-term study of wine consumer attitudes, behavior and physiology. Their preliminary findings were issued in a report in December, both a $500 version with lots of juicy details and a free summary available at timhanni.com.

The study made use of online survey data from 1,200 wine drinkers responding not only to questions about wine preferences but about how people take their coffee, if they drink it at all, how much salt they like on their food, and so on. Previous work by numerous researchers has shown a strong correlation between these simple food and beverage preferences and human taste bud physiology: The black coffee crowd, for example, with its tolerance for bitterness, tends to have fewer, smaller and less sensitive taste buds than the cohort that dumps sugar and cream into its java. By combining the behavioral data from the survey—what kinds of wine people declared they did and didn’t like to drink—with the physiological profiles inferred from responses about coffee, salt and the like, they were able to construct four wine drinker “phenotypes.”

At opposite ends are Sweets—highly taste sensitive, preferring sweeter wines—and Tolerants—much less sensitive, able to tolerate harsh flavors and fond of big, red wines. In between are Hyper-Sensitives and Sensitives. How these categories are distributed in the real population—as opposed to the online survey population—is guesswork, but Hanni’s hunch is that Tolerants are a small minority, maybe 15%, almost all male, and that all the other phenotypes, including the Sweets, are larger.

Even though the Tolerants are often short on taste buds, their taste in wine dominates ratings, wine lists, wine education and wine pricing. For Hanni, this peculiar hierarchy not only flies in the face of physiological facts, it ignores a huge potential market for lighter, sweeter wines. And the reign of
the Tolerants is anything but tolerant: “Try going into an upscale, white tablecloth restaurant,” Hanni challenged the symposium attendees, “ask for a White Zinfandel, and see how you’re treated.”

wine sensitive sweet tolerant
 
Source: Tim Hanni
 
Sugar and history
So if any of this is remotely true, how the heck did the Tolerants—the fans of killer Cabernet—become the masters of the wine universe?

Big, powerful, dry reds—from Bordeaux, Burgundy, Tuscany, Piedmont and Napa—have been the benchmark wines for “serious” wine drinkers for so long that it seems to be forever. But in fact, wine historians generally agree that the drys have only been dominant since World War II.

Most ancient wines—and certainly the most famous ones, like the Roman Falernian—were undoubtedly sweet. Many of the earliest sweeties were made by drying and withering grapes; one striking legacy of this technical breakthrough is, as Corti noted, the 27 defined, regulated types of passito wines still being produced in Italy. Others got their sugar added in the cellar, often in the form of honey. Bonus sugar had the virtue of covering up faults (which were undoubtedly many), but the greatest value of extra sweetness was stability, allowing wines to survive trade and transit and improve for years and years. Later on, fortification with spirits became another means to stability.

Wine writer and historian Thomas Pellechia thinks that a subtle shift in wine styles probably started in the 12th and 13th centuries, with an expansion of vineyards in cooler parts of Europe such as Germany and northern France. Whereas the warmer Mediterranean climes of the oldest wines naturally lent themselves to syrupy styles, the newer vineyards and the grapes favored there began the transition to more modern styles. By the 18th century, he says, the concept of dry wine emerged, but as a description of how the wine felt in the mouth, not a measure of sugar. Elevated sugar and alcohol were by far the surest means for keeping wine tasty until Pasteur—and likely many decades after.

The premium on sweetness survived long after the discovery of microbes. Hanni and others are fond of showing off wine lists from fancy restaurants and editions of the Larousse Gastronomique indicating that sweet, white wines outpriced the First Growths of Bordeaux well into the 20th century. It is also clear that sweet wines were not relegated to the dessert course but were seen as viable options on the dinner table. Furthermore, many wines we think of today as perfectly dry were in fact decidedly swee t some decades back, including all Amarone, Montrachet and nearly all Champagnes.

After World War II, the tilt toward dry wines was steady and dramatic across the globe. The full explanation for going dry is still a work in progress, but some factors are clear. At the Sweet Wine Symposium, Davis wine historian Jim Lapsley argued that most California wine was pretty dicey stuff until the 1960s, at which point dry wine production quickly improved, while sweet wines remained backward in technology and quality. Hanni emphasizes a shift in what wine writers, educators and other “experts” had to say: Sweet wines were recast as “dessert” wines, and drinking sweet at any other time was transformed from the height of luxury to the very depths of winohood.

Something big happened, both in Europe and the United States. Hanni loves to point out that the wine-drinking decline in France and Italy maps nicely with the turn from sweet to dry wines, with younger drinkers moving from wine to Coke, Budweiser and cocktails. In any case, the story now is that well-made sweet wines are a niche product, selling well in tasting rooms but far off the mainstream radar, and bulk sweet wines—like those 16 million cases of White Zinfandel sold every year—hardly count as wine at all for the “serious” element.

Intolerant tales
Along with all the crunched numbers from his survey, Hanni has some great anecdotes these days. One involves the time he was at dinner at a very famous Napa restaurant with Lissa Doumani, co-chef-owner of Terra in St. Helena, daughter of Napa wine pioneer Carl Doumani, and clearly a woman who knows her way around a wine bottle. As the meal unfolded, Doumani found the officially matched wines downright painful and asked Hanni to find something she’d like on the wine list. The server insisted to everyone that the prescribed choices were simply the best matches, at one point saying to Hanni, “If you knew anything about wine…” A fruity rosé was finally secured.

Another story involves Harvey Posert, a near-legendary Napa PR guy with more than four decades of experience in the industry. I decided to check this one out myself, so I gave Posert a call, and here’s what he said:

“When I came out here in 1965 to work for Wine Institute, we were all being trained to like dry wine. It didn’t suit me; I liked sweeter wines. I was told I must not have enough taste buds, or I was from the South and used to Coca-Cola, or that it was just a question of time and I would learn, my palate would become educated.

“Decades passed.

“No one was ever able to explain to me why a person who had been at as many tastings as I had couldn’t like big, tannic wines. So, I gave up thinking about it. Then I took Tim’s test, which showed I had a sweet palate. It was like therapy. It’s not my fault; the industry should change for me.” 

Much of Posert’s career was with the Robert Mondavi Winery and its spin-offs like Opus One. Of his former boss, Posert says, “Robert was a great salesman, and Napa is a great place to make wine, and he made Napa famous. But he made it famous for the kind of wines he liked to drink.”

But can you sell it?
Posert and I had fun speculating about what might have happened if the man who made Napa famous hadn’t been Mondavi but Myron Nightingale, the great Beringer winemaker of the 1970s and 1980s, a man with a pronounced sweet tooth and a sweet wine named after him still in production at the winery. But that’s not what happened.

The really unknown part of the case for sweet wines isn’t the physiology, or the consumer polling data, or the historical record. It’s whether a significant portion of the wine industry can be convinced to make a bet on sweet wine—even a tenth of the bet currently placed on big reds—and whether sweet wine consumers—now stuck with drinking White Zin out of paper bags so no one will notice—would really shell out money for higher priced, aspirational sweet wines.

Hanni thinks they would, citing the fact that for centuries people did just that, as well as observing that lots of people are happy to pay extra for sweet in other contexts—an extra buck or two for flavor additives in coffee, or $12 appletinis. Plenty of others in the industry have their doubts about whether either producers or consumers are likely to change their ways, no matter how many surveys say they should.

Pour yourself a glass of Riesling, and stay tuned.

Tim Patterson is the author of Home Winemaking for Dummies. He writes about wine and makes his own in Berkeley, Calif. Years of experience as a journalist, combined with a contrarian streak, make him interested in getting to the bottom of wine stories, casting a critical eye on conventional wisdom in the process.

 
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