Since 1969, restaurant, hotel, travel & other witty reviews by a handpicked, worldwide team of discerning professionals—and your views, too.

Tim Hanni - Interview

One Man Against the Establishment: The Wine Revolution

Tim Hanni
Tim Hanni is on a crusade to abolish traditional notions of food and wine pairing. He would like to see us drinking the wines we want to drink, not necessarily the wines we are told are appropriate, and his campaign, WineQuest, is causing quite a buzz in the global wine community. His outspokenness has turned him into somewhat of a black sheep, though he is one of only fifteen Americans to earn the prestigious title of Master of Wine. A British distinction, the title requires passing a test after exhaustive research of wine, its history and its production — it is the industry's equivalent of a Karate black belt. We caught up with Hanni at his home in the Napa Valley to see what the fuss is all about. What is WineQuest?

Tim Hanni: You had to start with a tough one. In a nutshell, WineQuest is addressing the restrictive areas of the wine community that prevent us from making wine more attractive to a broader range of consumers. Almost everything having to do with wine is filled with contradiction and dissonance: this is good wine, this is bad; have this wine in this season, this wine with that food. Ultimately we end up "assassinating" virtually every potential consumer and information resource out there. This is not a healthy way to grow the consumer base.

As marketing strategists in the most macro sense we are presenting the possibility that the industry will be hugely rewarded by understanding that consumer attraction is the most valuable aspect of creating an economically sound industry. Our tools range from developing Progressive Wine Lists, a method for tasting wines and creating non-judgmental means for communicating about them, referential wine search capabilities for Internet and trade application, educational programs and software, and new, accurate and useful content for the wine community as a whole.

G: You used to have a reputation as a straight and narrow Master of Wine, a leading authority on food and wine pairing. Isn't WineQuest a contradiction to your former ideals? What prompted your turnaround?

TH: I started to dig deeper into the realities of my holier-than-thou, this-goes-with-that attitude and approach. I started to look at some of the fundamental assumptions that my philosophies were based on: regional pairings, the fat and protein of the steak, etc. That's when I decided there had to be a better way to go about all of this [the concept of enjoying wine with food] and started thinking differently.

G: So when did the whole WineQuest program evolve?

TH: Jerry Comfort, the chef at Beringer, and I referred to ourselves as the "flat forehead" group. We would take an assumption, critically analyze it, ask people all around the world and find the truth. Then we would get down to the rudimentary reality, which was usually a complete contradiction of the assumption, and slap our foreheads. A simple example of this is the perspective that people in Europe "match" wine and food. Well, they typically drank the same wine day in and day out. It did not matter that they were having cheese, eel, chicken or whatever. Nobody ate beef anywhere in France on a regular basis and if you leave the salt off your steak, none of the "softening of tannins" occurs, in spite of our wonderfully anecdotal ideas about the tannins, fat and proteins. Put salt on the steak and the wine gets softer. Put salt on a nice piece of trout and it does the same thing. "Hey, the trout is really good with the Cabernet!"

G: With such a down-home attitude, what inspired you to become a Master of Wine in the first place?

TH: I wanted the title, the chicks, the money and the free wine and dinners. Oh, yeah, and the professional respect for accomplishing the goal. Actually, I had been aware of the exam for many years, and actually knew someone in the trade in Atlanta, GA, that had taken and failed the exam a number of times. I was in awe about the whole thing.

G: According to your theories, a Chardonnay will taste good with steak, Merlot match cottage cheese, a tannic Cabernet Sauvignon compliment spicy sweet-and-sour shrimp, but how do you make these taste sensations pleasurable?

TH: First of all, you do not have to do anything to make a Chardonnay good with steak; you simply need to want a glass of Chardonnay. However, if the wine you really want to drink with your cottage cheese, sweet-and-sour shrimp, asparagus, Thai food, pasta, or anything else tastes bitter, less fruity and generally too strong with your meal, put a touch of salt and little squeeze of lemon on the food. The food will taste better to you and the wine will become smoother and more pleasant. This is what they do in Tuscany, Bordeaux or anywhere else wine is traditionally served with food.

G: In order to work in a restaurant, doesn't this system demand either that the chef balance salt and acidity in every dish according to what each diner is drinking, or that we as diners have to alter the chef's creations ourselves at the table?

TH: Not at all. The WineQuest theory is that good food is good with wine. Once food tastes as good and intense and full of character as possible it will be good with wine, period. I can have my Cabernet, my wife can have her Pinot, and my mother-in-law can have her white Zinfandel, all with the same exact dish. We have chefs [in the WineQuest program] in France, Switzerland, England and all across the U.S. who have recognized and promote this reality.

G: As younger Americans become more interested in wine, do you think traditional food and wine pairing principals will become passé?

TH: I think the wine and food pairings are not traditional in the first place and are passé already. We just can't let go of some of the more absurd emotional/psychological elements, like heavy wine (white Zinfandel weighs more than Cabernet Sauvignon, by the way) with "heavy" food, complex wines with rich dishes, etc. Let's get over it and get back to the real tradition. "Welcome to the table, we have really good food and a lot of good wine, thank you for being here." That is what wine has always been about in the traditional sense.

For more information on Tim Hanni and the WineQuest food and wine pairing philosophy, visit

(Updated: 05/23/13 BH)


Sip on GAYOT's picks of the best small-production craft beers.

Sip straight or mix up a margarita with GAYOT's picks of the best tequilas under $100.