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March event planned to help advance theory on how people taste wine

[caption id="attachment_17649" align="alignright" width="313" caption="Tim Hanni"][/caption]

NAPA -- Three and a half years after a controversial presentation at a local gathering of the world’s top wine experts suggested physiological and psychological factors could affect the way they perceive wine quality, one of those experts is taking his message of “drink what you like” further with a retooled consumer-judged wine competition this spring and an economic study of consumers who may prefer sweeter wines.

Tim Hanni, one of the first two Americans to earn the master of wine distinction, and his compatriots in Diversity Wine Awards LLC are reconfiguring the Lodi International Wine Awards, set to be held in mid-March, to further democratize the evaluation of wine.

“I’ve decided to no longer be trying to convince the wine industry that what I’m doing is important,” said Mr. Hanni. “I’m going to consumers, and if they get it, then they will convince the industry.”

The first two Lodi competitions were held in 2008 and 2009 and used a judging sensory assessment system and corresponding wine rating methodology developed by Michael O'Mahony and Rie Ishii of U.C. Davis.

This year the competition has been renamed Consumer Wine Awards at Lodi, and 100 to 200 consumers will be grouped into judging panels based on their taste-bud makeup in three broad categories. A similar competition is planned for Houston.

Hypersensitive tasters have the most tongue buds and tend to be averse to bitterness and alcohol and can gravitate toward sweeter wines. At the other end of the spectrum are the “tolerant” tasters, who have fewer taste buds and often like bold flavors, such as dry, intense, “big” wines. In the middle, physiologically, are “sensitive” tasters.

Mr. Hanni points to the “overwhelmed” group of consumers in Constellation Brands’ Project Genome market-research project in 2005, a group that made up the largest proportion, at 23 percent, of the 3,500 consumers surveyed, and to estimates that hypertasters and sweet-loving sensitive tasters make up well more than one-third of the population.

Mr. Hanni suggests that the typical wine “metaphors” of what makes a “sophisticated” wine consumer may be confusing or alienating a good proportion of potential consumers that want higher-quality everyday alternatives to sweet-style white zinfandel wines.

To start getting at the economics and identity of these “lost consumers,” Diversity Wine Awards has brought in a team of economists and behavioral scientists. One is Sonoma State University economist Steve Cuellar, who in 2004 helped Jackson Wine Estates explore whether drinkers of wine coolers were trading up to wine, and the study suggested they weren’t. The team also includes retired U.C. Davis wine marketing expert Jim Lapsley and Princeton University economist Orley Ashenfelder, president of the American Association of Wine Economists.

The firm is working with large U.K. wholesaler Bibendum Wine on a rollout this month of a simple self-assessment for consumers, called TasteSQ for "sensory quotient," to locate the categories of wines they may like.

Mr. Hanni has interests in two other related ventures: restaurant staff training and wine list consulting firm WineQuest, and flavor-balancing seasoned salt producer Napa Valley Seasoning Co. Despite a steep falloff in on-premise wine sales, WineQuest last year turned a profit for the first time since it started in 1999, according to Mr. Hanni.

However, the seasoning company, having been based in the shuttered Copia center, is now being rebuilt with local promotions via Whole Foods Markets stores in Northern California. The product is designed to add umami, a proposed savory fifth taste, and compensate for clashing food-wine combinations, such as asparagus and certain red wines.

For more information on Consumer Wine Awards, call 415-596-2098 or visit www.consumerwineawards.com.