One Man’s Quest To Make A Lasting Impact On The Wine Industry

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I am a big fan of stories about people who have struggled, emerged stronger, and become true innovators in their field. Tim Hanni is just such a person. I read about him in an article written by Katy McLaughlin in the Jan. 19/08 edition of the WSJ.

Tim had a passion for wine at a very early age. His father was a lover of gourmet food and drink and shared this appreciation with his son. After a failed stint in University, Tim started working in restaurants in his native Florida with the goal of becoming a chef. All throughout this learning period, Tim continued growing his knowledge of wine (and wine tasting). He got married but continued to indulge in wine. This alcohol problem clearly affected his marriage. Luckily this problem also set him on a path that would guide the rest of his life. Tim broke away from the heat of the kitchen to become a wine broker and later worked for Beringer Vineyards, promoting their wines to restaurants and hotels.

Mr. Hanni’s life has been a true roller-coaster. While his career seemed to forge ahead, his marriage crumbled, he had to declare bankruptcy, and his alcoholism became severe. Throughout this tumultuous time, Tim managed to pull off something that only 1 other American had and only 265 people worldwide possess – the title of Master of Wine. To achieve this title you must pass a grueling exam where the demands seem close to impossible. Nonetheless, he had to put on hold the benefits of this exam due to his alcoholic condition. He had to check himself into a rehab center. Upon release, he faced the fact that his wine career could very well be over. However, he persevered.

Instead of succumbing to a potentially fateful blow to his livelihood and life-long passion, Tim used the struggle to create a new direction for himself. As the WSJ wrote, he had to “rethink his approach to wine”. With the credibility of the Masters title and the clarity of thought from sobriety, Tim began to innovate and push through his creations.

His first radical new idea was what he called a progressive wine list – “a menu that arranges wines in order from lightest to heaviest”. “He became convinced that some people prefer light, sweet wines to high-alcohol, high-intensity ones because of factors such as the number of taste buds they have”. Moreover, people find it hard to pick a wine based on notes comparing degrees of berries and chocolate. Tim has now categorized some 80,000 wines, and his database is now in use by “30 percent of casual and upscale chains” and “about four-percent of fine dining restaurants, including Nobu in New York.”

Tim’s second invention was the Budometer, which is a questionnaire that will predict what kind of wine a person will like based on their taste buds. Essentially, the questions explore a drinker’s preferences in coffee, beer, cocktails, and soft drinks. Through this analysis the Budometer will be able to gage a person’s wine preferences and connect that person with others who have the same “Bud-profile” so that they can share wine lists.

The last innovation is a food condiment called Vignon, which Mr. Hanni designed to balance the flavor in food so that it pairs well with any wine. He strongly promotes the idea of “flavor balancing” to his clients because he does not believe that wine pairing is a complex art. Rather, he believes that “adjusting the salt, acidity and sweetness in a dish” will allow that dish to be paired with any wine. Beyond lecturing, he furthered his vision by creating the Napa Seasoning Co out of which came Vignon, “a condiment made from salt, lemon juice, soy sauce, shiitake-mushroom powder and Parmesan cheese”.

We need to continually remind ourselves that to achieve success you will likely need great passion, a strong conviction, great energy, and to overcome loss. I am truly amazed at how Tim dealt with this alcoholism. The mere fact that he checked himself into a clinic, full well knowing that he may be shutting the door on what he has loved all his life and the great business that he has created, is remarkable. Just imagine the inner turmoil. Now add the failed marriage and bankruptcy that were part of his past. I can assure you that there were moments of doubt and worry. However, he found a way to harness the energy and generate truly creative ideas that may very well provide a huge benefit to the wine business in North America. Let’s not forget that this is beer country and that the high-brow wine culture has never been able to connect with a majority of the population. Tim’s innovative mind and passion for the raw product (wine) could begin to bridge this gap by simplifying the dialogue, and making it universally fun to drink wine. I suppose this is not considered success to Mr. Hanni at all, he must simply be trying to add value to a culture that means the world to him. He is truly inspiring.

Here is the WSJ article –

Here is the link to Tim Hanni’s website –

Here is the link to the Budometer –

Here is the link to Napa Seasoning Co –

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