Tuesday, March 3, 2015
What people, critics hate in wine back-label copy
Last month a Harvard psychology PhD candidate, Mark Allen Thornton, published the most interesting blog post on wine so far this year. Thornton is not a wine blogger. His parents are both wine microbiologists at Fresno State, so he's smart enough to do something more lucrative with his time than write about wine.
Thornton compared the text written on the back label of wines to ratings by critics (Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate) and the general public, as represented by Wine.com community ratings.
His main conclusion was interesting enough: nobody likes wines that have the word "pasta" on the back label. This makes sense, because wine companies have peddled their leftover tanks of red wine as "pasta reds" for years. If you see "pasta" on a back label, avoid it.
But there's so much cool data in Thornton's post. I thought it would be a big deal, but I haven't seen any follow-ups, so I'm going to summarize some of the most interesting points. People responsible for writing wine back labels, pay attention.
1) As Thornton points out, nobody -- critics or people -- likes food pairings of any kind. I'm not surprised at this; the extremely specific pairings given by food magazines ("serve this wine with lightly grilled cod with a beurre blanc sauce") give me hives. But there's probably something deeper going on. If the label has to talk about food, possibly the wine just isn't that good. Also, see point 3 below.
2) Eric Asimov will be delighted to read this: With only a couple of exceptions, nobody likes wine that uses flavor descriptors either. The main exception is that people like red wines described with "coffee" and critics like "espresso." People like "peach" in white wine; critics like "brioche," the stuffiest-sounding word on the list. But every other flavor descriptor is received poorly, even ones that don't seem like they would be, like "cherry" for red wine and "melon" for whites. Just to cap it off, both people and critics also hate wines where the label uses the word "flavors."
3) A few years ago we learned that people don't like wines that use the words "acidity," "acid," "tart" or "crisp." Dammit. I wrote a column about this for Palate Press and suggested we switch to a word the French use, "freshness." Well, it turns out that's not going to work either. People and critics both hate "refreshing" for white wine; critics also hate "fresh." And people also hate "liveliness."
At this point, I have to think it's not a vocabulary problem. A majority of Americans just don't like acidity in their wines. Which sucks, if you're a sommelier or a wine drinker like me, who does. Here's an issue where the Advocate and Spectator appear to be in sync with the mainstream, and the rest of the wine writing community (myself included) is out of sync. Fortunately, the U.S. market is big enough to support more than one type of consumer.
4) Another point of convergence: both people and critics like "powerful" for red wine.
5) Here's a stunner I mentioned above: both people and critics hate wines where "red" is used to describe red wine. I think I know what's up with that; it's probably used in "red fruits," (the words "fruit" and "fruits" also show up on the disliked list), and people and critics probably prefer red wines that taste more like blackberry than raspberry. Except how do you say that, when you can't say "blackberry" or "fruit"? Some labels found a way to get around it because "black" shows up as a big favorite on the people's word list.
6) This isn't surprising: both people and critics hate wines described by the word "value." We may like a good value, but we want to be told the wine is "amazing" and complete the value equation in our head. Telling us outright that something is a good value signals that it's cheap.
7) Critics like to be told what's great: they like wines that say "greatest," "exceptional" and "perfection." People are happier with less absolute standards: they like "refinement" and "multilayered."
It's also possible that there's a difference in the type of wines here. Critics who don't taste blind, such as at the Advocate, may reserve their best ratings for a winery's highest-priced cuvee, which will boast the absolute words used above. High prices will also have a positive psychological impact on regular consumers, but it might not be noticeably different between, say the winery's $150 Reserve and its $100 Cabernet, which wouldn't use the absolutist words because it's not the top of the portfolio.
It's even possible that real people aren't as awed by the wines critics think are greatest. But that's a can of worms I don't need to open today.
8) For white wine, people like "Carneros," critics like "Monterey." Carneros is uncool in the wine-writing community, but Napa Chardonnays are still popular with real people. And bully for Monterey, they make some nice wines there without enough recognition.
9) Critics like "minerals" and "minerality" but people don't notice.
10) Critics love the word "vineyard;" people don't care. People like "handcrafted;" critics like "unfiltered," which to me gives the connotation of keeping your hands off of it.
The combination makes me think that critics, yes even at the Wine Advocate, have moved to belief in terroir, whereas regular people think less about land and more about brand.
That's all I'm going to write today. I'm sure there are another 10 observations you can make by reading the original post. Feel free to share them in the comments.
Posted by W. Blake Gray at 6:00 AM