|Wine Purchase Decision Making by percentage of respondents|
For average American wine consumers, it's almost backwards.
Sonoma State University released its third annual American Wine Consumer Survey this week. It's based on 1081 consumers, and ends thus: "Caveat: Since this survey is based on a representative sample of American wine consumers, and not a random sample, it cannot be generalized to all wine consumers." This begs the question, "Why bother?" But I'll report some of its findings anyway because what the hell, we're in the post-fact era, and only liberals worry about truthiness.
The survey asked what factors are most important in buying a wine. Price is No. 1, of course. But after that, it's brand, varietal and country.
I get that: people outside the gourmet bubble ask me what I think of French wines, or Spanish wines, not what I think about St-Joseph wines or Rias Baixas wines.
Don't let cranky old critics tell you Americans don't care about alcohol level: 18% of consumers said it is a factor in purchasing, a number higher than I would have guessed. That's on par with the number of people who do care about appellation (21%); possibly it's the same group.
Speaking of critics, I have no idea why the folks who run this survey don't ask consumers if critics' ratings matter. That's what we all want to know: producers, retailers, distributors, writers, all of us! Whatever the answer is, we want it way more than most things you did ask about. Sonoma State, you guys really punted the pooch on that one.
We did learn that only 6% of consumers care about medals, though that number was 13% last year, and that's some very serious year-to-year variation.
Think about the great wines of the world. Almost all of them, with apologies to the Mosel, are going to get lumped into two categories -- "Dry (no sugar)" and Savory (less fruit)." Both of these answers are negative: (no sugar), (less fruit). Language matters: You can't make great wine sound less appealing than that.
There's no possible answer for "Complex," for example. How about "Light-bodied" or "full-bodied"?
Instead, we get four ways of saying the same thing: "Fruity," "Smooth," "Semi-Sweet" and "Sweet."
You might think there is some utility for marketers of supermarket wines: you're trying to sell a sweet, smooth, fruity red blend; what word do you use? In fact, the consumer responses for all four answers last year were about the same. This year, "Sweet" dropped below the other three, putting "Semi-Sweet" on top, but all four are within the margin of error. I'm heartened that only about half of respondents chose these answers, but I don't think we learned anything from it.
It's worthwhile for me as a writer to know that only 17% of consumers like wines called "Savory (less fruit)" because savory, by itself, is one of my highest forms of praise. Language is important: I learned from a similar survey some years ago to stop referring to wines as having "great acid" because most people see that and think "it tastes like burning." But I wonder how many people in this survey would have chosen "Savory" if it didn't have the additional negative connotation of "less fruit."
Some good news for screwcaps: fully 89% of respondents said screwcapped bottles are just fine. I wish I had access to a similar poll from 10 years ago. This is an enormous market change for the U.S.
It's worth noting that only half of the consumers in this survey are "high frequency drinkers who consume wine daily or several times per week." These are the people who buy the most wines and the most expensive wines. Occasional drinkers matter too, especially to the big supermarket wine companies. But they're not driving the market, even in the mid-price range.
I'll look forward to this poll next year, but I do hope the university considers modifying its questions to make the answers more useful.