Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Why all wine lovers just don't get along

Most of us who love wine operate under a basic misconception.

We think that when we love a wine, other aficionados will too.

We also think there are other people buying wine who are complete idiots because they disagree with us.

The problem is this: It's not just that individual tastes differ. It's that among wine lovers, there are two incompatible worldviews.

This is a subset of Constellation Brands' groundbreaking work from several years ago on the 6 types of wine consumers. They are:

Overwhelmed, 23%, buy wine but don't know anything about it
Satisfied sippers, 14%, buy the same brand
Savvy shoppers, 15%, look for discounts
Traditionalists, 16%, like old wineries and are brand-loyal

That leaves two categories: Image seekers (20%), and Enthusiasts (12%). The former spend the most money on wine; the latter expend the most verbiage on it. These are the only two who care enough about wine to read articles or blog posts about it.

And like a marriage entered into after one date, they are stuck together even though they're incompatible, with verbal sparks flying all the time.

I find the term "image seekers" pejorative, so I'm going to change it to "Quality Seekers" for the rest of this essay, because I think it better illustrates the psychological divide.

"Quality Seekers" want the best wines available. They might drink across several categories, but they're swayed by high ratings so they tend to drink mostly varieties that receive them; i.e., Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay. If they saw a print article about, say, Lake County wines with five wine reviews, they would seek out the highest-rated one.

It's a reasonable position; why not try the best wine? Yet it is constantly attacked by the other category, "Enthusiasts." These are the idealists who demand natural yeasts, unusual varietals and interesting experiments.

Because Enthusiasts don't like numerical ratings, many have developed a better vocabulary to describe wines than Quality Seekers. In fact, many are beautifully literate, and their attacks on the 100-point scale, corporate wines, Chardonnay grown in non-traditional areas, and various other perceived offenses should be convincing.

What they won't accept is that Quality Seekers don't care about any of that. You can lecture a Quality Seeker about unique Jura wines until you're blue in the face, but when the wine list comes, the Quality Seeker is going to spend his money on a wine that some known critic has tested and approved. It might be a Chardonnay, it might be a Rhone blend Robert Parker likes, but it's not going to be some weird wine recommended by some weirdo who thinks it's interesting to make wine under a cover of fungus.

Both sides have advocates. The leading Quality Seeker is, of course, Robert Parker. Wine Spectator is in this category, as is Wine Enthusiast and every other US wine magazine with the possible exception of Wine & Spirits. This crowd is as professional, talented and knowledgeable as anyone in the business, and loves wine as much as anyone. If you want somebody to taste 50 Merlots and find the best 5, they're your men (and they are, without exception, men.)

The leading Enthusiast is Jancis Robinson, the best writer in the world at explaining the lure of unknown wines without sounding condescending. Eric Asimov of the New York Times is probably the leading US Enthusiast, though he is hampered by a Quality Seeker tasting format.

The great majority of well-known wine bloggers are Enthusiasts. There are exceptions: Alder Yarrow of Vinography is more of a Quality Seeker. Steve Heimoff recently wrote "Snore" on his blog in response to the idea of natural wines; he's a Quality Seeker. But I'm hard-pressed to name another major wine blogger who isn't more of an Enthusiast.

Yet if you look at social media like Cellar Tracker and Wine Berzerkers, those attract more Quality Seekers than Enthusiasts. Both get mixed crowds, but if Constellation's numbers were right, there are 5 Quality Seekers for every 3 Enthusiasts, and the ratio seems higher on those bulletin boards, perhaps because the Enthusiasts are busy writing their own blogs.

The classic Enthusiast arguments are: Native grapes, minimal intervention, let the wine reflect its terroir. The classic Quality Seeker argument is: I don't care what you did to make it as long as it tastes great. Enthusiasts scream their arguments at Quality Seekers, who simply don't care.

Here it is in a single word.
Quality Seekers want "great."
Enthusiasts want "interesting."

Now, why is Napa Valley still the center of the American wine world? (I can hear the sharp intake of breath from the Enthusiasts as I type that.)

It's simple: Quality Seekers spend more. Napa wineries understand that. And since they're running businesses, why shouldn't they pursue the greatest profits?

Enthusiasts know how many interesting wines are available for $25, so they're reluctant to spend much more than that. Why should they? You can always tell an Enthusiast from this kind of comment: "Sure, that Napa Cab might be good, but why spend $100 on it when there are so many great wines from the Languedoc for so much less?"

Quality Seekers would spend four times as much to get a wine that's 10% better. Maybe not every day, but that's the way they look at life. They want the best and they're willing to pay for it.

Both sides like new discoveries, but the type of discovery is different. Enthusiasts want new frontiers: wine from Moldova or Uruguay. Quality Seekers never tire of finding a new producer making an established wine: a great new Napa Cab, a mailing-list-only Russian River Chardonnay.

I have the opportunity, or curse, to write for multiple outlets. It's not always as good as a weekly paycheck with benefits, but it gives me the chance to try to see the wine world from both sides of this divide. Some publications want articles for Quality Seekers; others are strictly for Enthusiasts, and with others it might depend on the individual editor.

What strikes me is how deaf both sides are to the other. The 100-point scale debate, for example: I'm always astounded that Enthusiasts want to take information away from Quality Seekers, and don't even try to understand why they would want it.

Meanwhile, on the Quality Seekers side, they look at Enthusiasts the way people with jobs looked at tie-dyed student protesters. Yeah, yeah, you love the sound of your own voices. The louder you yell, the less I'm going to listen.

It really is an incompatible marriage.

But for 2011, here's a suggestion. You want to get people on the other side to pay attention to you? You have to speak their language.

If you're an Enthusiast and you really want Quality Seekers to drink more California Barbera, you need to couch it in their terms. It's the red variety best suited to California. It's really the best wine with dinner. The top winemakers are making it. Here are the top-rated ones.

Quality Seekers don't generally seem to care much what Enthusiasts think. But if you're a Quality Seeker and you find yourself in a restaurant with a sommelier who won't shut up about terroir, just explain "I care mostly about quality. I love wine as much as you do, but I'd rather drink a great wine I know."

Next up: I try to get Nancy Pelosi and Haley Barbour to hold hands.


Larry Brooks said...

With all due respect, I think that Constellation's description of the catagories is more accurate than your own. As you yourself point out individual taste is just that, uniquely individual. Anyone who takes someone else's word on quality based on score or price is giving up their own idividual tastes in the interests of percieved status or "image". In my experience and based on much third party research wine scores and the consequent image are based more on intensity than quality. Confusing intensity with quality is what has led us to a situation where Cabernets that have more in common with maple syrup than wine are very highly regarded.

Cabfrancophile said...

Great reading. With respect to social media, I think the key difference is image/quality seekers care about being seen, where enthusiasts are interested solely in their own opinion. Web forum = high exposure. Blog = big soap box. Oversimplifying a bit, of course, but that's most of it. Forums are swamped with attention seeking notes on the several dozen wines that are really sexy. Nerd wines don't get much traction in that environment.

I agree with Larry, BTW, image seeking really is the better description despite its negative connotation. And yes, why pay $100 for Napa when there are legitimately great $25 Languedocs and Chinons? Part of it is stylistic, but I doubt every person who pays up for Napa intrinsically has a palate preferring high intensity wines.

W. Blake Gray said...

Larry: So if I let a TV critic point out a good show I might have been missing, I'm concerned about my image? Sorry, I don't agree. How would anyone learn about anything if they didn't take someone else's word on quality? I'm not concerned about my image when I read Roger Ebert before renting a video; what's the difference between that and buying a wine?

Steve Heimoff said...

Hi Blake, great read! I tend to agree with a Quality guy (by that definition) but I also have enough Enthusiast in me where I seek out "interesting" wines. So I don't think the lines are all that sharply drawn.

Larry Brooks said...

I read book and movie reviews obsessivly, but believe that food and wine are different being primarily of sensory content, while art has intellectual, moral and spirtual content lacking in the gustatory pleasures. Another key difference of course is that the best movies and the worst cost exactly the same at the box office something that is not at all true with food and wine. My experience as a wine producer also tells me that wine quality doesn't really imporve above about $20-40 bottle depending on varietal and appellation so that the highly reviewed and highly priced wines really are image exercises not quality.

fleurman said...

After reading this post I think I'd be an Enthusiast (European influence perhaps ??). However of the wines I was enthusiastically perusing, I could well be swayed by a ranking of them ! Hmmm

Portland Charcuterie Project said...

Great Article, as usual.
Very well written.

My feeling is that with so many great and good wines being made, for the most part I mostly drink only wines that are made by people I have met, or know well. I find that this connection makes my experience with that wine more pleasurable than just picking a bottle off the shelf.

Obviously, I can't know or meet all the winemakers I'd like, so I end up drinking wines recommended by friends, blogs, or random ones purchased at wine shops or the local grocery store.


W. Blake Gray said...

Jim and Steve: You're right that many wine lovers have aspects of both. I also think people from one camp sometimes move into the other as they drink more wines, or make more money.

Let's face it, we all start out "Overwhelmed." What distinguishes the 32% of us in these two categories is that we care enough to read up on the topic.

rhit said...

Related to people having both Image/Quality seeker and Enthusiast qualities: do you think there are any wines on which they tend to overlap? There are definitely some wine nerds I know that appreciate and will buy good Burgundy, for example.

Chuck Hayward said...

Dude. Once again great writing and astute observations. Don't know how you do it. That's probably why you get the big bucks....

Maggie said...

To continue with the analogy offered in the postscript, I would say that it's not the die-hard "Quality" Seekers that Enthusiasts are trying to convince about purity of terroir etc, but rather the swing voters: those unsure what to drink, those stuck in a rut, and those looking for value who also deserve to enjoy great and interesting wine.

As an Enthusiast, I've all but given up on the Seekers and am willing to let them believe what they will, it's the rest of the crowd I hope will vote as I do: by paying attention to multiple sources, interesting commentary, and following curiosity - not by blindly following an entrenched system of ratings and celebrity influence.

And although I respect your attempt to avoid insult, I honestly believe "Image" is the more accurate word. Paid marketing researchers never opt for euphemisms when more accurate terms apply.

Cabfrancophile said...

@rhit, I think there is definitely overlap. I self identify more as an enthusiast, but definitely would like to try more Burgundies and Piedmont Nebbiolo. Unfortunately, the prices are pretty crazy as the image seekers like these wines also, though perhaps for different reasons.

Oh well, that is the wine world. If you are open minded and can buy above the cheapest level, there are many quality options that won't break the bank. You just won't have access to certain regions and styles that are expensive. Still, it's only a minor limitation.

W. Blake Gray said...

I would say there are lots of wines where the two groups' interests coincide -- practically any tasty wine under $25 that shows typicity, for example. And there are plenty of those.

Burgundy is another nexus. You won't find many Enthusiasts disavowing the region Robert Parker recently listed as one of the 10 most overpriced in the world (No. 1, if I remember correctly.) But Burgundy Quality Seekers are their own subset of true believers, like the Jesuits inside the Catholic church.

W. Blake Gray said...

Re the word "image:" I don't believe in starting a conversation by calling people names. And I also simply don't think it's accurate for the entire group.

Yes, there are wine Image Seekers. I used to amuse myself on Robert Parker's bulletin board by reading the braggarts talking of the unobtainable wines they planned to drink that weekend. I've had the displeasure to have dinner with Image Seekers who brag about their verticals but never offer to open any bottles.

But this does NOT describe 20% of the wine-buying public. Many, many people follow ratings because they think that's the way to get good wines. Go to Costco any weekend and talk to people buying the 90-point wines. Ask them where they're planning to drink them, or with who.

As with the conversation I got into regarding TV and movie critics, people are NOT buying wine for its "image" if they plan to drink it at home with their family, in private.

That's why a 90 point rating is so magical, as opposed to 89 points: It's a seal of approval for people looking for such.

Wes Barton said...

While I agree that "image seeker" is the wrong term for that category, I don't think "quality seeker" is really the best term either. I'd say I'm an enthusiast. I don't give a crap about image - it doesn't influence effect my assessment of a wine - but I certainly do seek out quality. Anyway, if you look at Constellation's perspective, they're looking at purchase motivation. 20% is probably accurate for primarily image influenced purchasing. For some of these people it is all about ego and self-delusion, showing off the price, exclusiveness and recognizable names. For others it's a calculated move - they have the money and aren't so interested in the exploration, they just want excellent wines with minimal effort. For some, it's just about the romance. I know people who've done the VIP Napa tourist thing, visiting exclusive appointment only wineries and coming away with a bunch of bottles - but they never buy like that at home. At home they're "satisfied sippers" and even admit they can't tell the difference between Two Buck Chuck and a Napa Cult.

Jeff V. said...


If I had a nickel for each time I have heard a wine critic use the 'ol movie critic example.

He's the problem with that. You don't drink a movie.

Did you seek advice from a food critic before you bought that box of cereal? What about those eggs?

Granted, the general public still thinks that the only way to understanding wine is through scores and reading 5 sentences of prose. It's more simple than that.
Buy bottle, drink bottle. You either like it or you don't. The challenge is getting people to keep trying different wines/brands/regions, etc.

It's all about 'taste' in wine, more specifically YOUR individual taste.

I don't knock anyone for their wine preferences. Shoot, mine have changed so much over time. Isn't that the beauty of it?

W. Blake Gray said...

Jeff: I don't get it. You're going all superior on me because you refuse to read reviews?

Yes, I consult food critics before choosing restaurants. And I read product reviews if they're available before buying food products.

Are you going to accuse me of not having my own taste? You clearly don't read my blog often. But then you don't read anything, right?

If you don't pay attention to any third-party critics at all, you are a marketer's dream. How do you make your decision? Pretty labels? Back label ad copy?

Kent Benson said...

I think you have described the dichotomy well and your generalizations of the two factions are largely accurate. Of course, there are anomalies among the Enthusiasts who are looking for interesting wines, regardless of how they were made. I don’t care two hoots about natural yeasts, typicity, a sense of place, and non-intervention. While I want to know every detail about how the wine was made, I make no value judgments concerning the winemaker’s choices. For me, the fun is in discovering how those choices affected what’s in the glass.

Where I depart from my fellow Enthusiasts is when their personal preferences for wines made in the image of their ideal leads to expressions of inner-loathing for anyone else who doesn’t share their preferences. Such others are looked upon by the purists as heretics, perhaps because the purists’ approach to wine is first and foremost a belief system. A belief that wine should be made a certain way and, by definition (or doctrine), the result of making wine this way represents great wine, regardless of how it actually tastes. Their assessment seems to go something like this, “This wine was made as my ideal prescribes, so therefore, I like it.” Instead of, “I like this wine. I wonder what factors made it taste so good (or maybe just interesting).”

W. Blake Gray said...

Kent: Your comment is so perceptive and descriptive that I'm jealous.

Erika Szymanski said...

Kent, I agree wholeheartedly with your explanation -- or defense, if you will -- of your Enthusiast position. From the perspective of a career and gentlewoman scientist, at least half of enjoying something is analyzing it. Enjoying a good meal means discussing the preparation techniques, guessing about and inquiring after the ingredients, questioning how the food fits its setting, ect. Enjoying good wine means much of the same. Since this sort of thought and questioning comprises so much of my enjoyment, I deliberately seek wines with a story to tell. The more interesting a wine, the more I'll be interested in it IF it tastes good. This is food, after all.

And Blake, one question: why should Enthusiasts and Quality Seekers care about listening to each other? If this marriage is such a disaster, can we get a divorce?

Kent Benson said...

Blake: I wish you were on the panel charged with doling out the fellowships for the Professional Wine Writer's Symposium.

W. Blake Gray said...

It's a very good question, Erika.

I guess I just want them to stop bickering in public. But I think professionals in the trade really need to understand both types of people. Good sommeliers and retail buyers do, but I'm sure you can easily remember examples of those who don't. I hate seeing people insulted when their position is reasonable.

Peter O'Connor said...

Mr. Gray,
Great read.
Allow me to disagree with you, though, regarding your response to Jeff V..
Third-party critics are not the only source of information available. In fact, under the current “tasting-note/100 point-score” format, wine critics provide nothing more than (prepackaged) opinion. And there is an epistemological chasm between opinion and fact.
“Enthusiasts” are after facts; and there are several (printed & online) sources where one can gather facts (data) and information to build knowledge without the critic’s mediation.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Gray another thoughtful story and thanks Kent for nailing it.

Vinophile said...

I mostly agree with Constellation's categories (from a marketing perspective you need to segment. I'm mostly an enthusiast (don't like Napa; much prefer under 14% wines; my favorite winery is a Red Mountain producer who rarely gets noticed; and the more obscure a grape is, the more I want to try it), but I also read The Wine Spectator, which has been useful in my wine education over the years. I also read wine blogs,wine books,etc. My main enthusiast affectation is that I think Parker is ridiculous.

I think I have this crossover because I was taught about wine from people who showed me things, instead of telling me what I was drinking was wrong (and it was so, so wrong!) And so I have to wonder: Wouldn't more enthusiasts/quality consumers overlap - or at least attend the same parties - if the focus was on "sharing" as opposed to "educating"? And might we not grow the percentage of people in the more casual categories who join us if so encouraged?

My experience is that many people are narrow in their wine choices because they're afraid to make a mistake or look stupid. If the focus was on the adventure - and the fun - more people would then move on from whatever their initial preferences were.

Kent Benson said...

Blake: When I made my attempt at humor with the mention of the Wine Writer's Symposium, it never occurred to me that you had also applied for a fellowship. Congratulations! At least I now know I won't have to compete with the likes of you for the next three years. Enjoy the symposium!

W. Blake Gray said...

Thank you Kent. When I read your comment I was hoping you would get there so we could share a bottle. Hopefully that will happen sometime.

Kent Benson said...

You're a mensch, Blake. Thanks. I'll keep trying.

Rick said...

Re the word "image:" I don't believe in starting a conversation by calling people names. And I also simply don't think it's accurate for the entire group.

But then you say this (bold mine):

Yet it is constantly attacked by the other category, "Enthusiasts." These are the zealots who demand natural yeasts, unusual varietals and interesting experiments.


W. Blake Gray said...

Fair enough. Not trying to be pejorative, I changed it to "idealists." Better?

John M. Kelly said...

To follow up on Kent's comment - I think "purist" might be more descriptive of the zealot than "enthusiast." The use of "zealot" in and of itself is not pejorative - a zealot is simply a true believer, an ideologue. And there are plenty of those out there. Wine enthusiasts with this worldview themselves imbue the terms with pejorative connotations - those who aren't of the same stripe tend to find the purist's endless bleating tiresome.

I wonder if a more accurate description of "image seeker" might not be "brand aware"?

W. Blake Gray said...

"Enthusiast" is Constellation's term; I'd rather not change it if I don't have to.

There's also only so much argument about word choices I want to engage in on something I posted a week ago. Gotta move on.

winomad said...

i'll bite or rather drink, . . . just as "men are from mars and women venus," . . . now, it's clear why as an "enthusiast" visiting every existing appellation in the rhone, bordeaux & burgundy to learn its terroir and provenance seems perfectly sensible vs. memorizing by rote someone else's palate scores as a "quality seeker" borders on barking mad to this somewhat enthusiastic perhaps a wee bit obsessive-compulsive, . . . umm, zealot.