Tuesday, March 3, 2015

What people, critics hate in wine back-label copy

Did you know people hate to see the word "red" used to describe red wine?

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.

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StGeorgeWineFoodClub said...

This article gives me a headache. Who on earth did they ask opinions from? It certainly wasn't anyone I hang out with. How can you hate a word on the back of a bottle if it helps you pick the right wine to go with the right food or gives you an idea of what you are about to buy? I wish they would put MORE on the backs of bottles, but keep it simple talk, so the everyday wine drinker will understand what they are saying.

Unknown said...

We had this debate within our company in advance of a new product launch that was very consumer-friendly. In speaking with people that work on the floor at several different wine shops (geared more toward the common wine drinker, not fanatics), the resounding advice was that people want to know 1) What varietals are in the wine, 2) What does it taste like, 3) Food pairings. The staff at the wine shops said that the vast bulk of the inquiries they get are something like: can you recommend a wine that will go well with steak? If the label does not mention that food, it's hard for the wine shop staff to recommend the wine unless they have already tasted the wine. So, maybe people on wine.com are a different sub-set of the wine drinking population?

Aaron said...

That was very interesting, and thank you for the link to that fascinating analysis. I'd be really interesting in getting some more graphs and analysis of grapes that are enjoyed and which aren't. Such as Monastrell, which he said was not liked, vs Mourvèdre. Which are really the same grape, just Spanish vs French names. There are several other grape varietals that have multiple names as well, and it might be quite interesting to see if one name might do better than others.

Unknown said...

This is so interesting to me. I live and work in wine in Canada and we have done focus group research related to what consumers want on a label - our data is that people want to know: what is in a wine, what it tastes like, what food it would go with and where it is from.

I am going to read the full article for more, but from this summary post I have to say that the results could not be more different from ours.

Also, we make and like wines with acidity so descriptors like lively and juicy apply here.

I didn't think we were *so* different from our friends in the US, but maybe we are?

Shell said...

I believe if you use the word "powerful" in chat copy it will get kicked back by the TTB. They think you're suggesting the person drinking the wine will turn into Superman. Chat copy is over-rated.

Jeff said...

My favorite back-label food pairing ever, from a Macedonia red: Pairs well with sautéed gizzards!

They don't write them any more perfect than that one.

Lisa said...


That's pretty good.

Along those lines, and as Mr. Gray has some claims to being a Fla-duh boy, I would nominate for his pleasure:

Mad Dog 20/20, a wine providing an equally fine pairing with either sauteed gizzards or chitlins.

Yes I would.

W. Blake Gray said...

I must be part redneck, because a couple months ago I sauteed some gizzards. I had a Chianti Classico with them and it went reasonably well.

Lisa said...

Very nice, Mr. Gray. I'm sure gizzards have gone uptown, what with a nice blackberry reduction or a remoulade.

We do them fried at the Lindy's Chicken (which fries all chicken parts), Tabasco being the only possible accompaniment. One would have to do takeout to allow for the MD 20/20 pairing (out of a bag, paper, that is.)

Did you have fava's with your nice Chianti?

W. Blake Gray said...

I don't like fava beans, but I'll admit I had the Lecter pairing in my head. You know the book uses Amarone in that quote but the movie producers thought Amarone was too obscure. I've had this discussion recently in Italy -- which wine goes better with human liver -- and many Italians give the nod to Amarone. However, I just like Chianti Classico much more than Amarone.

Much more than gizzards, my favorite chicken innard to stir-fry is hearts. But gizzards are my favorite yakitori item. Love the crunchy texture. I don't know anybody who has the home setup for yakitori, though.

Lisa said...

I did not know about the Amarone, nor Yakitori.

Oh, I couldn't do hearts, but I do love livers done in the French provencale way.

Favas are trouble. A friend of mine wished to prepare them, and I was consigned to the indignity of peeling the shell from each fava bean. Who does such a thing?

I mean, I can understand if eating pistachios or boiled peanuts, but not for favas.

W. Blake Gray said...

I went and looked at the menu for Lindy's. I want the Gizzard Box!

I would drink pink Champagne with the Gizzard Box, because 1) bubbly is good with fried food, 2) the red fruit notes would nicely complement the gizzard meat, and 3) who wouldn't want to drink pink Champagne at Lindy's?

Lisa said...

Just checking back:

It's a question I've pondered:

"What is the appropriate wine for fried food; what helps mitigate the, um, greasiness?"

Of course, I'm not thinking a light tempura here, but real fried food. It's not something to which I'm partial, but how do you pair it for the best taste + digestive result?

I love the 'pink Champagne at Lindy's" idea. Plus, if you drank it from a clear plastic cup, it would look like pink lemonade Hi-C, and you could pass. :)

(I suggest plastic in case shooting breaks out, you could just "trow down" and run, as they say in Jamaica.)

Stever said...

What people will say they want vs. how they actually act are often different. This is a common failure of "focus groups". People say the things they think they need to say, or have heard others say, or that project a certain (false) image about themselves.

The data approach in this study vs. some of the comments here from those on the retail side of the industry shows that.

Reminds me of a few recent studies using internet dating site data across millions of users and interactions. What people say they are looking for in a partner is often far from who they end up interacting with and ultimately dating.

Also, having read many wine back labels i know there is prolifically boring use of sameness throughout the industry. Does the same old same old label set the consumers expectations for yet another same old same old wine?