Thursday, December 8, 2016

American wine consumers still don't care about what sommeliers like

Wine Purchase Decision Making by percentage of respondents
If you ask a sommelier what's most important about wine, in order, she'll probably tell you region, then producer, then grape.

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.

As long as I'm talking about lousy questions ... consumers were asked how they like their wine to taste. The options: Dry (no sugar), Fruity, Savory (less fruit), Smooth, Semi-Sweet, Sweet, Tannic. They were allowed to choose more than one response.

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.

Follow me on Twitter: @wblakegray and like The Gray Report on Facebook.


Unknown said...

Savory is not an effective word for the purposes of this survey. It means so many different things. There are two specific herbs, Winter and Summer savory. In culinary terms, savoriness denotes flavorful without being sweet. Some people use savory as a synonym for umami, to denote meatiness. Webster defines it as spicy or salty without being sweet, while defines it as simply pleasant or agreeable in taste or smell. As you say, language is important.

As the official “varietal” Nazi, I also take issue with the use of the adjective “varietal” in place of the noun “variety.” Like Jancis Robinson, I “wonder whether this particular rot can possibly ever be stopped.”

I’m a bit surprised that “Label” scored so low. My long experience as a retail floor salesman leads me to believe otherwise.

Based upon this survey, all the fuss being made over sustainability, organics and biodynamics seem to be lost on the consumer.

W. Blake Gray said...

Kent: This is a self-reported survey and I think many people don't want to admit that they're swayed by the label.

Regarding the three social-goods categories, the numbers do seem low to me. That doesn't mean it's not an important niche category. But yeah, this seems to indicate it's not a mainstream concern. Of course it would help if any of those definitions actually delivered what all three seem to promise. News of the inherent flaws in those classifications has probably reached many of the consumers who should be most interested in them.

Zzzz said...

The taste section needs to be completely redone because if you asked these same people to taste a Californian Zinfandel with say 6g RS or then a full-on dessert wine, they're going to choose the Zin. I know as it's like pulling a cat out of a pipe to get normal wine drinkers to try dessert wine in Europe as they don't actually want "sweet" wines but the sensation.

That's an unfortunate waste of an otherwise good survey.


Jack B. Erhart said...

You lost me on the liberal truthiness statement. Really?

bittybits said...

Surveys are all about how the questions are structured/asked/composed. As you point out this one is very perculiar. Particularly the flavor aspects. It seems to me that this one is skewed towards providing answers that confirm that the consumer is seeking sweet wines, despite the slight dip in popularity in 2016 vs 2015.

Bob Henry said...

Two observations. Two discrete comments.

How frequently do people dine in restaurants that have a sommelier? (Let's set aside for the moment what "qualifies" a person to call him- or herself a "sommelier.")

I would venture to answer my own question thusly: almost never.

People eat at home. They eat at quick-service (a.k.a. fast food) restaurants. They eat at restaurant chains like IHOP and Denny's and Olive Garden.

They ONLY eat at more expensive restaurants that have sommeliers on "special occasions."

Once a year? Twice a year?

So how important are sommeliers in serving as "opinion leaders" and "taste makers" shaping public opinion?

("Assuming" specific wines that sommeliers tout can even be found in your neighborhood wine store.)

Sommeliers are the tail that wags the dog. Garnering a disproportionate amount of publicity. Taking too much credit for wine trends.

The REAL opinion leader and taste maker is your neighborhood wine merchant.

(Who, in turn, reads the wine critics for suggestions on wines to sample and possibly sell.)

Bob Henry said...

Excerpts from
(May 12, 2010, 2012):

“The Market for Fine Wine in the United States”

[Fine Wine 2010 Conference in Ribera del Duero (Spain)]


By Graham Holter
Associate Director – Publishing
Wine Intelligence market research firm (United Kingdom)

. . .

According to the data presented by [David] Francke [former managing director of California’s Folio Fine Wine Partners], US wine drinking is compressed into a small segment of the population.

SIXTEEN PERCENT OF CORE WINE DRINKERS consume wine once a week or more frequently, which ACCOUNTS FOR AROUND 96 PERCENT OF CONSUMPTION. Thirty-five million adults drink virtually all of the wine sold in America, Francke said.

[Bob's aside: Corresponds with the "80-20 Rule of Marketing" -- 80% of your sales revenue comes from 20% of your customer base. For those who wish to read more about this phenomenon, Google these keywords: "Pareto principle" and "Joseph Juran."]

. . .

Wine Intelligence has studied the US wine market in detail and categorised the wine drinking population -- which it measures at 47 million -- into profile groups. Two of these segments – “Millennial Treaters” and “Experienced Explorers” -- were introduced to conference delegates by Erica Donoho, Wine Intelligence’s country manager for the USA.

“Millennial Treaters,” she said, represent just 6 percent of wine drinkers, but they account for 13 percent of market value.

“They’re a young group, under 30, and they’re exciting market players to look at,” she said. “Wine was introduced to them at a young age and it’s something they’re embracing wholeheartedly. When we ask them lots of questions, one theme that keeps coming up is there’s a pressure -- especially among the men in this group -- to know more about wine. They’re receptive to information; they want to be marketed to with some instruction.

“They’re really interested in sharing knowledge with friends and family, and it’s an amazing way to target this group. They want to share their experience and their knowledge.

“The social etiquette of wine choosing is becoming increasingly important.”

Typically, such consumers will use the varietal as a major buying cue, but two thirds of them are also influenced by country or region of origin.

[Bob’s aside: The article goes on to discuss “Experienced Explorers,” which as a demographic group account for 17 percent of the wine drinking population and 33 percent of the market value.]

Unknown said...

I hope you don’t change your writing to please the 83%. The survey indicates there are tens of millions of Americans who do like savory wines.

Bob Henry said...

From MediaPost
(December 8, 2016):

"40% Of Alcohol Beverage Buyers Make Their Decisions In-Store"



"Fully 40% of U.S. consumers who buy alcoholic beverages haven’t decided what they’re going to purchase when they walk into the store, according to a new study from IRI.

"Of the 60% who do have a planned beverage purchase, 21% end up changing their minds in store, and 50% of those who change their minds ultimately buy a different brand than they originally intended.

. . .

"All of which points to “immense” opportunities for alcohol manufacturers to find new pockets of growth by engaging and influencing consumers while they’re in the store, point out IRI’s analysts.

"Beer, wine and spirits manufacturers are increasingly aware of the importance of working with retailers to win over consumers, according to Robert I. Tomei, president of consumer and shopper marketing for IRI. 'When you consider how often most shoppers are going to the store, and that 21% of them change their minds during the shopping trip, you realize the impact that in-store signage, creative labeling and other marketing could have on your portfolio,' he stresses."