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Tag Archives: wine quality

Can we use wine back labels to figure out wine quality?

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wine back labels

Mark Thornton: “The words — and not what they mean — on wine back labels are a clue to wine quality.”

Because, finally, someone has discovered a way to measure the relationship between what’s written on wine back labels and the quality of the wine.

The breakthrough came from a Harvard Ph.D. student named Mark Thornton, who took data from 75,000 wines in the Wine.com inventory, and compared what was written on their back label — and not what the words meant — with ratings from the site’s users and from wine critics.

The findings? That certain words appear on the back labels of wines of lesser quality, while certain words appear on the back labels of wines with higher ratings. Thornton told me he knows this isn’t perfect, given how scores and wine ratings work, and he wants to improve that part of the study. In addition, he wants to refine the way his software decides which words to analyze, perhaps eliminating regions and better understanding phrases, like grilled meats instead of grilled and meats.

What does matter is that Thornton’s work is apparently the first time anyone has done this kind of research, making it as revolutionary as it is helpful in deciphering the grocery store wall of wine.

Thornton, whose parents teach in Cal State Fresno, says this study interested him because it’s about wine, which he likes, and because it ties into his PhD research, which deals with how we describe things. One of the concepts this study takes into account is called “naive realism,” in which we assume that what we sense has to be true for everyone, when it obviously isn’t. Which dovetails neatly with wine.

Thornton’s findings confirm many of my suspicions about wine back labels, as well as how critics use descriptors. The word clouds on his site summarize the results; I’ve set them up so you can see them more easily here for the consumer ratings and here for the critic ratings.

These are among the highlights of the study:

• Restaurant food pairings or terms like pasta appear on the labels of the lowest-rated wines. Thornton says this may well be because the wine doesn’t have any wine-like qualities to recommend it.

• Words used to describe sauvignon blanc — grapefruit, herb, clean — show up on the critics’ lowest-rated white wines. This is not surprising, given that sauvignon blanc has always garnered less respect from the Winestream Media than chardonnay.

• A location on the back label seems to indicate lower quality white wine; “handcrafted” is in the higher quality word cloud. For reds, “value” and “soft” are poor-quality words, while “powerful” and “black,” probably used to describe black fruit, infer higher quality. Handcrafted is especially interesting, since it doesn’t mean anything in terms of wine production.

Finally, a word about prices, which is also part of the study. Thornton divided the consumer ratings into five price ranges, and there was little difference in perceived quality between the first three ranges. In other words, you get more value buying the cheapest wine. Shocking news, yes?

The critic price-value rankings were even more bizarre. The worst value came from wines that got scores in the mid-90s, while wines in the high 90s (and even 100) were less expensive, and the best value wines were around 90 points. Thornton says he isn’t quite sure why this is true, though it may have something to do with critic bias. My explanation is simpler: Wine scores are inherently flawed.

The Wine Curmudgeon doesn’t hate expensive wine

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wine curmudgeon expensive wine“So, Jeff,” the conversation begins, “Why don’t you like expensive wine?”

This isn’t the most common question I’ve been asked over the past eight years, but it’s common enough. These days, unfortunately, it’s not only more common, but there’s often an edge in the voice of the person asking it. As in, “So you’d rather drink crappy wine just to prove a point?”

Of course not. I love wine; why would I want to deprive myself of the pleasure it brings, regardless of price? How many times have I bored the cyber-ether with my odes to white Burgundy or Oregon pinot noir?

Because I don’t dislike expensive wine. I dislike poorly-made wine and overpriced wine, where profit is all that matters and quality is barely a consideration. I dislike dishonest wine from producers who use winemaking tricks or marketing sleight of hand to fool the consumer. I dislike pretentious wine, which we’re supposed to like because our betters tell us we should.

Cheap wine can be any of those things just as easily as expensive wine can, and I call out that kind of cheap wine all the time. Hasn’t anyone read my Cupcake reviews?

The difference, wine being wine, is that too many still assume that those qualities can’t possibly apply to the wine they bought for $24.99. After all, it came from a retailer who winked and nodded with them as if they were pals in on a big secret, and didn’t the wine get 93 points from this really smart guy who has the best palate in the world, and which we know because he tells us so?

So when I write something about their wine that they don’t like, as I am wont to do, they assume it’s because I don’t like expensive wine. Otherwise, they’d have to acknowledge that they’ve been suckered by a system as unwinnable as any three-card monte.

Allow me to quote my friend Dave McIntyre, who has said many nice things about me over the years: “Siegel doesn’t equate cheap with bad, like so many others do. He sniffs out inexpensive wines that are well made and provide exceptional value, and his passion is sharing them with the world.”

How can anyone object to that?

More about cheap wine:
Can cheap wine do this?
Cheap wine and wine that is made cheaply
The backlash against cheap wine
Wine I like

 

 

Does cheap wine cost too much money?

Karl Storchmann

Karl Storchmann: "Significant overpricing of mediocre wines."

The answer may well be yes, according to study conducted by one of the leading wine economists in the country. New York University’s Karl Storchmann wanted to find out if scores helped better align the price of wine; that is, do good scores boost prices while bad scores lower the price? Instead, Storchmann, Alexander Mitterling, and Aaron Lee discovered just the opposite.

The key is what Storchmann calls noise – the publicity a good score gives a wine. “The noise raises the quality perception of the wine, and the noise is larger for bad wine,” he told me. In the study, cheap wine is defined as “bad” because it’s less expensive than “good” wine, and better quality wine should cost more.

What happens, says the study, is that a high score for one cheap wine influences the perception of the entire brand, as well as for different vintages – possibly raising the price of every wine in the brand. That means that if Winery X’s 2011 merlot gets a 92, that score gives consumers the idea that the rest of X’s wines, whether chardonnay or zinfandel or whether 2009 or 2010, are equally as good. Which isn’t necessarily the case.

More, after the jump:

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