Tag Archives: wine studies

More insight into the gibberish of wine back labels

wine back labels

The relationship between back label descriptors and price for red wine (from Mark Thornton’s study).

Mark Allan Thornton, the Harvard PhD student who has done groundbreaking work trying to make sense of the gibberish that is wine back labels, has done it again. His second study has found that the back labels on cheap and expensive wine seem describe the same flavors with dfferent adjectives, depending on how much the wine costs.

“The presence of ‘dark’ indicated a less expensive wine on average, whereas the nearly synonymous descriptor ‘black,’ which appears in the same flavor cluster, was strongly associated with the back labels of more expensive wines,” he told me in an email. “In other words, I think these results suggest that people may use different words to describe the same flavors depending on whether the wine is expensive or cheap.”

The good news? That the goal of the study was see if certain flavors could only be found in more expensive wine. Given that the first study found what Thornton calls a “quite modest” relationship between price and quality, given what’s written on the back label, this is even better news for consumers. If you want dark fruit flavors, you’re just as likely to get it with a cheap bottle as an expensive one.

So what’s the catch? As Thornton notes, wine back labels are not unbiased reviews, but marketing material. Hence, the study starts with a strike against it. In addition, he says, finding enough wine back labels to work with to overcome this handicap is problematic, given how unwilling the wine business is to share data (also a problem in the first study).

Still, the conclusion is worth pondering (and probably isn’t all that surprising give how confusing back labels are), as are several other highlights:

• White wine descriptors vary more with price than red wine descriptors do, which doesn’t seem to make much sense. My guess? Maybe the presence of sweet white wines offer more opportunity for variation.

• Balance and complexity, which should be the goal of every winemaker, are useless as back label descriptors. Balance was used on cheap, but not expensive, white wine, and not at all with red wine. Complexity had no correlation with red wine pricing and appeared on expensive white wine. Does this mean wine marketers don’t think cheap white wine drinkers care about complexity and figure we’re not smart enough to understand that it will be difficult for a $5 red to be as complex as a $100 red?

• Vanilla, oak, and color were associated with more expensive wines, while dry, clean, and tropical were associated with less expensive wines. Again, this is baffling, since clean should be a goal for every wine.

For more on wine back labels:
Back labels and the flavor of lynches
How to buy wine at the grocery store
Making wine easier

Is the confused consumer a wine myth?

wine myth

“Confused by wine? Of course not. I’m so much smarter than the rest of you.”

The grocery store Great Wall of Wine is a wine myth, consumers are not confused by wine, and the Wine Curmudgeon has been wasting the last 20 years of his life. That’s the conclusion of a recent working paper in the Journal of Wine Economics, which found that wine drinkers don’t have too many choices and know exactly what they want to buy.

Hard to believe? Certainly, and that’s because the study left a lot to be desired. It was conducted among customers of a small chain of high-end wine shops in the northeast, who don’t seem very representative of wine drinkers in the rest of the country. For one thing, one of the stores is in Manhattan, where grocery stores can’t sell wine. For another, the stores have a much more limited selection than large chain retailers and supermarkets, as few as one-third of the wines of a typical Total Wine. Finally, more than half of the consumers in the study identified themselves as high-frequency wine drinkers, which puts them in the minority of U.S. wine consumers.

In other words, this survey was like asking men if they had ever been turned down for a raise or denied a promotion because they were women, and then reporting that job discrimination against women didn’t exist.

And I’m not the only one who noticed this. Becca Yeamans-Irwin, who writes the Academic Wino, said that “I am not too keen to accept [the results] with much confidence. While the concept of the study was certainly fascinating and has the potential to be useful in the wine retail/marketing setting, there are several problems with this study that negate my ability to say with confidence that choice overload does not exist in the general wine retail setting.” She cited, among other things that involve more math than I understand, a too small sample size and that the respondents were not representative of U.S. wine drinkers.

Nevertheless, one of the best wine bloggers in the country wrote that the study showed “the overwhelmed wine consumer is mostly a myth,” and I wouldn’t be surprised to see this report show up when the usual suspects want to beat down those of us who say wine needs to be easier.

In which case, I will remind them of what I learned from the legendary Richard Hainey, who regularly took a bunch of snotty college students and taught them how to be good reporters. Just because someone says something is true doesn’t mean it is true, Hainey told us, and it’s your job to ask enough questions to find out if it really is true. Would that more wine writers knew how to do that.

Wine competitions, judging, and blind luck


Wine competitions, judging, and blind luckOr, as the co-author of a new study told me: “Consumers should disregard results from wine competitions, because it’s a matter of luck whether a wine gets a gold medal.”

That’s the conclusion of Robert Hodgson, a winemaker and statistician whose paper (written with SMU’s Jing Cao) is called “Criteria for Accrediting Expert Wine Judges” and appears in the current issue of The Journal of Wine Economics. It says that those of us who judge wine competitions, including some of the world’s best-known wine experts, are ordinary at best. And most of us aren’t ordinary.


… [M]any judges who fail the test have vast professional experience in the wine industry. This leads to us to question the basic premise that experts are able to provide consistent evaluations in wine competitions and, hence, that wine competitions do not provide reliable recommendations of wine quality.

The report is the culmination of research started at the California State Fair wine competition at the end of the last decade. The competition’s organizers wanted to see if judging was consistent; that is, did the same wine receive the same medal from the same judge if the judge tasted it more than once during the event? The initial results, which showed that there was little consistency, were confirmed in the current study.

More than confirmed, actually. Just two of the 37 judges who worked the competition in 2010, 2011, and 2012 met the study’s criteria to be an expert; that is, that they gave the same wine the same medal (within statistical variation) each time they tasted it. Even more amazing, 17 of the 37 were so inconsistent that their ratings were statistically meaningless. In other words, presented with Picasso’s Guernica, most of the judges would have given a masterpiece of 20th century art  three different medals if they saw it three different times.

“This is not a reflection on the judges as people, and I don’t mean that kind of criticism,” says Hodgson. “But the task assigned them as wine judges was beyond their capabilities.”

Which, given the nature of wine competitions, makes more sense than many doubters want to believe. Could the problem be with the system, and not the judges? Is it possible to be consistent when judges taste 100 wines day? Or when they taste flight after flight of something like zinfandel, which is notoriously difficult to judge under the best circumstances?

When I asked him this, Hodgson agreed, but added: “But we don’t see an alternative. But it is an inherent problem. You just want to see the competitions give the judges sufficient time to do it.”

Perhaps. But my experience, after a decade of judging regularly, is that the results seem better (allowing for this um-mathematical approach) when I judge fewer wines. That means that the competition is smaller, or that the organizers have hired more judges. Maybe that’s where the next line of study should go, determining if judging fewer wines leads to more consistent results.

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