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Winebits 375: Grocery store wine edition

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grocery store wineThis week, how grocery stores are changing the wine business:

Suing the state: Texas doesn’t allow non-residents to own more than five liquor stores, unless the owners are related to each other. This “just us kinfolk” exception (as a lawyer friend of mine calls it) has allowed Texas-owned chains like Spec’s and Twin Liquors to put together hundreds-store operations. It’s also why Walmart is suing the state to overturn the kinfolk law and why it and Kroger are pushing two bills in the state legislature to eliminate the exception. Neither are likely to go anywhere — courts have traditionally ruled in favor of these kinds of laws, citing three-tier and its constitutional protections, and the legislature almost always avoids offending the big Texas liquor chains. Still, that Walmart and Kroger are willing to spend the money on a seemingly hopeless cause speaks volumes about how they think the world is changing. Starting now may give them a chance later to reform beer, wine, and spirits retail sales in Texas.

Stopping at the supermarket: Nielsen reports that U.S. grocery stores (including Walmart, Costco, and their ilk) sold $8.6 billion in wine in 2014, which accounted for about 42 percent of the country’s store-purchased wine. In other words, almost half of the wine sold in 2014 came from a grocer. Imagine what that number would be if Pennsylvania and New York allowed grocery store wine sales. We can write about Robert Parker all we want, but that’s not the news in the wine business. The real news, the development that wine writers should be paying attention to, is that most of our readers have no idea (and don’t care) who Parker is, and they want to know what wine to buy at their Walmart or Kroger. Which is why a grad student named Mark Thornton may be the next Parker.

One more time: Speaking of Pennsylvania, its state house has approved a bill to end the state’s liquor store monopoly. This is apparently as much a tradition in the Keystone State as Punxsutawney Phil, and makes as much difference in changing the law as groundhogs do in forecasting weather. Still, the debate is fun. Said one lawmaker: “The other side is talking about the No. 1 drug, alcohol, like it’s milk and bread. We’ve got to have more of it, more convenience, for the No. 1 drug in our communities.” The other side, that wants to reform the system, didn’t miss a beat, either: “Even Russia and China have given up on the idea of a state-run monopoly.” So you’re a commie if you oppose reform, and a crack dealer if you support it. Politics is a grand business, no?

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.

Wine reviews still matter

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wine reviews

The conventional wisdom in the wine business over the past decade that wine reviews — unless you’re the Winestream Media, writing for an audience that desperately needs to know that its $28 wine got 93 points — are becoming irrelevant. I’ve written this, and I mostly believe it. For example, the majority of the reviews on the blog are among the least read.

The irrelevancy of review comes from new technology, whether Facebook, texting, phone wine apps, or CellarTracker, that gives wine drinkers the ability to recommend wine to their friends and read their friends’ recommendations without the need for a traditional wine reviewer.

So imagine my surprise when the new Wine Market Council study, detailing the behavior of U.S. wine drinkers, found that reviews still matter.

“I think it is to be expected that people who have not been around wine for years and years are a bit more interested in reading about wine and getting input from knowledgeable sources,” says John Gillespie, the council’s president. And he has some intriguing numbers to back that up.

More than half of Millennials and almost half of Gen Xers who drink wine frequently said reviews were extremely or very important in deciding what to buy. This is twice the number of Baby Boomers who said they valued reviews, and three times the number of the oldest group surveyed, born before World War II.

If that still doesn’t seem a lot, consider this: I located two surveys about film criticism that showed much lower numbers — six percent in a poll on ComicBookMovie.com said reviews were important, and a survey of Indian audiences in 2011 found that just 17 percent said the star rating was important. Yes, these aren’t exactly comparable to the Wine Market Council results, but it’s close enough to make me think wine reviews are still relevant.

The one thing not surprising about reviews in the Wine Market Council survey? The Winestream Media’s grip on its captive audience. Two-thirds of high-end wine buyers who drink wine frequently rated reviews extremely or very important. Which is why they’ll always be a Wine Spectator.

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