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On Tasting
In Search of a Holy Grail
Monday, 5th May, 2009  - David Farmer

The search for the truth about wine continues and two views about wine from other sides of the fence turn out to be closely linked.

Novice and not so novice drinkers when asked what they know and like about wine often say - I don't know much about wine but I know what I like. Another group which I term the sophisticated marketing people worry about finding out what exactly is it consumers want from a bottle of wine. Naturally they worry about the taste but they also worry about a great number of other things such as the label design, and all those things that may help the consumer decide that it is this bottle I want to buy, not that one.

Studies are currently underway in Australia that are designed to make wine closer to what consumers want to drink while another is focused on how we buy and why we choose one wine over another.

I ask though do we want to spend research money in this way and do these questions have an answer? I've selected some quotes from recent articles to show what each study is trying to do.

The first studies are focused on the taste aspect*.

"Now Dr Saliba is developing his method to give all consumers their voice. A trained panel of experts give the descriptors [like blackberry and cherry], then I get consumers to indicate how much they like a wine on a nine point scale, from like to dislike, to deduce their preferences exactly," he said.

Part of the project is looking at chemical markers in wine which will signal to growers and winemakers how to create flavours that consumers like.

"We will also produce a field manual to explain growing conditions needed to promote more of the flavours that consumers like for a given variety," Dr Saliba said.

The second studies are focussed on how consumers make buying decisions*.

"Recent research led by the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science at the University of SA and funded by the Grape and Wine Research and Development Corporation, found that factors such as brand and price were more important than the wine label design or closure, in consumer's selection of a red wine from a bottle shop for a social event with friends."

"There is a widely held belief that consumers predominantly choose wines based on taste and flavour, but as marketers, we wanted to quantify the other influences on purchasing decisions, such as price and packaging, which we found have a much bigger role on wine choice than most wine people believed," said project leader Professor Larry Lockshin, of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science at the University of South Australia."

"GWRDC's investment into exploring practical alternatives to better understand consumer preferences will deliver to the Australian wine industry insights and methods that will potentially provide a competitive edge in the global wine market."

I have problems with both lots of research for different reasons. Firstly to Dr.Saliba I would recommend Nielsen which updates us regularly on what wine buyers want. What Nielsen numbers do not of course explain is why consumers change en-masse from a variety that they once liked such as chardonnay and move over to another with a different taste profile such as sauvignon blanc. Nor can they tell us why rose has moved from obscurity to widespread popularity. Thus research on taste, which at first glance would seem to be a promising area will in fact tell us little about what consumers want. Our liquor stores are packed with every imaginable wine taste. Nothing is missing. What moves consumers are not subtle shifts in chemical composition but something all together more mysterious.

In turn the work of Professor Lockshin will also lead nowhere. My certainty about this point comes not from objective science but from 30 plus years serving liquor consumers, much of it behind a shop counter, and this taught me that how consumers make buying decisions is beyond mere analysis. Again Nielsen record monthly what we buy and thus why we buy and if I was to offer an opinion it would be that it crystallises into one simple idea; we all want Grange for $10.00 a bottle.

For a starter article on this may I suggest you go to Thoughts About Buying, Selling and Drinking Wines From Reading "Micro Economics and Behaviour" by Robert H. Frank.

You can now see that the two thoughts that began this article are one and the same. Consumers tell us daily what they want and as a retailer you no sooner have it pinned than they are off in a new direction.

Yet this is not why I want to draw your attention to this research. Far more serious is the thought that just suppose I'm wrong and we can discover the taste of a wine that consumers want and work out exactly what they will buy when wandering into a shop. What this will do is destroy the wine industry. And that will leave a simple business which I would think is in no one's interest at all. Best leave the known unknowns alone.

As for the unknown unknowns and should we explore these, I hope not. Unknown too many is that the world of wine is balanced on a pinnacle and all too readily can come tumbling down.

* I apologise for not recording the source of these quotes though I believe they came from The Australian.

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