Sunday, December 25, 2011

What makes a good wine label?

What makes a good wine label?  I don't know.

My next WSET diploma assignment is to write a paper about what makes good wine packaging, which can include labels, back labels, and other packaging like non-bottle containers.  I've been doing a good amount of reading in the marketing literature, and I'm still confused.  This is a seriously soft science.  If you thought tasting wine comprised lots of variables, try selling wine! 

Marketing professionals claim that the wine market is split into at least two and maybe as many as five segments that are looking for different things.  At lower levels, there are commodity consumers that are highly price sensitive.  Labeling matters less to this group as they are looking across a fairly narrow range of products for which they have some knowledge.  If it's Gallo or Vendage or Charles Shaw, they are largely interchangeable, thus packaging and price is far more important.

At the highest price bands, labels aren't very important either.  For example, if a consumer is about to shell out $250 for a bottle of Cayuse Bionic Frog, the odds are excellent that they know a lot about it and could care less what the label looks like.  They care more about the wine itself, its scarcity and cult status, awards won, etc.

It's in the middle, I think, labels become really important.  Consumers in the middle band are not particularly brand loyal.  They love trying new wines and having new experiences, and when they look at the wall o' wine, it's the label that often makes the sale.

Here are some labels that have won recent awards.

But really, there is no formula.  Simple or complex, colorful or monochrome, graphic or text based, etc. even award winning labels can run the gamut.  I remember when I was a wine novice, being bewildered by the range.  I used to frequent a grocery store in a section of DC where lots of embassy and consular families lived.  I would follow a foreign-looking shopper around and just get whatever bottle they bought.  Catching the eye of the middle price-band consumer, and making the sale of an unknown amidst that giant intimidating wall of wine, is the goal of a huge industry constantly asking - what makes a great label?

I can find only one contribution to the discussion, and it comes from studies of blind tasting.  According to numerous studies, consumers are very suggestable.  If you tell a person you taste smoke and cherries in a wine, they will often find those flavors too.  If you tell a person that Parker rated a wine very highly, they will enjoy it more than if you told them it got a low score.  I'll be doing reviews of several studies in future posts, but for now take my word for it.  fMRI machines confirm that if a person thinks the wine is good, the pleasure centers of their brain will light up during tasting.  This is some hard damn science.

Thus, my theory on wine labels is that if they can manage to convey the idea that wine in the bottle is good, it is a successful label and it will help sell bottles as well as spur repeat sales.

So how can I quantify that?  Dunno.  Yet.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Judging in a wine competition

A few weeks ago, I was asked to be a judge in a state level wine competition.  Of course, I said yes because it sounds like a lot of fun and might be great networking.  On the downside, it is really difficult to be critical of a huge volume of wine.  It's just physically difficult.

Once a friend who owns a wine shop called me with a rare opportunity.  A big time wine critic was coming to his store to taste through a portfolio of Australian wine, and the shop owner was inviting his friends over to taste afterward.  There were over 200 full throttle high-alcohol Australian wines, and towards the end, I could only taste iron and copper.  Why?  Because all the skin had been ripped off my gums and mouth and I was tasting blood!

I am told that the same problem happens at wine competitions.  There are just so many wines to taste that you get drunk even while spitting.  Your palate gets blown out and you end up giving top marks to anything you can still actually taste at the end, usually really high-alcohol fruit bombs.  Well constructed wines with finesse or medium body need not apply.

In my research on how to be a good judge, I've not been encouraged.  Robert Hodgson published two papers in the Journal of Wine Economics in 2009 that are instructive.  Both were written using what sounds like the coolest dataset ever, a set of tasting grades from a competition where researchers had slipped duplicate wines into the lists to see if the judges would be consistent with their rankings.

The first paper is a methodological mess (see my blog post about why you cannot perform mathematical calculations on non-number data -- adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing).  The author took rankings, turned them into arbitrary numbers, and then performed odd math to see if critics could taste the exact same wines and award the same grades. 

Okay, let me take a second to say how statistically ridiculous this method is, and an how amazed I am that it got past peer review.  If someone is asking people to rate their interests on a scale of one to five, and I like cotton candy 5 and liver 1, there is no reason to think I'll like liver flavored candy a 3.  It makes no sense.

Despite the egregious abuse of math, it's pretty obvious by Hodgson's description of the data that the judges stink, at a major competition, with judges from the industry.  I cannot say that there is any statistical validity to his conclusion, but there is lots of reason to be concerned.

The second paper makes me much happier as a statistician and much more nervous as a competition judge.  Here, Hodgson uses a test called Cohen's Kappa, which is really cool because it looks at if the judge scored the same wine the same way, but also gives partial credit if he or she got close.  This statistic showed that only 30 percent of judges could rate wine consistently.  Many more judge fairly randomly.  Hrm...

So I'm worried about doing a poor job, but then I'd be in good company.  When I think about the wineries submitting samples, however, I feel a little better.  For them, a competition is a no-lose proposition - they either get a medal to display in their tasting room, or they get nothing.  There is no negative for a poor rating, only praise if they get it.  So I'll just try to be contentious, and remember the advice in the excellent Fermentation Blog.
  • Concentrate.
  • Be aware that my personal tastes may not reflect great wine (an oaky Chardonnay can be excellent even if it isn't to my taste).
  • Go back and review Wine Faults by John Hudelson.
  • Stay hydrated and keep spitting.
Wish me luck!

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Tong and Minerality

So there's this quarterly magazine for serious geeks called Tong.  It's published in Belgium and to get it in America it costs like $150.  It's not glossy, there are no ads, most if not all of the authors are either MWs or are really famous...lots of words.  Each issue is grouped around a particular theme, like Bordeaux, Chardonnay, or Oak.  Pretty geeky.  I love it, but I wish someone I knew got it and would loan it to me because it's just really really expensive.

Anyway, that's neither here nor there.  Tong just came out with a book that they call a general text on Wine.  It's called, "Wine."  Being a total snob and shocked at the value of the dollar against the Euro, I wasn't going to order it until they emailed this excerpt that dovetailed completely with what I am studying in my WSET classes, namely soil nutrients and anaerobic fermentation.  It's fairly provocative for an intro text:

(An excerpt from our book "WINE", p66) The word “minerality” often crops up in tasting notes, especially when describing white wine. This often implies that there should be a direct link between the minerality of soil and wine. The generally accepted notion assumes the higher the mineral content of the soil, the more intense the mineral flavour in wine. This is nonsense. Most minerals do not have a flavour and at most a slightly salty taste. Their presence in wine is minute and they go organoleptically unnoticed amongst fruit flavour, tannin, acidity and alcohol. Scientific trials have shown that there is no direct relationship between soil composition and the flavour of wine. Minerals are essential plant nutrients necessary for growth, photosynthesis, etc. The most important minerals are nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, calcium, magnesium, sulphur and iron. A surplus of minerals in the soil causes vigorous growth of the vine and excessive yields that result in a thin and flat wine. Therefore the theory that more soil minerals make a more complex wine is obsolete. “Mineralic” wines are mostly grown on stony soils which tend to be poor because they contain little nutrient-rich humus. Vines on stony soils have to fight for survival and the grapes, just like the vines, accumulate few minerals, especially very little nitrogen. This can cause problems during fermentation as yeasts require nitrogen to convert sugar into alcohol. If there is insufficient nitrogen in the grapes, yeasts will split sulphur-containing amino acids to access nitrogen. This can cause the formation of volatile sulphur compounds which can come across as “mineralic” in wine. This does not point to a sulphur-rich soil but explains the indirect link between soil and wine flavour.


I can buy this from the point of simplified chemistry.  All that stuff about nitrogen starvation during fermentation is well covered in several of my textbooks.  But it does beg a huge question, which is "what the hell good is site selection?"  Why is wine from one block always a little tighter than wine from the one next to it?  A little richer, a little leaner, a little more flinty?  Why can some critics make astonishingly accurate blind identifications of soil types? 

Perhaps it is because primary fermentation is only part of the story of wine.  We are talking about hundreds of different chemical reactions and thousands of esters, volitile compounds, and byproducts.  I suspect there is more to this story.