First, let me say that I normally love NPR. In fact, I consider not having an opportunity to listen to NPR news during the morning commute as the thing that I miss the most about having a traditional 9-to-5 job. But when NPR runs a story titled “Fancy Names Can Fool Wine Geeks Into Paying More For A Bottle,” I cringe.
NPR’s story quotes Christopher Tracy, Channing Daughters Winery’s talented winemaker (for more on Tracy and his wines, check out the coverage of my 2009 trip to LI wine country), but only as a setup for introducing “difficult for Americans to pronounce” grape varieties like Blaufrankisch, and en route to covering the results of a marketing study performed earlier this year by Antonia Mantonakis, a wine researcher at Brock University in Ontario. As reported by NPR:
“Participants not only reported liking the taste of the wine better if it was associated with a difficult to pronounce winery name. But they also reported about a $2 increase in willingness to pay,” Mantonakis says.
What’s more, apparently the more that test subjects knew about wine (or at least told Mantonakis they knew about it), “the more easily they got duped into thinking difficult wine names equaled pricier wines.” In other words, we expect Fat Bastard to be inexpensive, but not Le Bastard Surpoids.
I love NPR, but I hate this kind of reporting. I hate it because while there might indeed be meat on the bones in Mantonakis’s study for marketers to explore, the media angle instead is to jump on the all-wine-pros-are-douchebags bandwagon, and throw on non-pro wine geeks as well.
So you know what? Screw NPR for doing that. Screw them, because we wine geeks are not the problem; if a few of us thought fancy names equated to higher prices, than so what? Shouldn’t we be excited that the wines were actually less expensive than we thought? We need more people being excited about wine and getting all hot-and-bothered over those fancy names, not less. The media implication in NPR’s coverage that those wines are somehow bad or cheap and therefore shouldn’t be on the radar of wine geeks is itself insulting to the producers, regions, and wines involved (let alone to the people). And I won’t even get started on the “what constitutes ‘wine geek’ from this study?” arguments.
If you think I’m over-reacting, I invite you to watch coverage of Mantonakis’ experiment and then listen to the NPR coverage that followed, both embedded below after the jump, and then tell me if you think I got it wrong. In the meantime, I’ll go back to my temporary NPR boycott…
Consumer Tastes Experiment (YouTube)
33 thoughts on “What’s Next, Le Bastard Surpoids? (Consumers Might Pay More For Difficult-To-Pronounce Wines, So NPR Thinks You’re A D-Bag)”
You might be over-reacting a bit and boycotting NPR over it seems extreme to me. Your alarm bells shouldn't be silent though. I read the NPR article last week and thought the conclusions were a little dubious myself. What came to mind for me was:
Is this a language proficiency issue? Are multi-lingual people or folks with exposure to the world's languages less affected by this? The name is meaningless to me and I really have trouble thinking it is as simple as it the study might suggest. The additional studies that are alluded to move in this direction and should have been completed in order for the research to be made public.
NPR chose the phrase "wine geek" and I really don't believe they could even clarify it in a meaningful way. Is that a wine lover? Is that someone who travels around learning about wine and where it is made? Is that a blogger? Is it someone who makes wine? I do all of those things so am I the king of wine geeks? Nope. And they also never said what it meant, including that it made you/us a d-bag.
The researcher doesn't explain what additional level of knowledge the study participants actually had. If I had to guess the attractiveness of the study wouldn't be that high for people with true wine knowledge so the study is inherently flawed. The consumer here is much more likely to be a casual wine drinker that can't make heads or tails of lot of what is on a bottle anyway.
If I were going to report on this I'd be constructive on what NPR did or didn't do to judge the validity of or represent the findings. NPR is a very reputable organization and therefore we expect a lot from them, but in the end they are run by humans and humans aren't perfect. With that in mind I will say that as a writer (looking at you Joe) that I am continuing to learn from and trust I would expect more from you. You touch on that with some of your questions, but you don't see it through to conclusion. How could this research be reported on better? Is it even news? Is the work of the original study incomplete and pending additional findings, is there anything the industry should concern itself with here?
I hope you take my critical feedback in the positive, you have raised the bar high and I like that, way I am intending it. I look forward to any follow-ups, they are always informative and the whole point to this process!
Jason – thanks and all fair points. There is a little bit of tongue in cheek in my “talk” here. Part of what I'm trying to do is run with the frustrations of wine lovers as constantly being portrayed as d-bags in the media. And when NPR jumps on that bandwaggon, then things are *bad*. Very, very bad. Having said that, in terms of how the study should be covered or improved, I agree with what you are saying; I am no scientist but at a minimum the study needs to be repeated independently with larger groups, the terms need clearer definitions (or at least the definitions should ALSO have been covered by NPR more thoroughly!). The bottom line for me is that NPR took the cheap-and-easy way out on this coverage, acted like d-bags themselves and passionate wine lovers, I think, ought to be upset and disappointed at them (which is the theme I decided to run with here). 1WD is, after all, essentially OpEd coverage, not investigative coverage (for the most part, anyway). We do have some 1WD readers with science backgrounds so hopefully they can chime in here and reveal better than I can how NPR could have done this in a more measured and balanced way. Cheers!
Me, I blame the wine industry for the image that it has, not NPR.
If you know anything about journalism, Joe, at least today's version of journalism, you should know that too often reporters inexperienced in the subject matter get to report and when they do, they pick up on the easiest, often dumbest angle of the story.
It's the wine industry that has fostered an image of exclusivity, catering to the real geeks of the world. A reporter without in-depth knowledge of the industry has no choice but to follow like sheep, which isn't much of a difference with the way geekdom acts.
It follows then, that if you have chuztpa (sp) you'd boycott the wine industry ;)
Thomas – the industry yes, wine lovers, no, I think. The vast majority of wine geeky folk are not d-bags; if the study included industry people instead of “wine geeks” I'd be more forgiving of this type of coverage, I think. And if we just throw up our hands and say “ah, it's just how media works these days” then we're not doing ourselves any favors as wine geeks. I say take a stand and at least let them know how we feel about it.
I would like to really see the study. In the video, the 'researcher' claims that she really tried to control for many possible mitigating factors, yet she neglected to comment on how she did that. It is also not clear, as mentioned above, what she meant by 'wine aficionado'. Having said all that, I doubt she controlled for previous perception. Many of the Fat Bastards in the world likely did a ton of market research before they named their products. It would not surprise me at all if many of them were looking for a name that was 'accessible' to a large portion of the population. In other words: cheap. I feel what is at work here is not that difficult names are more expensive, but that inane names are cheap. Who would consider 'investing' in a wine called 'Mommy's time Out'? Would you be willing to pay more for a Chateau Connard Criant? Probably. (unless you knew that it meant 'Screaming Asshole'). That is because 'Mommy's Time Out' sounds like a mass produced, cheap, insipid wine and Chateau Connard Criant sounds French and therefore less likely to be mass produced and insipid (now I know that being a French wine is no guarantee of that, but I think you get my point). That is why, until I see the actual study, I consider this to be dubious 'research.'
Masi3v – Great point, applying the reverse to the study (accessible names sound cheap) doesn't seem to be a factor in the coverage, at least. As for Chateau Connard Criant… BRILLIANT!!! It's like the restaurant Pollo del Mar in L.A. Story… :)
if you want to take a stand against sloppy or irrelevant journalism you'll have very little time to do anything else!
No doubt in my mind that such a study is flawed, and would be if the person leading the study went into it with a pre-conceived notion as to how it will turn out.
The issue with this thing is twofold:
1. journalism is debased when it tries to give the impression that it covers seriously something without understanding the subject it covers.
2. even Joe has to admit that tasting wine blind separates the hype from the actual.
When I operated my own winery, I once had an inexpensive table wine that would not sell at the tasting room. I knew that the wine wasn't that bad, but I reduced its price to move it, and it still didn't move well.
My wife suggested that I had gone in the wrong direction. She said that I should have raised the price.
I followed my wife's thinking, raised the price, and the wine sold out within weeks.
Thomas, being a researcher, I was coming at it from that perspective. This just screams 'bad research' to me. Yes, NPR has some responsibility here as well, but I do not blame them nearly as much. Very few people know what it means 'to control for' as it applies to research (not that it is a very hard concept). So when someone says 'we tried to control for X' in social research (and it is something other than a demographic [e.g., gender, race, etc.]) I will immediately ask "How?" which is key to the validity of the study. Clearly, the NPR reporters did not do that–they might have assumed it must be some sophisticated statistical manipulation that no one will understand anyway. The researcher has a Ph.D., the NPR reporter may have thought, so she must be smart (not a given) and know what she is doing (not a given either).
So why would NPR run this? I see this as an attempt by NPR, perhaps, to chip away at the perception held by many on Capitol Hill, that they serve the elitist left. Who really knows, but that is just my theory.
Thomas – I wouldn't advocate taking a stand against all sloppy journalism; but I would advocate taking that stand when major news sources do it. Speaking out doesn't mean speaking out against every instance – we pick our battles intelligently.
At first, I watched the video, and I was all like, "Joe is overreacting. The researcher is just talking about one test that she did in a series of many that she will continue to do. The goal here is not to make "Wine Geeks" look douchey. The goal is to gather information to help wineries market their product."
Then I listened to the NPR audio clip, and was all like, "What the F? This guy reporting is the douche."
The fact that there are several variables going into how we percieve taste is nothing new.
Unfortunately, there is nothing new about people percieving wine lovers as arrogant A-Holes.
I'm very bummed at the angle that NPR took on this story…
If the research were done on the percieved value of baseball cards, or even beer, would they have even picked up the story?
I think not.
Great post, Joe.
jeffisrad – Thanks for that. And you've nailed in your comment *exactly* what pissed me off about the NPR coverage.
I'm forever questioning stories in the news that refer to research studies. In fact, in one of my weekly columns, I spend time ridiculing so many so-called scientific studies that I may be in danger of believing none of them.
Usually, I start by trying to determine who paid for or commissioned the study–that tells a lot…
In this case, the study may be flawed, but as Joe points out, so is the reporting. On that last issue, these days fluff and opinion are viewed by a majority of the public as information. Journalists, even if they have the talent and background to cover scientific research issues, are forced to keep things simple and dumbed down. Under that condition, it's much easier to pick a target that opens itself for cheap shot journalism. The problem is much worse when the journalist is not trained in the subject matter about which he or she reports.
Joe is right to react, but he has over reacted in the sense that this kind of crummy reporting is not limited to wine, but wine does leave itself by way of its decades of stupid marketing to a certain segment of society.
Just to chime in here on the over-reaction: I agree it's a bit much and of course left that open for discussion in my post, but I will say that I prefer making a slightly bigger deal of something in order to give it focus than under-reacting and getting no attention paid to it whatsoever (that's also a real danger in today's media climate).
"but wine does leave itself by"
leave itself open…
Thomas – agreed, but I personally don't want that to prevent people from becoming wine lovers and writing wine people of as d-bags. It's a fight that we all need to fight, I think, for the eventual benefit of the wine biz as a whole.
Fight the fight, Joe!
Thanks, Steven :)
Here is the link to the published research. Read it for yourselves (it is not too technical) and you will see that the conclusion they draw about the "more knowledgeable" participant is not well supported. The wine knowledge test, used to determine the more knowledgeable study subjects, is based on an 11 year old study that itself doesn't seem to be overwhelmingly telling. It isn't about wine knowledge at all, rather the ability for people to articulate the description of wines they sample. Really? There were 134 participants in the study that NPR references and each was given course credit or $5. The average age was 24. Anybody smell anything? Not big or rigorous enough to make the claims it does. Yes, NPR could have done way better than this and Charles Lane, the NPR author, clearly has the experience to have dug deeper. Definitely a fail for him and NPR.
Wine Knowledge study info can be found at
I say not too telling, but should have clarified that for given the application. The Wine Knowledge test is interesting and much more scientific than that which referenced it, but I don't see it as the "right" way to judge knowledge for a marketing study like the one at the core of this conversation. Being able to better express one's sensory experience is not only due to unique skill, but overall experience in life. I'd like to see how the wine knowledge test sampling worked out demographically within the group that the winery name study included.
Jason -ugh. Seems to me from your link that there's a better story for NPR here to pick at the possible flaws in the study than to throw the d-bag tag on us wine geeks?
Most certainly. But I guess that wouldn't make for as sensational a headline.
I don't even see it as something I'd spend the time to cover precisely because the motivations, right or wrong, for the study would likely shake out to support the flaws in it and therefore be a non-story. Nobody really cares that a marketing researcher found a way to "prove" a jaded hypothesis with the least amount of actual research, right? It happens so often it would be like sensationalizing auto accident stats as a means to support the idea people's driving skills had suddenly taken a turn for the worse.
Generally, the results drawn from marketing studies raise my "should I take this at face value" genes. All too often, studies rely on the veracity of the people in the study (how much wine do you drink, how much do you spend, how this and how that) without verification. Then, there's the "throwing around of terms without clearly defining them" (knowledgeable, experts, et al). Finally, there's the reason behind the study. often, the study is embarked upon to prove a point, and anyone who knows anything about psychology can see where that can lead you.
Along with real controls, I want to see replication.
Re, Charles Lane: a one-time foreign correspondent, and lately more heavily political journalist who appears a lot on Faux (Fox) News.
Does he have the background to fully understand and evaluate the results of a research study? Nothing in the above description tells me that he does. Is there more we should know?
Very correct. Light controls and a one time deal. Not indicative of anything unless you want to sensationalize it, which clearly NPR decided to do.
Lane may not have the skills to evaluate the study. I merely suggested he should have the experience to have known to dig deeper and find a story if there was one. If he did and didn't understand the technicals then getting someone else involved that could would have been the only path to successfully penning a story. That doesn't appear to have happened.
What I was demonstrating was that a regular guy, me, can dig a little deeper and pick up the foul smell that would dissuade me from sensationalizing the information. I was suspect of it, but I didn't know why exactly. If upon digging I found something much more technical and rigorous, what would we be thinking then? Dissecting the NPR story in this way is both objective and meaningfully derivative. Following that with some choice words for the NPR people who brought us this crap is then much more justified to me. All this was done to back up my original feedback to Joe.
I'm a long time NPR listener and supporter, but cannot come to their defense on this one…
When I heard the piece I kind of cringed as well, but also have become a bit immune to some of the infotainment pieces that have become more heavily peppered throughout the mix in recent years. I did not have the energy to get worked up about it at the time, and am not so now, but I think that a rant is definitely a good way to get a reasoned conversation in some instances.
NPR may be trying to reach a broader audience with this kind of simplicity, but I think it does a disservice to the current listenership, and does not do a lot to foster the real critical thinking that draws new members. I've often thought that NPR could do a better job as a vector for the expansion of intelligent wine culture, and manage to do so in some cases through the syndicated programming ( Splendid Table just interviewed Randall Grahm about Verjus http://splendidtable.publicradio.org/listings/120… ) It comes down to programming time, development costs and sponsorship dollars, but in the end member support is what shapes the content.
Maybe the answer is not to boycott but to help NPR come up with some innovative wine programming…short bursts of compelling high quality education…sourced from the NPR community and filtered through an appropriate editorial panel. You need more to do, don't you?
Todd – Love the hustle, get me more work! :) I should note that my temporary boycott of NPR will probably end tomorrow morning. But the point is that I've found them to have higher standards than this, and so was deeply disappointed by this story.
Joe and Todd,
NPR sponsors a new Web site called Nextavenue. I wrote a piece for them recently and have parked a few ideas with them for the future. The editor did not ask me to dumb it down or make it slick and simple–she demanded explanation and sources, like in the old days, before journalists began to plagiarize themselves and pull quotes out of their behinds…
Thomas – If it’s good enough for the New Yorker… :)
In defense of NPR, I didn’t find it as an arrogant portrayal of wine lovers. They did their job to bring listeners into the story and to report the study findings. Joe, I think you are experiencing a shock factor that hit a nerve—and I cannot blame you, having been there done that. Remember that certification post I wrote—the one that generated debate amongst many wine journalists? Many thought my call to action was a bonehead idea, others were accepting. This bonehead idea was a reaction to what Thomas calls out as sloppy journalism. I tried hard to convince readers that reporting on explicit subjects require specific knowledge (and heck, I’d go as far to say those with firsthand experience have the upper hand on reporting on said subject. ) My call to action, although extreme, points to my disgust for a wine journalist that made fun of the way a particular region harvested grapes. What we need are more people that are supportive and excited over a brand rather than poking fun and making bold statements that grapes harvested by hand are obviously superior to those hand-harvested. I agree with the romanticism of it all but there is no scientific proof that supports the later, which is why I called out the sloppy journalism card in my post.
In this case, I don’t think it was sloppy journalism as much as it was hitting a nerve on what Thomas calls to attention: blaming the wine industry for the image it has created. There have been many similar studies conducted on similar grounds. As with any study, expected results are easily achieved by giving the participants the information they need to sway them towards the supported outcome. NPR simply reported on those findings with the image the wine industry has created.
Hi Pamela – not going to disagree with you there, but the main issue for me is that the wine biz and the media coverage converge on the “wine lovers ared-bags” point. And that conclusion is a total fabrication. So we *should* be calling it out as bullsh$t when we see it, because it's not only wrong, it's also unfair and it's very likely keeping some consumers from trying wine, which is exactly the opposite of what the biz needs right now. For me, it hits similar nerves that stories about not “believing” in evolution or that its “just a theory” hit; they demonstrate a lack of understanding in the subject that's so fundamental that it calls into question the validity of the entire approach taken in reporting it.
…and a correction! "grapes harvested by hand are obviously superior to those that are mechanically-harvested."
Anti-elitism is pretty interesting for its reflexive mindset: a person believes he or she is better than the people he or she believes are better than him or her in some way. It's a bit more effort to wrap one's head around that than egalitarianism, or, you know, not caring in the first place what other people do.
Funnily enough, the NPR station closest to me is sponsored by Arrowhead Spring Vineyard. Is bashing one of their sponsor's markets a really wise idea? Certain "news" channels might be more unwilling to attack their sponsors, directly or indirectly, and are therefore thought of as more biased. In a way, I guess it does prove independent journalism. Stupid, in my "elitist" opinion as a wine geek, but independent.
In my personal collection, wines that are easy-to-pronounce for me are scattered through all price ranges, as are more-difficult-to-pronounce wines. Considering that I majored in foreign languages with a focus on Italian in university before falling in love with wine, and also considering that I still study languages in my spare time, including Welsh, Finnish, and Mandarin, your mileage might vary on that.
Interestingly enough, if I had Vending Machine Winery's Horror Show, I'd probably consider it far harder for me to pronounce than the Tokaj Kereskedöhás 4 Puttonyos Tokaji Aszú–the current pronunciation difficulty topper in my cellar. I have a vague idea on how to pronounce Hungarian, but after years of practising and despite having English as my first-language, I still can't pronounce the word "Horror".
MyrddinGwin – not sure I'd take it quite that far in terms of proving anything about their journalism (though I've never personally seen any evidence that NPR wasn't independent). But your point about having majored in foreign languages is such an obvious and key oversight in their coverage of this story, to me that type of thing suggests an agenda or at the very least a lack of thoroughness not befitting their normal standards. Cheers!
Ah, sweet mystery of life at last I found you: Pamela has agreed with me twice in one comment. It's almost but not quite like fulfilling my desire to be a feature on enobytes.
Of course, it goes without saying that Pamela is an astute observer… ;)
But seriously, she got both my points: the wine industry has made itself easy pickings for journalism, which has a bad habit of sending reporters to do the work of scientists and then spewing the anti-intellectualism that Americans treasure.
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