Several days ago, a lively discussion took place here in the comments on a post (okay, “rant”) that challenged wineries in emerging wine regions to focus on fewer, higher-quality bottlings, and not to pawn off poorly-made (or not-quite-ready-for-prime-time experimental) wines onto customers at their tasting rooms (a scenario which I’ve experienced first-hand).
In those comments, frequent-visitor and formidable-wine-blogger-in-his-own-right Thomas Pellechia raised a couple of fascinating related questions, about which he, in turn, challenged me to write:
“…is there or should there be a relationship between what the wine ‘press’ prefers and what the wine ‘tourists’ buy? And who’s got the upper hand when it comes to establishing the success of a winery?”
Put another way, if critics say a wine really sucks, how relative of a measure is it? Do people act on that assessment when it comes to buying wine? And if they do, should they? Could a winery still manage to pawn off its crappy stuff to newbie consumers in the tasting room, even if critics pan the bejeezus out of it?
Not easy questions to tackle. In fact, they’re like trying to tackle Jerome Bettis in his heyday. If I’d have had any clue just how deep a rabbit hole I’d be diving into after promising Thom I’d take on the topic, I would have told him (politely) to get bent and stop leaving such profound comments on my blog.
And this rabbit hole goes pretty deep, boy. What I found in my quick-and-dirty investigation reveals a lot about how we buy wine, calls into question the future relevance of wine criticism generally (including my own modest contribution to that sphere), and tells us why it still might be possible for wineries to close many a tasting room sale on their crappiest offerings.
So take the red pill, if you dare, and I’ll show you just how deep the rabbit-hole goes…
It all began innocently enough. Spurred by Thom’s probing questions, I posed the following simultaneously to my friends on twitter and Facebook:
“Who influences your wine purchases the most? A friend? Critic? Guy/Gal working at the wine shop?”
The results are at the bottom of this (rather lengthy – hey, I warned you) post. For the impatient, the concept of friends and wine store staff were mentioned… a lot. Critics and bloggers? Uhmmm… not so much. The people hath spoken, and they doth listen to friends and wine store clerks most of all. Not a scientific or statistically-relevant study, for sure, but an interesting result nonetheless.
But I couldn’t just let it go, of course, partly because the answers meant that I wasn’t so relevant even to my friends for f*ck’s sake! I mean, I want 1WD readers to up their own personal wine IQ and all but jeezuz, people! And so I started wondering… are there statistically-relevant findings that might back up my shot-from-the-hip social media results? One thing led to another led to some Google searches, and as it turns out, a few bits of research have been done recently on the influence of wine criticism – and they bear similar results.
The first bit of research is a 2007 Wine Opinions study titled “Tracking wine media usage and the Influence of Critics” which was quoted and analyzed in June of the same year by Steve Bachmann, CEO at Vinfolio. Steve commented on a few of the report’s highlights (emphasis mine):
– The most influential opinions affecting consumer retail wine purchases over $20 (the highest category) were “wine-knowledgeable friends” (72%) followed by retail staff (61%).
– 24% of consumers in the panel read wine blogs, about double the level which read the Wine Advocate or eRobertparker.com.
– 87% of consumer respondents agreed with the statement “I trust my own taste more than I do the wine critics.” Despite that, 49% agreed that “I try hard to avoid wines with poor ratings.”
One interpretation (cannot stress enough that it’s one of many possible, but I think it’s valid) of these results is this:
People want to trust their own judgment when it come to buying wine, but (understandably, given the incredible volume of long-tail SKUs out there) realize they could get burned and want to minimize the scorching, particularly on higher-priced (>$20) purchases. Therefore, they look for knowledgeable advice before dropping their coin on the bottle. The advice comes increasingly from those that they consider friends (a group which can include people with whom they have only ever had an on-line relationship), but could be trumped by the advice of staff at the point of sale.
I like this interpretation because in it I’m actually still relevant. Sort of. I think. Anyway…
In 2010, a similar (smaller) survey was conducted by Paul Rickett at a retail wine store in Canada, and yielded similar results. While the sample size is small, the findings are interesting for our little rabbit-hole journey in that the respondents also cite friends and trusted staff as having the highest influence on wine sales decisions (though in this case, those two were reversed, with the staff coming in at #1 and friends at #2 – press, including bloggers, all came in dead last).
Hmm… ok… this one I liked a hell of a lot less – not exactly a high 1WD relevancy factor there.
Then, a moment of clarity (or was it hopeful desperation?): I’m not sure I’d be hanging my favorite Steelers hat too firmly on conclusions drawn from either survey, as there are almost a countless number of factors at play in a wine buying decision (why and for whom is the wine being purchased…? what’s the comfort level of the purchaser…? did they remember to take their Geritol that day…? and what led them to buy wine that day anyway, maybe – please god – a 1WD post…?). BUT… it seems logical to state that trust is an important factor in influencing buying decisions – wine is apparently no exception – and that our circle of trusted sources is getting increasingly personal.
So maybe there’s a place for us after all, so long as we resonate with people on a personal level? In the words of kick-ass `80s supergroup Asia, “only time will tell.” I like my odds in that vino worldview. So I cancelled the Amazon.com order for that Sepaku knife.
What really got me out of the darkest, sunless areas of the rabbit-hole was this:
The most knowledgeable and/or confident of wine consumers are probably gonna buy what they like to drink no matter what the critics say about it. Having said that, for those influenced by the recommendations of friends (and that’s a big majority of those polled in Wine Opinions study), they might steer clear of what their buddies say tastes like crap even if their own wine-buying confidence is relatively high. The trick for someone like me is to be a valuable wine buddy for as many people as possible without trying to be a wine buddy for every possible person. I happen to love doing that, so it’s an exciting prospect.
So, coming full, rambling circle out of our rabbit-hole and back to Thom’s questions: should there be a relationship between what the wine ‘press’ prefers and what the wine people buy?
I think the answer is “Yes,” but only if you substitute ‘press’ for ‘trusted sources’ – the ‘press’ needs to be someone whose opinion matters personally to the person plunking down their hard-earned cash for a wine.
As for who has the upper-hand when it comes to establishing the success of a winery, one could make a strong argument that the answer is “the last person to touch the bottle before it gets into a consumer’s hands.”
I don’t mean to drop a wet blanket soaked with nasty-smelling reduced vino on our proceedings here, but some wineries are, in fact, gonna try to pawn their crap wines off in the tasting room, and the data above suggests that they’ll get away with it – if they can influence the purchase. Now, if the buyer genuinely likes the taste of that wine, then my (strong) opinion is that they should go for it, buy a case, and not worry about what I or anyone else says about how bad the wine is. But if the wine is noticeably flawed, I would question that buyer’s taste, or at least encourage them to try more wines originating from more locations to get a sense of the larger wine world; if they still want to buy the nasty stuff after that, then that’s their call, but at least it will then be an informed call.
I just hope they still have some use for people like me when those calls get made…
Twitter and Facebook answers to “who influences your wine purchases the most? A friend? Critic? Guy/Gal working at the wine shop?”
meganmarconyak wine shop peeps and in-store tastings influence me most!
wiwinelover Well said! Wine geeks, GOOD bloggers & trusted wine shops. But, shops selling wine as an after-thought? No.
terroiristblog 1) The smart folks @WineBerserkers. 2) Wine geek friends 2) a couple bloggers 3) trusted wine shops (namely, @schneiderswine)
wkelterer 1. Wine shop, 2. Winemakers, 3. Research. Pretty much agree with @makerstable Critcs occasionally, but very little.
CurdsAndCliches Taste, meal, company (who’s coming over).
m_despoina Besides my own taste, friends mostly
COWinePress #1 finding hidden gems in shops (usually on own) #2 blogs & online wine forums
melanie0 Mine comes from good friends, research and wine shop folks
makerstable #1 Wine shop, #2 Research
NINhilista Primarily the guys at “my” wine shop, as well as a few somm/server friends.
JFTxWine Friends who have good/similar palates
wolfeswines Yeah! RT @1WineDude: Curious – who influences your wine purchases the most? A friend? Critic? Guy/Gal working at the wine shop?
czerwonebiale It’s usually curiosity that mostly influence my wine choses.
Vembra Holnagel Friends who have good taste and wine shop folks if they demonstrate a real knowledge and not just trying to sell the overstock.
Bob McClenahan If less than $30, I’ll take advice of wine shop. If over, then I’ll have to try it first.
Markus Stolz Pure curiosity. Also love talking to the wine shop folks, more often than not they are extremely insightful.
Cara Leyba Friends & anyone who can talk to me in wine language. I start drifting off into my happy place and just listen and hand over my credit card willingly :)
Christine Eitel Komons If I walk into an unfamiliar wine shop and wish to browse/impulse buy on my own, one trick I use is to look at the name of the importer on the label. If it’s an importer whose taste I agree with, like Jorge Ordonez in the Spanish section or Kermit Lynch in the French section, I know I’ve got a solid bottle in my hands.
Paul Mabray you.
Meredith Miles People that have the same taste as me. A lot of times, for me, even the local wine shops don’t cut it
Pamela Wilson-Hale For me… it’s YOU Joe!!! (and my taste buds that just love the German Resilings)
38 thoughts on “Who Has The Most Influence On The Wines That We Buy?”
Great article. Since I am in the process of opening a wine shop, this is really good stuff for me to know! I think the reason the staff at the store has such a big influence is that (at least in the good shops) the store staff is familiar with their wines, and knows the story behind them, and may even have a sample available for a taste.
I love to read wine blogs (including yours), but the reviews are of limited usefulness if I don't have an easy way of locating the wine in my area. But, if I happen to see a wine that I remember being praised by a critic, I will typically buy it.
Thanks, myrnaarroyo. I would be interested to hear how it goes with the shop and if you start seeing that kind of PoS influence on the customers. Cheers!
I believe your own informal survey, and the studies you cite, all rely on an assumption that might be incorrect. The assumption is that wine buying is completely a rational decision, and wine buyers fully understand their reasons for buying certain wines. But is that really the case? It may not be.
Back in 2008, I wrote about the book "Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy" by Martin Lindstrom. In short, based on an extensive neuromarketing study, the book alleges that approximately 90% of our buying behavior is actually unconscious. So, though we might think we buy a wine for a certain reason, there may instead be plenty of unconscious factors involved in that decision. Emotions play a significant role in buying because "emotions are the way in which our brains encode things of value." In that regard, blogs that emotionally engage their readers may have a greater impact than people realize, though on a more unconscious level. I highly recommend this book.
Great point, Richard – I did think along similar lines (sort of) but did not go even into shallow depth on that in the post. Might be good fodder for a followup post (maybe one that you write… we could keep passing this one and evolving the topic across blogs and posts, which would be pretty awesome!).
I will be doing a follow-up post on my ideas, probably later this week.Then the ball will be in your court. :)
Richard – awesome! But after your post, we need to pass the baton to *another* blogger and see how far this meme can go on those legs! :)
First, thanks, Joe, for calling me names, but good names ;)
Second, in this case, I knew the answers before asking you the questions. It was my way of sending you into the rabbit hole so that you could see for yourself rather than believe an old wine guy…
Third, my background covers every aspect of the wine business except importing: I've been a grape grower and winemaker, owned (and lost) a winery, worked at a winery in sales and promotion, worked on the street as a distributor sales rep selling to retailers and restaurants, and owned with a partner as wine retail shop.
It's my opinion that a dedicated and knowledgeable retail or restaurant staff, one that develops a relationship with customers to learn their tastes, does more to sell wine than anything a critic or blogger can do.
Finally, when it comes to the tasting room experience: the tourist as customer overall bears little resemblance to the wine consumer as customer in a retail shop. If you want to talk about unconscious behavior, you can't find a more unconscious being than a tourist.
In fact, none of us are immune to tourist behavior when we are touring. How often have I come home form a trip, opened a bottle of wine that I took back with me, tasted and then proclaimed: what was I thinking when I bought this?
While in a tasting room, wine consumers may be actively looking for wines that they like but tourists are looking for a happy experience and will go out of their way (almost) to find one. A winery that relies heavily on tourist traffic does not need to worry too much about comparing what sells in the tasting room to what sells in the retail trade–quite often, the train does not meet (with exceptions, of course).
Unfortunately, Joe, discussions like this have no place in the 40-character Twitter world and they barely keep people awake on blogs, which is why my blog has been silent of late.
In addition, I just signed a contract to write my fourth book. This book will take years of research and I just might be too busy to make the kind of useless noise I'm accustomed to making on my blog…
Well, as someone who got into wine because I got hired at a restaurant that requires an extensive knowledge of a very diverse and esoteric wine list, I can say that while I get a lot of my information from reps, our wine obsessed chef (he holds 30 minute pre-shifts every day to discuss wine as a collective staff), and fellow co-workers, I also get much of my information from reading blogs and publications. Also, the reps who talk to us about wine use positive reviews extensively from the press to discuss their wines.
To re-focus my point, while restaurant and retail staff influence what customers buy, how much of a trickle down effect is there of retail and restaurant staff being influenced by the press? I can't tell you the countless times I have wandered into a wine store and when I ask for a recommendation the salesman says "This wine scored a 92 in the Wine Advocate," or something along those lines. So, while the buying public is a couple of steps removed from the press and critics, the people selling them the wine usually are not.
Does that make sense? Perhaps I shouldn't be drinking wine while typing this out.
Thanks, Rogersworthe – I think it does make sense. In some ways, I think you are saying that we cannot assume that the press for any wine filters out to the staff at shops and restaurants in the same way that it does to consumers. Which would make out complex scenario even more complex! :)
Indeed, it would. I guess I would say that people wouldn't be writing books called "The Emperor of Wine" and making movies like Mondovino if the press had such a small influence. Most people in wine retail (shops or restaurants) don't get to taste thousands of wines and make their own calls as to how good wines are, so they go elsewhere to get the information they need to be able to sell and one of those sources is the press/blogs.
Rogersworthe – interesting that you bring up the fact that even people in wine retail might not taste as many wines in a year as a critic; I'd bet that most consumers would (incorrectly in many cases) assume that they do taste as many. But while they're probably tasting more than the average person (far more in some cases), they're also probably too bust selling the stuff and working their butts off to taste the way many critics do. Cheers!
@Rogersworthe, I think that you have really got the point here, I was going to make the same comment when I saw yours. The fact is that very good shop or restautant staff are confident enough to suggest to the customers what they have liked and what they find interesting, but from my experience (I'm a wine maker in Italy) most of them are to lazy, or may be they simply don't think that is important to taste the wines and develop their own ideas about them. Most of them pass to the customers the "wine critic"'s experience, so that in the end that "rating" trickles down to them anyway.
Thomas – Iooking forward to seeing that book (even if eventually)!
"While in a tasting room, wine consumers may be actively looking for wines that they like but tourists are looking for a happy experience and will go out of their way (almost) to find one." – Totally true (and nothing wrong with that). Many years ago, I once (unsuccessfully) tried talking someone out of buying a case of wine from a winery visit in the Finger Lakes (winery name withheld for reasons that should become obvious); the wines were mostly poor, but we had a GREAT time visiting the place. I knew the wines would taste awful weeks later at home… but… the money was spent anyway!
NEXT BEST THING TO READING THE BOOK? READING THE "BUY-OLOGY" BOOK REVIEWS . . .
From the Financial Times
(December 17, 2008, Page Unknown):
Book review by Alan Mitchell
Truth and Lies About Why We Buy
By Martin Lindstrom
(Doubleday, $24.95, 256 pages)
From BusinessWeek “Opinion” Section
(November 10, 2008, Page 089):
“Scanning the Consumer’s Brain;
Businesses are keen on the ‘science’ of neuromarketing.
But is there really a buy button?”
Book review by Stephen Baker
Truth and Lies About Why We Buy
By Martin Lindstrom
(Doubleday, 240 pages, $24.95)
From The Wall Street Journal “Opinion” Section
(October 22, 2008, Page A15):
“Science Comes To Selling”
Book review by Andrew Stark
“Business Bookshelf” Column
Truth and Lies About Why We Buy
By Martin Lindstrom
(Doubleday, 240 pages, $24.95)
:-) You know, some book reviews are so comprehensive that they've actually kept me from buying them, as I got what needed from reading the review!
Thanks, Wee Ree!
Hey, don't feel bad Joe – the wine shop staff and knowledgeable friends get their info from peoplpe like you. Your blog influences the Mavens — the people who get other peope to buy.
There's no way my mom is going to read your blog, but when she gets advice at the local wine shop, she's indirectly absorbing opinions from you, other bloggers, and the major pubs' critics for sure.
Thanks for that, JB! Come to think of it, my mom doesn't read this blog either…
Thanks for that, JB! My mom does not read my blog either, actually!
Much like Thomas, I've worked at just about every level in the wine business, and imho the answer is two-fold:
1. The wine store staff and the wine drinker's friends all know that person's tastes, while the blogger / critic is simply scoring a wine based on an imagined "ideal", which is also skewed by their own palate bias.
2. The vast majority of wine drinkers do not shop the racks where the POS reviews are scattered, they are in the mag aisles where you occasionally see a Best Buy but never a Parker 92.
Thanks, PA – sorry for the dumb question but what's a mag aisle?
The aisle(s) of the store where wines that are sold primarily as a 1.5L, such as Woodbridge, Barefoot, etc… and usually by extension also including larger formats and box wines. (and thus the vast majority of the store's wine volume, save for specialty wine retailers)
Gotcha – thanks, PA. I was thinking along similar lines but glad you confirmed it! Personally I have not seen those aisles in a long time. :)
"… like trying to tackle Jerome Bettis in his heyday." – You are such a homer, but I love it. And seriously, that was a great topic. It does seem that the local wine shop is the most trusted source, since they are right there at the point of purchase.
However, as an internet wine retailer, I'm really working on ways to gain that consumer confidence over the phone and email. Although, it does seem like the tastings that I hold in person always generate sales where as the email blasts rarely do. Also, when we were written up in the Tasting Table email blast, a bunch of new customers felt confident enough to order from us. It was like, "well since Tasting Table thought you were worth it, I will give you a shot." All this seems to support your above conclusions.
To boost your confidence a little, I know one thing that you provide and that is information. I've never heard of half the stuff you write about, and the stuff I have heard of, I like to get your opinion too. You are a source of relevant information for those of us swimming in the vast sea of it.
No hard feelings about your referee aided Super Bowl win against the Seahawks. – Bryan
Thanks, Bryan – I appreciate the kind words! Now, what you call being a homer I call speaking the honest NFL Hall of Fame truth, okay? :)
To PA WineGuy: right on. We again agree!
Not to belabor a point, but I believe that too many opinions are based not so much on fact or experience but on wishful thinking.
IMHO: the wine buying world often bears little resemblance to the wine advice world, and mostly, wine geeks talk to and among a closed and limited community. And believe me, I know how controversial that opinion is–among wine geeks.
On a personal level, influence lies in my friends, critics, and sommeliers with palates that I've come to understand and trust. It's interesting that the Decanter Power List just came out a few days ago, with a list of the 50 most influential wine personalities. Sure enough, the people have voted the "amateur wine blogger" as one of the most influential voices, with 9% of votes, trailing only Jancis and Bob in total votes! http://www.decanter.com/people-and-places/wine-ar…
Hey Jon – I'm going to write a bit about the Decanter list next week. I'd say that in recognizing the decentralized power of wine blogs, Decanter is now brought themselves up to only about 2-3 years behind on things! :)
Yes, I too buy books based on awards – although I don't usually go see the Academy Award winning movies if I haven't by the time they give them.
There's been a proliferation of wine competitions lately – and it's puzzling to me. Yes, they are profitable for the companies that hold them – but I think that most don't drill down to how the medals will influence the consumer. Since most POS displays don't mention them – a wine lover usually has to go to the winery website to find them.
Trusted source (retailer) and then price were the order of this particular survey.
It will be interesting to me as online sales grow (especially FLASH sales) will purchasers trust the reviews – or just go for the price? Or will there be any kind of backlash if the price entices but the wine doesn't deliver?
Raising a glass to you!
Thanks, Julie – cheers!
Great article! Very brave to take it on!
Not to open another can of worms, but consumers are influenced by price, and price is influenced by critics (the so called 'Parker-effect'). So whether or not a consumer reads an article by a blogger or a critic, they are driven towards a selection in their desired price point, the price of which the critics have influenced.
Excellent point, Life of Vines.
You're right – that is another whole can of worms!
Great point, Life of Vines (if that is, indeed, your *real* name! :-). I am pretty sure that one is a whole keg of worms…
Thanks! Life of Vines is my website. Real name = Marie Payton. On twitter @mariepayton
Nice to 'meet' you!
:) You too, Marie! Cheers!
So what are we to do in Pennsylvania if retailers are the number 1 resource?
Mark – weep. That's what I do. Also, write to our reps. in government and vote them out when they rescind on their promises to progress privatization…
As promised, RichardPF's interesting counterpoint article:
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