In a study conducted with Dr. Virginia Utermohlen, MD, Associate Professor at Cornell University, Hanni and Utermohlen created a sensory table of four basic types of tasters. In their research, based on a large sampling of consumers, they juxtapose two of the four classifications of tasters: “sweet” and “tolerant” (those that are likely to prefer big red wines) and find that “sweet” tasters may have greater taste sensitivity.
The crux of this research biscuit, so to speak, is the fact that the long-held belief that sweet wine drinkers are simply unsophisticated, entry-level drinkers who need to educate their palates might be incorrect prevailing wisdom akin to Iraq harboring weapons of mass destruction.
Again, just to reiterate, the research suggests that those wine drinkers categorized as favoring “sweet” wines may have the highest level of taste sensitivity.
Yet, make no mistake; you have to really parse the 16-page research summary to gather this, which is what happens when you have a big idea person coupled with an academian. Now, granted, research (including wine research) that has the opportunity to reshape consumer paradigms happens every day – literally. And, as we all know, science and our collective consumer consciousness aren’t necessarily bedfellows otherwise we’d all forsake our high fructose corn syrup laden products and live in Yurts drinking wheatgrass juice in between Namaste yoga sessions. Yet, I can’t help but have a takeaway from this research that indicates this is something to pay attention to, even if it’s only the first step in changing an entire industry’s sensibility.
Dr. Jim Lapsley understands this when he’s quoted in the research press release and says:
“(This information) will require some major changes in attitudes, wine education and the correction of worn-out stereotypes and myths, but this finding offers the wine industry a great opportunity to develop an overlooked but large and accessible wine market segment and to expand wine consumption.”
What Hanni and Lapsley are alluding to is the fact that as soon as the rest of the wine world figures out what Conundrum and Rombauer have figured out – that wines with residual sugar (RS) sell in the fine wine segment—and begin working towards undoing the stigmatization of RS in wine, they’re going to have an opportunity to welcome many customers at higher price points, wine drinkers who are currently dealt with as redheaded stepchildren, twice removed.
Ironically, and definitely unwittingly, I’ve covered very similar terrain in my observations in posts the last couple of weeks.
First, two weeks ago, I wrote about the emerging trend of sweet wines in the U.S., wines that are noted for having residual sugar instead of being a winking secret; wines that are stepping from the side stage of the wine world and more to the fore – a burgeoning trend with Moscato being an example.
Then, earlier this week, I wrote a post discussing why our current state of wine education that goes an inch deep and a mile wide in providing global wine knowledge was flat-out wrong. I said an early stage movement towards helping consumers define their wine style preferences would help them progress in their comfort level as a natural progression down a path of engaged wine enthusiasm – this needs to occur BEFORE wine education in order to give education enough context to be valuable.
Information without context is knowledge. Information with context is wisdom. And, the wine world needs more consumers that are wise. Period.
I noted that without this basic, fundamental “wine style” building block, nascent wine drinkers could be bled off into cocktails and beer, areas where it’s easier to get your head around what you like.
Hanni, as quoted in his research summary says much the same when he notes:
“Could the ‘Sweet’ group’s passion for wine be ignited if sweeter wines were more acceptable and more available?”
As a part of that story, I referenced both Josh Wesson and his Best Cellars retail stores on the east coast and the book Wine Style by Mary Ewing-Mulligan, both are champions of understanding your so-called “wine style,” a methodology that I wholly endorse.
Besides the obvious with the sweet wine post, the second post I wrote regarding wine education is relevant because understanding your wine style preference is philosophically in line with Hanni’s cause and findings.
Both Hanni and Best Cellars have a simple and similar quiz that consumers can take that can help them identify, in the case of Hanni, their “Personal Taste Sensitivity” and with Wesson’s system, their “Do you know what you like?” quiz that maps to the Best Cellars wine classification system.
In our business world, particularly with service-based businesses, there is usually a methodology in place that gives comfort to the customer that the service-provider knows what they are doing, that they are going to solve a problem and not merely the symptom –it’s holistic, and nearly prevailing by the likes of our biggest of brightest companies.
Yet, in the wine world, there is no such methodology for engaging a customer; there are a bunch of unrelated tactics and a mass of confusion, not the least of which is the point scoring system, which contextually has no alignment with my personal likes and dislikes.
Yet, Hanni’s research is seemingly rock solid, Josh Wesson’s Best Cellars merchandising system was groundbreaking over a decade ago, Mary Ewing-Muligan and her book is incredibly thorough, reasonable and sound.
All are swimming upstream against the beast of, “This is the way it is.”
But, change agents know that the way things are done today, don’t always have to be the way things are done tomorrow.
What the wine industry desperately needs to create is a hybrid methodology combining elements of Hanni, Wesson, and Ewing-Mulligan’s quizzing and classification system, adopt it as a supported standard and then promote it as a classification system that welcomes wine drinkers into wine by helping them understand their taste preferences before steering them towards those preferences, regardless of the type of wine, sweet or otherwise.
There will be plenty of time for education, and the myriad of other things that compete for consumer mindshare, but the basics are helping a consumer understand him or herself first.
To answer the question of the headline, “What comes before wine ratings?” The answer is clear to me and it’s not found in a wine bible, or a 900-page coffee table book, it’s found in putting the power of ennobled choice in the hands of the consumer via a widely acknowledged and accepted methodology, supported by the wine industry.