What do we talk about when we talk about wine? How does the way we talk about wine affect the way we think about it? Does the language of wine create a barrier to entry for consumers?
Last week’s Wine Economist focused on what we say about wine in terms of the information revealed on the label. The European Union is implemented new regulations that will require wine to be more like other consumer products with respect to ingredient lists and nutritional analysis.
Should the U.S. follow suit, either through regulation or via voluntary initiative? That’s a controversial question, for sure. Some worry that people will be less interested in wine if they know what’s really in the bottle. Others think it might work the other way.
Wine’s Language Barrier
But there is another concern that is in some ways even more basic — and might help account for the wine market malaise we all worry about. How does the way we talk about wine affect the way that we (and potential customers) think about it? This is the topic of a seminar that will take place in two weeks at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium in Sacramento. Meg Maker will moderate a panel that includes Miguel de Leon, Erica Duecy, and Alicia Towns Franken on the topic of A New Lexicon for Wine. Here’s an excerpt from the description of the panel on the Unified’s program.
The best way to get to know a wine is to taste it. Another way is to talk about it. The wine industry relies on the ability of wine communicators to persuade consumers to taste, but today’s wine lexicon falls far short of its objectives.
What’s the problem with the way we talk about wine? The panel prompt outlines the problem.
For starters the vocabulary is heavily Eurocentric, reliant on metaphor and analogy unfamiliar to swaths of global wine lovers and curious newcomers. It also tends toward absolute pronouncements: “this wine is this” versus “this wine feels like this.” Formal wine education reinforces these protocols, perpetuating them for new generations of wine pros. The ever-popular numeric score says precisely zero about a wine’s aesthetic impact—even though that’s sometimes all you see. The net effect is both intimidating and gatekeeping to new wine drinkers, alienating them at a time when the industry tries to address its shrinking footprint.
Mastering the Dialect
There are of course several language of wine, not just one, as there are in most industries. There is the “inside” language we use when talking with on- and off-premise accounts about price points and marketability. Then there is the “outside” voice we use when speaking to consumers directly along with the different dialects necessary to connect with different types of consumers such as investors, collectors, or relative beginners. One size does not fit all when it comes to the language of wine.
Language can be a plus or a minus when it comes to opening doors to wine. Ironically, wine is not a very transparent product from the consumer point of view. It is difficult to know if what’s inside the bottle will make you happy until you taste it. But the idea of buying and opening that opaque multi-serving bottle can be intimidating, especially when prices are high relative to income and to other options.
Economists call wine an “experience good” — you won’t know if you’ll like it until you try it — hence the importance of tastings and the focus on tasting notes to simulate the tasting experience. This is why it is important to think clearly about how and what tasting notes say. Many wine consumers, I believe, are really interested in how the wine will make them feel. There are both intellectual and emotional responses, to be sure, but feeling trumps thinking for some of the people all of the time and for all of the people some of the time, don’t you think?
Tasting vs Feeling
If you ask people why they like Champagne, for example, they almost always talk about the way it makes them feel, not the details of the way it tastes. I did a tasting with some university students a few years ago and it taught me a lot. Champagne (or sparkling wine generally) was something they all were familiar with from various family celebrations. They knew it, liked it, and had good memories associated with it. But when they followed the usual protocols of formal tasting, they were surprised. It didn’t necessarily taste the way it had made them feel. Do you know what I mean?
Tasting notes that list a dozen or sometimes more flavors and aromas, many of them quite esoteric and requiring practice or training to detect, are only really useful to a few specialized consumers, but they are the lingua franca of wine. For a lot of people the lingo-equivalent of an emoji — expressing an emotion or feeling — would be more useful. Subjective descriptions of personality may communicate better than lists of seemingly objective properties.
Wine experts are expected to master all the details (as this very clever video from Richard Hemming illustrates). Many wine consumers are more interested the harmonious melody than the many notes.
The Humpty Dumpty Problem
Deconstructing wine into its components (flavors and aromas in most cases) reflects a more general trend of thinking of products in terms of their parts rather than the whole. Hence the focus on lists of ingredients and nutritional elements rather than the qualities of the food or beverage itself. I call it the Humpty Dumpty problem. If we insist on breaking product experience into pieces, we can’t be sure that customers Ieven with help from the King’s horses and men) can put them together again.
For wine, as for many other products, it is actually the balance of forces and they way the whole comes together that is the key feature. In Humpty Dumpty terms, consumers are interested in the egg and we keep talking about the pieces as if they are what matters.
Given wine’s intimidating language, it is perhaps no surprise that retailers have adopted a sort of least-common denominator approach to talking about wine. I’m thinking about the “shelf talkers” that hang below wines on store shelves. Shelf talkers come in many forms, but the most common are the simplest. Many supply an expert’s numerical score (JamesSuckling.com 93, for example) while others simply announce a discounted price.
Shelf-talker language may or may not be better than nothing, but its wide use perhaps reflects the inability to speak to consumers in other ways with any consistent success.
And the Solution Is …
Wine, by its very nature, can get lost in translation and there is no simple solution to this problem. But there are steps to take to lower the barriers for current and potential wine enthusiasts. The Unified Wine & Grape Symposium’s session mentioned at the top of this column is a worthwhile beginning. We in the industry need to think critically about the languages of wine and resolve to be more effective.
And I think it is useful to consider the challenge of talking about the emotional impact of wine. In this regard I am inspired by the haiku tasting notes written by W. Blake Gray. I find that they make me stop, think, and try to imagine the wine.
Can it be true that the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium is only two weeks away? Hope to see you all there. I will be moderating the annual “State of the Industry” panel on the morning of Wednesday, January 25.