"The greater the variety of wines you choose, the more interest and enjoyment you will get from drinking"by Barry Smith / October 16, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in November 2014 issue of Prospect Magazine
Most of us choose the wine we will buy without knowing how it tastes. And when the bottle carries a substantial price tag we are taking a bet, wagering on being rewarded for taking a chance. But how do we make our decisions in the first place? Price can be a guide to quality, but an inexact one and this makes the role of the sommelier more significant. As Jim Barret of Chateau Montelena once put it, to be genuinely helpful sommeliers need to know your preferences, not just their own. The best way to make use of the sommelier is to tell him or her what you want. That allows the sommelier to focus on the style of wine you like, or want to drink on this occasion, or how much you want to pay. Sommeliers will always be happy if you have found their hidden gem: the rare bottle whose quality-price ratio is the best on the list. But how do you decide in the supermarket or the wine store? You could just choose the trusted bottle you have bought before. Though just as you would not eat the same meal over and over again, why settle for the same wine? The greater the variety of wines you choose, the more interest and enjoyment you will get from drinking. You may rely on one of the Apps available which allows you to photograph a bottle’s label with your phone and which then summons up all reviews of the wine. However, it may not help you to know how many people liked this wine, or how high the critics rated it. What you really want to know is how it tastes. Does it have fresh, zingy acid and ripe fruit? Does it have some weight and structure? And, most importantly, is it to your taste? Others may have liked it, but will you like it? A recent study from the University of Dijon has shown a number of factors that drive consumer choice: the most important being the award of a medal, which has led, no doubt, to all those spurious rosettes on labels. What of the back label? Do you read it, and is it useful to know when the harvest started and whether they pressed whole bunches? Specialist stores have machines that dispense small samples on insertion of a pre-purchased card. This can be useful but it can lead to overload where you face an embarrassment of riches just when you have exhausted your palate. We also know, from the work of Adrian North and Charles Spence, academics from Heriot Watt and Oxford universities respectively, that atmospheric factors can influence our choice of wine purchase. North had a supermarket play French music and German music alternately and noticed that consumers bought wine according to the nationality of the music. When asked if the music had influenced their choice, most consumers asked, “What music?” Spence has some nice results showing how lighting and music can influence preference, but more importantly, he claims that the weight of the bottle had an unconscious influence on perceptions of quality. Customers will often pick up two bottles when trying to decide which one to take. The heavier bottle will be associated with greater quality, and consumers appear to be willing to pay an extra £3 for every 8 grams of additional weight. Even for those guided by extensive knowledge, buying wine is always a gamble. When the gamble pays off, it can be glorious.