deciphering consumer preferences

Friday, August 10, 2012

Mrs. G and I have been hosting friends and family over the past weeks, and I always enjoy the opportunity to taste through wines with interested visitors who are not connected professionally with the wine industry.

Generally I will complete my own tasting, scoring, and note taking, and then set out the bottles and invite our guests to taste through and comment. Predictably, they always ask “what should we taste first?” or “what’s the best wine?” and just as predictably, I tell them I’m keeping my mouth shut until they weigh in with their own opinions.

I understand that few people outside of the business have much if any experience tasting through a dozen or wines at a time, so I encourage spitting (with only partial success) and prod them for comments as they taste. I’m looking for a number of things. First of all, I want to see if I can “map” the individual palate preferences of whomever it is I happen to be tasting with.

Second, I want to see if there is any general trend that emerges in terms of the types of wines that speak to the every day consumer.

Third, I want to make sure that, however firm and specific my own opinions may be – and believe me, at this stage of the game, they are solidly anchored in decades of experience and tens of thousands of wines tasted, scored and reviewed – nonetheless I want to maintain a connection to my reader that he/she still finds valuable.
How am I doing? Well, I can pretty well map an individual’s preferences given enough wine and time. It’s rare for anyone outside of the wine industry to venture too far off a beaten track. It’s often price-specific first and foremost, and then locked into a region (California, Washington, etc.), color, and/or a variety (I hate merlot! or red wines give me headaches!).

There are generational preferences also – Boomers tend to be fond of new oak flavors and also impressed by massive bottles. Subtlety is often lost. Younger wine drinkers as a rule are more knowledgeable and adventurous, unless they are very young and still weaning themselves off soda pop.

As for the actual value of my spouting off, whether in Wine Enthusiast, or the Seattle Times, or here on the blog, it comes down to this. I try to be consistent and to explain my thinking. I am a lone individual, not a panel with shifting components and negotiated conclusions. It is really up to me to be a clear communicator, and up to the reader to dial me in, so he/she may navigate accordingly. It’s most useful if your palate either mirrors mine closely, or if you are pretty sure I am completely worthless except to point out wines that you are sure to hate.

I do believe, however, that consumer preferences are gravitating toward wine styles that I have long admired. The 1999 vintage in Washington, massacred in the national press, was and continues to be a favorite of mine. The 2007 vintage in Oregon, again not praised by outsiders, produced the sort of elegant wines that are returning again, better than ever, in 2010. The Northwest palate – clearly where I am anchored – has completely differentiated itself from the California palate. For this I am most grateful. Elegance, detail, poise, complexity, nuances of site and grape rather than flavors of expensive barrels are what define more and more Northwest wines. They are trending more towards Europe with each new vintage, which I believe is a good trend. Not that they should be European, but they should emulate the best of the Old World while showcasing the vivacity of New World fruit.

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