Good, bad or indifferent, we all fall into different types of buyers of many different products. Wine is a particularly interesting one that I thought I would discuss. People invest in wine and re-sell it. Some people hoard it and put it on a pedestal worshiping its price and critical point score. Though the reality is for the overwhelming majority of us we drink it. Whichever kind of wine buyer you are, we all fall into different buyer categories based on preference, convenience, lifestyle and budget factors. Some of these factors are more influential than they are for others and ultimately form a majority of one’s wine palate mostly because the average person only tastes wines they buy for personal consumption (as opposed to augmenting your palate at tasting events or groups). So it comes as no surprise then that you buy also tells a lot about the palate that you have. Simply put, you are what you buy and (hopefully) drink.
A palate is something that you gain with experience. Sure, you can be born with more taste buds, but if you have no basis of comparison, how do you know if a wine is good or not? No one is born with a good wine palate, it is developed over time with experience. You may have more taste buds (supertaster), but you won’t know Cabernet from Syrah out of the womb. You learn and earn a palate by tasting a lot of wine at the same time side-by-side. Reading is also important, providing facts and clues as to a wine’s character that you may not detect through tasting alone.
I got to thinking about this topic one morning commuting to work about how certain factors influence a person’s wine purchases and how they fall into certain categories. Each type of buyer has specific characteristics, good and/or bad. None of this is an exact science, just what I think are well-informed opinions as to what causes some types of wine purchasing behavior.
Cherry Picker “Points, points, points”
Points sell wine. There is irrefutable evidence in every corner of the wine world this is true. It is unfortunate as it is just one person’s opinion based only on their palate. We’ll discuss why later in this article. From what I can tell cherry pickers are the nemesis of specialty retailers and wineries everywhere. They have no loyalty to certain producers, wines, or styles and usually put little thought of their own into a wine’s purchase. When they talk about the wine they talk about the points it scored by one critic or another or how much they paid for it. I don’t think points are all that bad, stay with me here and keep reading.
Cherry pickers only buy wines based on high scores from wine critics or from specific highly touted vintages. Scores are not an even basis for judging a wine. A 100 point sherry is wildly different from a 100 point Napa Cabernet, let alone a Bordeaux versus a Napa Cabernet, though some fundamental similarities exist. Knowing what the palate of the scoring critic is like and what to expect from a specific wine’s style are the key to unlocking any real value of the points system on high-quality wines.
To me, I think wines that are established with a reputation of quality and pedigree for being original and well-made wines should not have scores, but instead have just tasting notes and recommendations on when to drink the wines. For wines aimed at the mass consumer segment or a wine newer to the market, points are great because most of the demographic buying them either are not familiar with the wine or lack the knowledge and don’t want to put the time in to gain the ability to ascertain a wine’s quality. We are all busy and not all of us are wine nerds so this is ok when done with good intentions.
The wine rating points system is a double-edged sword. The beauty is in the fast interpretation of quality with little knowledge needed by the user of the score. However, the ugly side is how it can water down a wine’s character and quality over two numbers (0r 3) without any relevance to the underlying intentions of expression by the winemaker or vigneron. Then there is overwhelming evidence that many people have different palates for many different reasons. Scores and opinions between supposed expert critics can vary wildly on the same wine. Also very important is the ability to understand certain styles of wines to then ascertain what is an actual fault in a wine versus what is just a style divergence. Just because you do not prefer a wine does not make it a bad wine. Scoring a wine based on this premise is not just misleading, it is entirely corrupt of knowledge. This is why the points rating system for wine is majorly flawed. If your palate does not align or have the same tasting context as the critic, how can you rely on the score and know you will like the wine? Sure, tasting notes are subjective, but at least you can get an idea of the character of a wine.
Bulk Buyer “back up the truck”
This kind of wine buyer purchases in large quantities only a few types of wines. Usually, multiple cases of the same wine are purchased so they can drink the same wine over and over again. They are not buying it to age it over 10-30 years to see how the wine evolves over time. They know what they like, I will give them that. But they also can sometimes seem a little narrow-minded and not open to trying new wine types or styles. Usually, discounts weigh in as well as many wineries and wine shops offer 10-20% off or free shipping if you buy a case of wine. Even in some cases (pun intended) its bragging rights. How many times have you heard someone reply to a wine you liked, “Yeah man, I bought a few cases of that one!”?
Let’s be frank here when we talk about a wine label. A wine label’s design does not equate to any sort of quality. A label design is marketing, pure and simple. Though a label can indicate quality, it cannot do so by design alone. Certain European labeling laws allow for the producer to put certain terms of quality on a label (Burgundy), but those terms are not a bona fide quality guarantee either. Recognition of the label after already having had that wine is about as useful as a label gets in determining quality. What does Reserve actually mean on the label? It is just the opinion of the producer and always a higher price. Price can be an indicator of quality, but even then it does not guarantee you will like the wine. There are plenty of well-made wines that cost $100+ that I don’t like, not to mention there are also poor quality wines that cost $100+, though that can verge into stylistic preference.
I usually end up feeling bad for someone when I hear they purchased a wine based purely on the label. Sometimes it is a funny story and you just have to buy the wine as it draws some sort of parallel or irony to the buyer or the situation it will be consumed in. Many times however it is from poor customer service and the buyer having no help from the store as to what to buy, thus a 100% spontaneous purchase and based on no facts. This is terrible and to me why buying wine is so intimidating for some people.
Style Snob or Color Racist
I am an equal opportunity wine drinker. If it’s well made, new or old, maybe a little oddball, I want to try it. Wine professionals and most enthusiasts can tell when a wine is contrived, overstyled, overripe (now intentionally under-ripe too), completely intervened and out of balance. Most people can also usually tell when the wine is faulty and is not the intended representation of the producer’s initial expression. These two concepts are very important in wine appreciation. If you have nothing to go by or a limited scope of wines your palate has seen, what says you have an educated basis to make a valid opinion that really counts unless the wine is obviously spoiled?
About the worst thing I usually hear about wine drinking habits is the following:
“I don’t drink white wine.” Really? Wow, you are an unfortunately misguided drinker. It’s one thing to say you prefer a style of wine, it’s another thing altogether to say you won’t ever drink a certain color of wine.
Chances are you probably have never had a good white wine or one that was well paired with food. I have heard this many times, over and over, time and again and the only actual fact I get is that it turns their teeth red. Ok, if you are self-conscious sure, that works. But I bet 9 out of 10 times the reason is mental and tied to the idea that red wine is perceived as being more sophisticated and white wine less classy. If you think you are classy just because you are drinking a red wine, sure, keep telling yourself that and pass me the Meursault!
Devout, hardcore advocates of only certain wine styles also sometimes are annoying as they are almost pious in their attitudes about their preferred style of wine being better than all others. Why does this exist? Passion, naivety, folly? Hard to say, but any one of these create bias and can blind one’s judgment and impair rational thinking about why you like or do not like a wine. I take no issue with these folks, there is nothing wrong with having a specific style preference. I personally have a few of them. However, the problem arises when they bash every other style as inferior to their own.
“Acid Queens” and the “Fruit & Oak Only” folks stand at both ends of the style preference spectrum. I don’t personally prefer these styles that frequently, however, I do look for components of their leanings in my wines quite often. Acidity is essential for all wines, and oak and fruit are major contributors to quite a few great styles as well. But sometimes the hyperbole goes too far and the wines they tout can be too far right or left of my ideal of harmony.
A few more types of wine buyers I thought of where some that I relate to in my buying patterns.
“Hunt & Hoard” are usually experienced wine drinkers and like their wines with some age. Collector is probably the traditional term for this kind of buyer, but a Hunter and Hoarder is a little more specific in that they buy based on experiences with a wine they liked and have to have it again or in their collection. The thrill of the chase is sometimes what excites them most and can be borderline obsessive.
“Loyalists” are loyal to one product or producer. Talk about buying blindly. I love loyalty, but it’s too big of a wine world to just stick with one wine all the time. True, I am loyal to a few producers, but I do not limit myself to just those same wines year in and year out. I guess time is not something they have to spend on discovering new wines or wine styles.
The “Explorer” is my favorite kind of wine buyer, especially the newbie that is trying to learn more about wine and to discover their own palate. All you need is an open mind and the willingness to buy a few new wines every time you stock up or maybe every second or third visit to the wine shop to get a bottle for dinner. Saturday afternoons are great times to head to a wine shop as many have free in-store tasting where you can try before you buy. Some wine shops have sampling machines like the Enomatic Wine Dispenser that allow you to try a pre-set pour for free or for a small fee. Tasting a wine before you buy it is always a huge leg up knowing there will be few surprises and leave you with less doubt of your purchase.
Millennials are a lot like this, not loyal to any one wine all the time. They ask a lot of questions about the wine. They want to know where it came from and the people who made the wine. They want to not just know the wine is good and what it tastes like, but what is the story behind the wine. This may end up being what takes point scoring down a peg or two because it is much more personal in nature, not to mention meaningful.
Over time, being open-minded about expanding your palate will pay huge dividends. You will have a diverse and educated palate. You’ll find it easier to order from a wine list at a restaurant or wine bar knowing your familiarity with more wines types and styles since you have tried a lot of different wines.
Education is to me was always a big motivator, but curiosity also played a large role. When I was getting into wine I would go to a wine shop once a month and buy a case of 12 wines, usually never buying the same wine more than once. This is not that expensive of an endeavor, you can easily do this for $100 -$150 spending $8 to $15 per bottle. At $200 you are comfortably at a little under $17 per bottle. Building these discovery cases were some of my favorite wine purchases. Sometimes there was a miss, but that’s ok. Just like in life you learn from your mistakes and try something else.
If there is one thing to remember here folks it is to keep a “thirsty mind and an open palate”!