Flavor and the Decision Tree for Wine Purchases

Decision TreeExploring the way decisions on wine purchases are carried out by the average wine buyer, I think I’ve come up with the correct (in nearly every case) decision tree:

Occasion—–> Flavor—–>Price

Broadly speaking, the first thing a consumer of wine determines upon choosing a wine is why they are buying it—or, for what occasion.
1. On  the occasion of my friend’s 50th birthday
2. On the occasion of my dinner of grilled scallops tonight
3. On the occasion of my Uncle’s dinner party this Saturday
4. On the occasion of the kids getting to sleep tonight
The point, of course, is that the consumer will always have some occasion in mind when they reach for a bottle of wine to purchase. Nothing can precede the occasion in the consumers mind. The act of deciding what wine will be purchased must come with a reason and that reason is always an occasion.

Once the consumer determines why they are buying wine, they next go to what flavor of wine they want. “Flavor” merely means the “type” of wine. What flavors might appeal to a consumer?
1. A sweet flavored wine
2. A Pinot Noir flavored wine
3. An Anderson Valley flavored Wine
4. An organic flavored wine
The point is that the type of wine to be purchased only comes after determining why a wine is being purchased. At this point, the consumer is assessing their taste in wine and it is really crucial to accept that this “taste” might be a flavor, a place, an ideology or something else. Equally important is that this determination of “flavor” always comes before Price

If price were not a factor in our decision, then stores would not post the price on the shelves and would feel only obligated to tell the shopper what they are paying after checkout. The thing to understand about price is that no matter for what occasion the wine is being purchased and no matter what the flavor of wine is being chosen, there will always be a wide range of prices. Whether organic, Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon or dessert wine, you can find one priced cheaply or expensively or in between. Because the price of wine is so flexible and elastic, the consumer need not give any thought to it until they determine the occasion and flavor.
(The idea of price by the way seems to be a concept a lot of marketers dwell on a great deal, but it has always seemed a very simple concept to me: One prices their wine has high as possible to allow them to sell out in time for release of the next vintage.)

If this decision tree for wine purchases is correct, and I think it is, then it has implications for wine brand builders and wine marketers. What’s really important to appreciate is that only in very specific circumstances will the occasion for which a wine is being bought determine the flavor of wine being purchased. A wedding is highly likely to lead to a sparkling flavor, for example. Likewise, a piece of Dover sole is likely to lead to the purchase of a white wine flavor. If the marketer is interested in targeting these kind so very specific Occasion/Flavor purchases, then it’s a matter of determining which combinations of Occasions/Flavors are most motivating.

However, the vast majority of flavors will accommodate the vast majority of occasions. Just as the uncle’s dinner party can accommodate red, dry, organic or Russian River Valley wine, the Kids-are-in-bed celebratory wine can as easily be white, sweet, or Texan in origin.  Furthermore, it’s key to remember that any occasion and any flavor preference can be accommodated by a wide band of prices.

The key, then, for wine marketers and wine brand builders, is to understand the idea of “flavor” and consumer motivation. This is where the wine marketer, brand builder, wine publicist and winery owner needs to live…inside the world and idea of “flavor”. Flavor choice is where purchase deviation really happens. It’s at this point in the wine buying decision tree where consumers start to hone in on one wine or another and break away from each other.

Mass wine marketers understand this intuitively. It’s why you see really big brands often promoting and marketing very specific varietals. Think Santa Margherita and Pinot Grigio or Sutter Home and White Zinfandel. Large brands like these and others must pin their marketing hopes and dreams on very large and popular flavor categories for a couple of reasons. First, because their production is so large, they need to appeal to a large band of consumers. More importantly, due to their need for a large source grapes, these large brands will be making wine representing very broad categories. So, a large brand might also attempt to appeal to those who want a “French” or “California” flavor. Or perhaps a segment of the wine marketplace that wants something beyond a varietal flavor, such as a simple “Rose” or a “summer sipper” flavor.

It’s at the small winery end of the production continuum where the issue of marketing and flavor gets interesting, or at least more varied. The smaller the production and the less wine a producer has to sell, and the greater the variety of flavor types a marketer can pin their brand on. The really small winery can latch their brand on to an “Anderson Valley” flavor or a “JimmyJo’s Estate Vineyard” flavor or a “100% new oak” flavor or a “biodynamic” flavor. Or a “natural wine” flavor.

When looking to attract buyers, occasion and price should be secondary to flavor. This is how you hone in on customers.


14 Responses

  1. Richard Auffrey - August 20, 2013

    Though I agree all 3 of your factors work in a consumer’s purchasing decision, I don’t believe Flavor is as important as you state. I work in a wine store and price seems to be far more important to consumers. You stated that “no matter what the flavor of wine is being chosen, there will always be a wide range of prices” but that doesn’t happen in a small wine store. And maybe not a medium one either. Because of the size, there have to be limits on which wines are carried, and not all price points for every category can be stocked.

    When I deal with customers, it is far easier for me to convince them to try a different flavored wine, than a differently priced wine. For example, a person may come into the store seeking a $15 or less Pinot Noir. It is much easier to convince them to buy a $12 Frappato rather than a $25 Pinot. Their choice of Flavor is often far more flexible than their budget. There are certainly consumers who come in seeking a specific Flavor and they can’t be convinced to change. However, there is a significant portion who are willing to experiment, to take suggestions from wine store personnel.

    • Tom Joe - August 20, 2013

      I tend to agree with Richard that price has a larger role in determining the wine for an occasion. While the flavor DOES provide a guideline for purchases, I am more than willing to take the advice of the local store owner to “experiment” with other varietals that I have not yet tasted, so long as it falls within my price range (or close to it).

      Wine is different from beer & whiskey where people are “staunch advocates” for their brand… winers starting off MAY lean towards one varietal early on, but once their taste buds starts to evolve they are more incline to stray away and taste other “flavors”… but price tends to hover in a very distinct range dependent on the occasion. I am definitely not buying a $50 wine for a drink on the patio… but when the appropriate friends come in to town (and they know who they are!!) then I would definitely enlist the help of our local “expert” to help be pick the right bottle.

      I would personally change the formula to:
      FLAVOR + PRICE + OCCASION in the ratio of 35% – 35% – 30%

      Thanks for a good article, Tom!

      Drink wine – drink wisely!!
      Tom Joe

  2. Tom Wark - August 20, 2013

    TomJo and Richard:

    Do you think a buyer walks into a store with wine on their mind thinking: “I need a $20 wine and any $20 wine will do?

    I don’t. I think they walk into a store thinking I want a $20 wine of a certain type. It maybe that they walk in, know they can spend $20 on their wine purchase, but they do not look for the $20 section of the wine store or wine section. They most likely at least know they want red or white. It’s probably that they at least know they want a certain varietal. They may even know that they want a Russian River Valley or a California or a Washington Chardonnay. From here, they start looking in the $20 or thereabouts category.

    Now, even if a clerk in the store convinces them to go with Pinot Gris, instead of Chardonnay, they still have determined a flavor, and now it’s a matter of getting the best Pinot Gris they can find for $20.

    It’s all about flavor. No one walks into a store knowing they are willing to spend $20 on the flavor of wine they want and decides, well, let’s spend $100 dollars on that bottle instead.

    • Tom Joe - August 20, 2013

      Hi Tom!!

      The reason I love this subject is because it IS very subjective… and you may be correct that the majority of winers DO know the varietal of wine that they are looking for along with a price range.

      I personally have gone to the store with nothing more than “red for the wife” and anything from New Zealand for me… cost is not really in my mind until the final selection. But I am still in the learning stages and willing to try different wines… all within a reasonable budget that I set for myself… and though I may be convinced to try a different wines from another country, I am not going to be convinced to pay $100 – which implies the importance of Price in the selection of a bottle.

      So, for the lay person just getting into wine and trying to expand their knowledge, I do think that there are times we go into a store looking for a “$20 bottle of wine”.

    • Richard Auffrey - August 20, 2013

      I have had people come into the wine store and the only consideration in their mind is the price point. Some are seeking a gift wine and known nothing about the preferences of the intended recipient. They just want to spend X amount of dollars and rely on the recs of the store staff. Other people have come in and just want a good, inexpensive wine for the evening, and are open to whatever is suggested. They don’t even limit it to red or white. Others come in for a case of wine, may know some of what they want, and then ask for recs for a few more, with no limits, besides price. So Flavor is not always a consideration.

      • Tom Joe - August 20, 2013

        Hi Richard – I am in agreement with you… many people have many reasons for buying wine and HOW they buy their wine… and I myself have done (and still do) all of what you experience from your customers.

  3. Rich Reader - August 20, 2013

    One should allow consideration that above the significance of the occasion, and other forementioned factors, that the buyer is considering food-pairing, location, context, the tastes of the others who will be at the table, agenda, and intentions.

  4. Whitney Rigsbe - August 20, 2013


    A consumer’s purchasing behavior is always an interesting topic, particularly in the wine industry where there are so many brands, categories and elements that can influence a person’s decision. I thought you would find this research study that Nomacorc did with Merrill Research on consumer’s attitudes and perceptions about wine closures interesting. Although the full report focuses more on wine closures, the graph on Page 10 lists the top purchasing considerations for consumers: http://www.nomacorc.com/flip-consumers-attitudes-by-merrill-research/flip-consumers-attitudes-by-merrill-research.html

    Hope this is helpful!

    Whitney Rigsbee

  5. doug wilder - August 20, 2013

    Lets not forget that a lot of wine purchases are done by the case as people have determined what they like and don’t want to miss having something they prefer available (that they can confidently present for the types of instances you mention).

  6. Thomas Pellechia - August 21, 2013

    I’m with Richard A. All you have to do to understand what he is talking about is work retail for a month or so. Most people haven’t much of a clue about the wine, but they certainly know how much they want to spend on it.

    As for case-buying: unless things have changed from my retailing days, the average consumer does not buy by the case. The average consumer doesn’t drink wine often enough to think about case buying.

    Specialty stores with wine geek shoppers are of course the exception to all the above, but you can’t run a retail business based solely on exceptions.

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  8. W.R. Vinovskis - August 26, 2013

    I think the decision tree is accurate and helpful for understanding what “generally” motivates wine consumers. I think what’s missing in the discussion is the reality that the process is not necessarily linear in every situation, 1…2…3, but more dynamic, perhaps like points on a triangle. Depending on the circumstance, or the motivation for the shopping trip, one of the points may predominate over the others.

    For some people, the price is what drives their selection. Tom Joe commented, “So, for the lay person just getting into wine and trying to expand their knowledge, I do think that there are times we go into a store looking for a “$20 bottle of wine”. That may be true, but in a decent wine shop or a good restaurant, the person helping you will walk you through the decision tree to identify the best wine for you based on when you plan to drink it (occasion) and what kinds of things you might be eating with the wine or what your tastes are (flavor), in your price range (price).

    At other times, a person may be browsing the shelves at the local BevMo and run across a new vintage from a favorite winery or region and buy the wine in order to try it (flavor). Depending on what it cost (price) may determine at what juncture the bottle is opened (occasion). The $20 Zinfandel might be just the right bottle to celebrate the kids going to bed and the $75 Cabernet might be better for a dinner party.

    To Tom’s original point, more for wine lovers than the average consumer, many of us buy wine not just for a specific occasion, but simply because we love wine. After wines have been acquired and cellared, the consumer does go through the decision tree above — occasion, flavor, price (if you can remember what you paid for that wine several months or several years down the road) in order to choose which bottle to open on what occasion.

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