Confirmation Bias Distorts Understanding of Wine Industry

Robert Joseph writing in Meininger’s Wine Business International cogently reminds wine industry observers that the tendency toward unreliable reliance on confirmation bias is far too likely to skew our understanding of trends and change in the wine industry and warns that things like Natural Wine, mineral-driven wine styles, and artificial cork may not be the fast-evolving trends many claim:

The fact that a vociferous group of people with hipster beards in New York restaurants are to be seen drinking natural wine does not indicate a fast-growing national trend for the style across the US.

When a specialist wine retailer says, “more and more of my customers are asking for wines with less alcohol” it does not mean that the average strength of the billions of bottles on supermarket shelves is visibly falling.

A vociferous and influential strand of the wine industry has always preferred lean, slatey Riesling and Fino sherry to off-dry Chardonnay and ‘fruit bomb’ Cabernet, and has reliably leaped on every shred of evidence they can find of their favourite styles enjoying a revival. And I’m sure that their enthusiasm sometimes helps to drive small increases in the market for those wines. But it doesn’t detract from the fact that their popularity is still marginal, and that far more consumers are still happily pouring themselves the kind of wine they enjoy.

Fans of screwcaps, especially in countries like Australia and New Zealand have been blind to the failure of the closure to gain traction for premium wines in other markets. “All of our producers and consumers have seen the light. The rest of the world is bound to follow”.

Those who hate the 100-point system applaud every time the Wine Advocate appears to stumble – and ignore the admissions of big retailers like Costco and Kroger’s that wines boasting 90+ points scores still sell faster than ones that don’t.

As is often the case, Joseph puts his finger on the heart of the matter. While troves of hard data have increased in the wine space over the past decade, so much of what appears as conventional wisdom in wine turns out to be anecdotal observations.

Depending on what is being observed, the conclusions derived from these observations might not derail the accumulation of solid, actionable, reliable data about wine sales and the wine consumer. However, I suspect Joseph’s warnings are important. It’s much easier to write about and leave unsubstantiated conclusions on the table when those observations and conclusions are based only on our own bias.


4 Responses

  1. Blake Gray - August 21, 2017

    It’s a savvy piece. I love Riesling like every other writer and sommelier, but if the 5000 articles we’ve written about it aren’t making it popular, that horse has been beaten to death.

  2. Lewis Perdue - August 22, 2017

    Must remember: The plural of “anecdote” is NOT “data.”

    • Gabriel Froymovich - August 24, 2017

      Ha! Very well-phrased, Lew. And a good post for our industry to read, Tom.

  3. John Stallcup - August 28, 2017

    Nobel Memorial Prize winner Daniel Kahneman introduced the concept of “theory induced blindness” in his book “Thinking fast and slow. Theory induced blindness is another way of describing how the power of “confirmation bias” can literally blind us to factual information that would lead us to more productive activities. The wine business has a number of examples of theory induced blindness, including denigrating sweet wine drinkers (between 25 &35% of humans) and telling people they must “pair” red with red, causing white and pink wine drinkers to order a beer with their steak. Both of these discourage wine consumption.


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