14 Ways To Present Wine To Consumers

In a three-minute speech at the London Institute of Masters of Wine, reproduced at Decanter Magazine, Master of Wine Natasha Hughes warned her peers that by presenting, talking about and categorizing wine in the same old ways—by country, varietal or style—they will fail the consumer and fail the wine trade. She concludes her flash talk this way:

We’ve got to remember that for most people, wine is part of a lifestyle that includes food and conviviality, rather than being a goal in itself. We’ve got to teach people that they’re able to understand and enjoy the flavours and aromas in a glass of wine, just as they can understand those in a plate of food. Finally, we’ve got to persuade them that wine is not just for posh people, and I think members of this institute have a role to play in achieving this.”

In the end, Hughes is talking about the way the wine trade categorizes wines for the purpose of discussing and selling them and for educational purposes. Her plea is to provide consumers and restaurant patrons with a more meaningful way of approaching the vast world of wine.

Hughes is absolutely correct that there exist numerous ways to categorize the wines of the world, which, in turns, provides numerous ways to talk about and present wines. The question is which methods of categorization of wine are best suited for different sales venues? Let’s take a look

There is a moderate utility to this categorization, yet most extensive wine lists start and end their lists with country categories. A huge number of retail stores also use this top level of categorization to present their inventory. Most countries’ selection of wines is vast in style and character. This method of categorization helps patrons who already have a very good idea of the wine they want to purchase and simply points them in the right direction toward that wine.

Categorization of wine by appellation is no more than a subset of categorization by country and somewhat more useful. It provides greater opportunity for discussion and more opportunity to get down to a wine’s style. However, like the country-oriented categorization, it is broad and useful to those who know what they want already. It’s common to see an appellation-based categorization of wine in shops and restaurants that feature a region’s wines.

Having recently read “Volcanic Wines” it becomes evident to me that categorizing wine by the terroir in which they are grown is a legitimate, if somewhat limiting, way of categorizing wine. One might present wines by soil types (volcanic, limestone, etc.) or climate (cool climate, continental, warm climate, etc.) However, unless a buyer knows what to expect from such climates and soils, this categorization is likely to leave all but the geekiest patrons confused and at a loss.

Given that most New World winegrowing regions produce single varietal bottlings, it’s no surprise that a varietal characterization has been the most common method of presenting wines to consumers, either in restaurants or retail outlets. And because wines have been largely produced, labeled and presented in this manner over the past 30 years, it’s likely to be the most useful way for consumers to approach wines.

Categorizing wine by its color (red, white, rose) is perhaps the most ancient and basic way of categorizing wine. It’s also among the most helpful ways to present wines to the vast majority of consumers. Determining what color of wine they want is among the first and most basic decisions a consumer makes when buying or ordering wine, and is particularly important with consumers seeking a lower price point wine.

I’ve seen wines organized in this way: Birthday Wine, Celebration Wine, Hot Weather Wine, Thanksgiving Wine, etc. Is it useful? It might be if you could present a range of wines that cover most occasions, even the most mundane (Quick Meal wines, “Midweek Meal Wines”, Kids-are-in-bed wines). However, wines that you might place in each category would be extraordinarily arbitrary. I’m sure consumers would see through such a category and recognize it as arbitrary.

If the weight or texture of a wine could be effectively communicated, this categorization method might just be highly useful for consumers. A few retail outlets and restaurants have already taken to such a categorization method. Importantly, consumers likely understand categories like “sparkling”, “light and refreshing”, “substantial white”, “Big and Red”, “Substantial and Sweet”. Average wine drinkers are likely to use these kinds of weight-related terms when asked, “what kind of wine do you like?” If this question can be answered in advance on wine lists and shelves, then the question boils down to more mundane issues: price, label appearance, region.

Categorizing wine by taste is akin to categorizing by weight. The difference is subtle but useful to note: Fruity, earthy, austere, sweet, etc. Again, categorizing wines in this method is best suited for less experienced drinkers and answers important, initial questions they have when confronting a wine buying decision.

Quality Rating
Categorizing wines by rating is almost always a secondary method of putting wines in boxes. However, it could be used as a primary method of categorization and might be useful for those that lack much in the way of thoughtfulness or curiosity. It certainly isn’t useful as a primary way of categorization in a retail or restaurant setting but is somewhat useful as an educational tool.

Here I’m thinking of Grand Cru, Premier Cru, Village, First Growth, Second Growth, etc. Because such classifications are almost always linked to regions and sub-regions, a categorization based on classification will be secondary when presented in a commercial setting. However, it could be a useful way of classifying wines if the list or retail outlet presented wines from a limited number of regions. And it might be helpful to the deep pocketed/little information buyers. It’s not too different from categorizing wine by rating.

Food Pairing
Why this method of categorizing wine isn’t more common is baffling. Restaurants that have a somewhat limited number of wines and that are not Michelin starred would go a long way toward helping the average customer if their wine list were organized by “Rich Meat Dishes”, “Delicate Fish Preparations”, “Charred Protein Dishes”, etc. We have been asking customers to consider the food when ordering wine for ages. Why not make it blatant. This method of categorization would also work in a retail setting.

Despite the vintage being on nearly every wine label, it is a near useless way to categorize wines. The vintage doesn’t tell us anything about the wine unless the wine is first categorized by a region.

Price is the single most important consideration for consumers. A list or collection of wines categorized by price or price ranges will get most consumers exactly where they want to be quick. Yet it is rarely used in an explicit way. In retail or grocery outlets, wines are often placed from bottom shelf to top shelf based on price, but this geographic categorization is rarely labeled. And restaurant wine lists often show wines in order of price, from least to most expensive, but only after categorizing the wines in some other manner first. If a wine list had, say, 75 wines, one could lay out that list by price categories. In doing so the first issue a consumer has would be addressed and after that, the patron could have a comfortable discussion of the far fewer number of wines that fall into the category.

Categorizing wine by alcohol level is akin to categorizing them by weight. However, it has limited utility. The vast majority of wines today fall in between 12% and 16%. Creating meaningful categories would mean having no more than five categories of wines and those categories would relate almost exclusively to the rapidity with which the wines in a category will get you drunk. This would be akin to categorizing cannabis by THC level, which makes far more sense given that cannabis consumption, unlike wine consumption, is almost entirely about getting high.

When considering Ms. Hughes’ advice that we need, as a trade, to find better ways to communicate wine’s allure and benefits that speak more directly to the needs and habits of consumers, how we categorize wine is probably the first conversation that we need to have in our minds and among colleagues.

Some ways of categorizing wine fit certain circumstances better than others. Are we presenting wine in a restaurant, in a retail outlet, at the winery, in a brochure, in a book? Where the wine is being presented and what the aim of the consumer is at that venue will dictate the way we talk about and therefore categorize wines.


4 Responses

  1. steve - September 11, 2017

    This is a very complex subject, and Tom, you have done an excellent job framing more in-depth talking points and fleshing them out. Ms. Hughes has brought up, as have many before her, the problem with marketing wine to millennial’s. It seems that everyone in the wine sales food chain tries to put 10 pounds in a 5 pound bag-maybe in an attempt to impress the customer. Clutter is enemy.
    You mention 14 categories that can be used to explain a wine and it does seem most are subjective and subject to debate based upon individual subjective evaluations.
    Foremost, it seems to me that wine is personal as much as personal color preferences, design styles in a home, foods you like and don’t like. For example, I used to like inky colored Zin’s now I don’t, I did like higher alcohol wines now I don’t.
    There are over 100 subjective/subliminal responses to how we evaluate wine and almost all can change within minutes, based on such things as: venue, lighting, setting (business, casual, in home, etc.), sounds, smells, personality of the wine server-ad nauseam.
    Sorry about the diatribe. Great blog,

  2. Johnny - September 11, 2017

    This always works. If you like it drink it.

    • Tom Wark - September 11, 2017


      Yep, that works…in certain circumstances. However, I’m not sure how you would present wines with such a philosophy on a wine list or grocery store shelf.

  3. Jordan Theakston - September 13, 2017

    As an industry professional that has been dealing with this issue for a very long time, there is really only ONE relevant sorting system, and even that needs to be broadly interpretive. Sorting by varietal and varietal style is the only truly relevant category for sorting as it gives the consumer clues as to where to begin their selection.

    Anything beyond this, it is actually to the sellers advantage to mix things up a little to expose the consumer to greater possibilities. So, Pinot Noir with burgundian stylings….yes, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot by bordeaux stylings….yes, Champagne and Prosecco….yes, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in the same category?….OK simple enough. By randomizing price structures it encourages the consumer to look at the wine before sorting by price, and therefore allows for the easier possibility of upgrade. All the other categories are somewhat irrelevant except for the fact that then the vendor should have a knowledge of these elements to assist with fine tuning customer selection. Ultimately when there is customer and vendor interaction that is where the speed and accuracy of the selection can be controlled and that is where any additional information can be shared.

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