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Wine Should be a Blast. Not Intimidating.

Few beverages can strike the fear and intimidation that wine holds for many people. Think about it.

How many libations come in so many kinds and styles? (There are 1,368 varieties of grapes alone if you ask renowned wine writer Jancis Robinson.)

What other product’s sales hinges so much on the difference between an 89 and 90 critic score?

What other drink inspires such poetic rapture of nettle notions, shy noses, and hints of crushed ivy on a summer day walking in a field with a refreshing breeze teasing of warmer days ahead?

Humans fell under the spell of wine about 7,000 years ago. Yet, it still continues to intrigue and mystify its many loyal enthusiasts.

That’s what makes the role of Sail to Trail Wineworks essential for those who are unsure how to navigate the waters.

The Types of Wine Buyers

There are probably as many reasons to explain the sometimes threatening nature of wine as there are imbibers.

A study done by the wine seller Constellation revealed some fascinating insights into buyers by crunching the numbers on the sales data. The researchers identified six kinds of consumers:

  • Overwhelmed (23 percent)
  • Satisfied Sippers (14 percent)
  • Traditionalists (16 percent)
  • Savvy Shoppers (15 percent)
  • Image Seekers (20 percent)
  • Enthusiasts (12 percent)

The Overwhelmed panic at the sight of a wine aisle or wine list. They want advice but sometimes feel afraid to ask out of fear of appearing ignorant. On the other hand, the Satisfied Sipper has homed in what they like and stick to it.

The Traditionalist sticks with the brands they know and don’t venture far from the course. The Savvy Shopper knows a deal when they see one. They sometimes seek new experiences in the process.

The Image Seeker wants to stay in the know. They research ratings and look for the best bottles. The Wine Enthusiast is a rare breed. They know the system and what to buy. They also spend the most, purchasing 25 percent of all wine sales.

Another way to look at it is by the type of consumer. Some people just want a fun wine, no matter if it’s white, rosé, or red. They buy in bulk and aren’t as concerned about names. Some people are on the other end of the spectrum and seek out that expensive bottle because they think it tastes better. That’s in part because their brains are telling them it’s true.

The last two classes of consumers are a bit more esoteric. The average person might not see them often in the wild. There is the investment buyer. They follow the auction circuit and scour the trade magazines for tips. Then, there are the wine gurus. They also study wine. They are the ones who could tell the region and village of the vineyard. They know the difference between an AOC and a DOCa.

Perhaps, the people in these groups are why some find wine so daunting.

Other Reasons Why People Find Wine Intimidating

People like to know what they’re getting when they buy a bottle of wine, more than whether it’s white, rose’, or red. That’s where the genius of Robert Mondavi came onto the scene.

Mondavi was the Einstein of wine marketing back in the day. He gave the California wine industry a much-needed shot in the arm with his fundraising, summer concert series, and Great Chefs of France program.

One of his crowning achievements was varietal labeling.

Before that, people would find bottles with unpronounceable names, with little to no information about the contents. Mondavi made it possible for potential buyers to know that they were getting a Chardonnay or a Cabernet Sauvignon.

Europe has been slow to make a similar move, except for a few places. Many countries have laws in place that forbid this kind of labeling. That’s another thing that intimidates people.

There are actually laws that say what you can and can’t put on the bottle?

In the beginning, it helped. Château [Unpronounceable] name became Pinot Noir or Merlot. Unfortunately, the pendulum has since swung the other way.

Takeaway Message: Make up your own mind about the wine.

Wine Ratings and Descriptions

Ratings are the proverbial double-edged sword in the wine world. With so many choices, consumers want advice. They want to know if they’re getting a decent brand that will taste good.

Hence, the rise of the like-it-leave-it wine ratings and descriptions.

Robert Parker, formerly of “The Wine Advocate,” started a revolution with the 1982 vintage of France’s Bordeaux region. It opened the doors for the infamous famous 100-point rating scale.

Wine buyers looked toward his expertise for choosing wine, especially fine wines. Wineries and winemakers strove to produce libations that would garner high scores from Parker.

It didn’t take long for the shelf tags and bottle stickers started to appear.

The problem was that people in the industry let one man drive it. Sure, more critics came on the scene to muddy the waters.

It wasn’t enough to give a wine a 90 score. The flowery description with critics waxing poetic followed. A new vocabulary of tight, finesse, elegance, and racy soon followed.

If would-be buyers were overwhelmed before, these things drove them into the stratosphere!

After all, just how does a wine dance on your palate?

Luckily, there is a growing voice that questions the value of ratings and their lyrical prose.

Takeaway Message: You are your own best critic.

Price and Quality

One of the fallouts of the rating business was its effects on price and quality. People often assume that if something costs a lot, it must be good.

That’s not always the case with wine or at least all bottles. 

The driving factor is usually supply and demand. Many high-quality vineyards just don’t produce a lot of wine. That ramps up the price, which can toss gasoline on the fire.

The fact is that consumers can find many excellent values. Some smart places to start are with uncommon varietals and blends, especially from overseas. 

For example, bottles made from indigenous grape varieties from Italy, Spain, and Portugal are often a steal because they haven’t made it anyone’s radar yet—or social media. 

It’s worth noting that one consequence of COVID is the market move toward everyday wines instead of the higher-priced premium ones. That’s good news for consumers who are intimidated by the cost of wine.

Takeaway Message: Many fine wines are available under $15.

Wine Rules

Perhaps one of the most insidious things contributing to wine intimidation is the so-called food and wine pairing rules. There are the classic matches, such as Cabernet Sauvignon and steak or crab and Chardonnay.

Calling them rules is a bit of a misnomer. The wine police aren’t going to put out a warrant for you if you sip a Merlot with your Mahi-Mahi. Instead, consider them advice.

Everyone knows not to drink orange juice after brushing your teeth. Likewise, chili and Chardonnay will taste awful, just like Champagne and cake.

However, it’s best to stick to what you like. If someone’s bad match works, so be it.

Takeaway Message: The only rule is that there are no rules.

The Problem With Sulfites

Sulfites are a necessary evil. Without this addition, wines would succumb to faults and nasty-smelling bacteria. That's one reason why Nature took it on herself to take care of these problems. Otherwise, the bad stuff could outcompete the yeast and use up all the sugar that makes the alcohol.

As it turns out, sulfite is a product of fermentation. But wine doesn't have the market on it.

Foods such as pickles, dried fruits, Coca Cola, and even instant mashed potatoes contain more sulfites than wine. Interestingly, only wine has a warning label.

Despite the ramblings of social media, sulfites do not cause headaches. That's the alcohol and the amount you've drunk. Histamines found in greater quantities in some wines are another culprit.

Sulfites are not an evil chemical. Even organic wines contain them because they are permitted under their rules. The fact remains that there isn't a substitute to prevent bacteria from spoiling the wine.

Don't lament the existence of sulfites. Remember that they make it possible for you to enjoy the wine that much longer. Even the Romans were using sulfur to preserve their wine.

Takeaway Message: Sulfites play a vital role in winemaking.

Approaching Wine at a Less Daunting Level

With some of the barriers out of the way, it’s time to move onto how to make wine more approachable. After all, a wine tasting doesn’t have to be a frightening experience. It helps to begin with some misconceptions about it.

How People Taste

People get it when the discussion turns to what is fashionable and what is not. They understand that some foods are not everyone’s cup of tea.

Several things influence these outcomes. 

It could result from the exposure one had to different foods and beverages as a kid. If Mom and Dad liked broccoli, the chances are that it was on the dinner table regularly.

Sometimes, the first exposure to something new was unpleasant. Can everyone say they enjoyed their first sip of beer?

If someone grew up on Frosted Flakes, Grape Nuts aren’t going to taste that great. People learn to associate sweets with rewards that are hard to give up later in life.

The other dominant factor is a person’s genetics.

American psychologist Linda Bartoshuk coined a term for individuals who have a keener awareness of certain flavors like bitterness. She called them supertasters.

These are the people who were probably picky eaters as kids. They are the first ones to reach for sugar and cream to add to their coffee—assuming they drink it at all.

There are a plethora of genes that can cause a person to taste—or not taste—certain things. Some might be uber-aware of the tastes or alcohol in the wine.

The point is that people will all taste something different in the class.

That critic might be able to tell his readers that a wine doesn’t have the faults that would give it off-flavors. He can say that it’s balanced with the right amount of sweetness, acidity, and alcohol. 

What he can’t do is tell a person what they like.

Takeaway Message: All people live in their own sensory universe of pleasant and unpleasant smells and tastes.

The Absence of One Good Wine

This statement may come as a shock to some people. The fact remains that there isn’t one path to a good wine.

The genetic factor discussed above is proof of that statement. However, it’s essential to think of all the other things affecting a person’s perception of wine. It could include:

  • What they’ve eaten and lingering tastes
  • Their mood
  • The situation
  • Their companions

Any one of these conditions can influence an individual’s feelings about wine and make it appear more intimidating at times. The question then becomes how to right the train and take it to the wine store or wine list.

The Importance of the Guided Wine Tasting

One of the best ways to learn about wine and explore wine preferences is through a guided wine tasting, such as the one offered by Sail to Trail WineWorks in Worcester, MA.

Their staff starts at the beginning with a flight of different wines to help tasters discover their palate for wine.

The Sail to Trail Sommelier can answer questions in a relaxed setting where the focus is on fun wine.

Final Thoughts About Wine and Its Intimidation Factor

Wine shouldn’t be intimidating, especially when it has so much to offer. It’s hard to fault the industry, which loves and appreciates its products. However, the focus needs to return to the consumer. The essential thing the wine taster and buyer need to remember is that their palates rule. It isn’t about critic scores, flowery descriptions, or exorbitant prices. It’s all about enjoying the beverage.

There’s a good reason that people have made wine for thousands of years. When a person sips a favorite wine, they are tasting history. And it’s a story that has many things yet to share.

Photo by Mathilde Langevin on Unsplash

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