How Useful Is a Wine Expert's Opinion?
UC Davis study indicates consumers and experts differ significantly in wine preferences
A study involving wine sensory character, quality perception and preferences by wine experts, trained panelists and consumers indicates consumers have a wider range of wine sensory “likes” than expert tasters and competition judges. The results suggest that consumers are likely better off trusting their own preferences to choose wines they like, rather than relying on “expert” advice. University of California, Davis, professor and sensory scientist Dr. Hildegarde Heymann discussed the study at the Department of Viticulture & Enology’s annual research update meeting, Recent Advances in Viticulture & Enology (RAVE), held in March.
Heymann’s presentation, “Judging wine quality: Do we need experts, consumers or trained panelists?” was based on an evaluation of Cabernet Sauvignon wines from a recent California State Fair Wine Competition by different tasting panels. The wines were from nine different California regions representing regional award categories in the competition. Three wines were used from each region: the top scoring wine (usually a gold or double gold medal), the lowest scoring wine (no medal), and one median score wine (usually a silver or bronze medal).
Parameters for the study
The 27 wines were evaluated by a group of 15 trained panelists who came up with a list of sensory character terms for the wines through a descriptive analysis based on reference standards. The descriptor list included 17 aroma terms, two taste terms and two mouthfeel terms.
The consumer evaluation involved 174 red wine consumers who were asked to evaluate each wine based on: likability (dislike extremely to like extremely) and quality (low quality to high quality). The consumers were also given a 15-question exam to determine their level of wine knowledge. The consumers’ knowledge levels covered a wide range from low to high.
Heymann said, “There were consumers who liked all of these wines. Since these are all commercial wines, that’s good news for the companies trying to sell these wines.” But she noted there was significant disagreement in quality ratings among consumers. Every wine was rated high quality, and every wine was rated low quality by different consumers on the panel.
The expert panel included 28 wine experts who were asked to rate how they liked the wines on a nine-point scale from dislike extremely to like extremely. There was more agreement among the experts in terms of liking than among the consumers. The experts’ quality ratings also correlated similarly with the State Fair judges’ scores. Comparing descriptive analysis of the wines with quality ratings, the gold medal wines tended to be more balanced in the middle in terms of descriptive characters present.
Heymann said that while the descriptive panel tells about the wine product, consumers make choices in less controlled ways. When the same wines are given to experts and competition judges, the results are fairly similar between those two groups.
She added, “The descriptive panel terms help explain what experts are looking at for their preference and quality evaluation, but not what the consumers are looking at.” She noted that quality evaluations by the experts were able to identify attributes associated with high and low quality. However, the study indicates that consumer preference was all over the map and not consistent enough to provide descriptive correlations with wine quality.
Experts vs. consumers
In the post-talk Q&A, RAVE attendee and wine industry consultant Tom Selfridge asked, “Would you say this suggests that a consumer should not go to a wine expert if they want to find a wine they personally like?” Heymann answered, “Absolutely.”
Heymann commented on issues faced by consumers who do not have significant wine knowledge and don’t often buy wine. “I often hear people say, ‘I don’t buy wine because I don’t want to make a mistake,’” Heymann said. She observed that everyone makes decisions about how they dress every day, and the cost of clothing is usually more than the cost of a bottle of wine that someone may take to a dinner with friends. Consumers are comfortable making decisions about how they appear to the world every day, but with a bottle of wine they get tied up in fears about how their choice may be perceived. “That’s a problem created by the wine industry,” Heymann said.
Regional character and chemistry
Heymann also discussed preliminary results of a chemical analysis of wines from a regional perspective using microwave plasma atomic emission spectroscopy to do volatile and non-volatile analyses and elemental analyses. The elements evaluated in relation to regional wine differences were calcium, potassium, sodium, magnesium, aluminum, strontium, barium and rubidium. The initial results indicate there are elemental differences in the wines evaluated that are more region-related than wine- or variety-related. This suggests it may be possible to do regional identification of wines based on elemental analyses.
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