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Wine Consumers Move Up the Price Ladder

Survey results presented at Unified Symposium, where attendance breaks record

by Kate Lavin
unified wine grape symposium consumer trends
Several hundred attendees at the Unified Wine & Grape Symposium listen to the latest research about consumer wine trends.
Sacramento, Calif.—Wine consumers are changing their purchasing habits according to Christian Miller, research director of Wine Opinions and proprietor of Full Glass Research, who based his assessment on a pair of surveys completed by the Wine Opinions Consumer Panel. Miller was one of four speakers during a session about consumer trends that affect vineyards and wineries Thursday morning in Sacramento, where the largest wine and grape event in North America continued at the Sacramento Convention Center.

As of Thursday afternoon, registration at the event sponsored by ASEV (the American Society for Enology and Viticulture) and CAWG (the California Association of Winegrape Growers) had reached 13,400, an increase of 1,000 registrants from 2012. Several hundred industry professionals attended the consumer trends panel, where Miller revealed that consumer habits are bouncing back from recession levels. More people are purchasing wines in the $10-$20 price range than are cutting back on such purchases.

Wine Opinions panel survey
In 2009, 5% of panelists surveyed reported buying $20 wines on a weekly basis; as of 2012 that figure had jumped to 9%, Miller said. The number of consumers who reported buying $20 bottles “less often or never” dropped from 40% in 2009 to 30% in 2012.

One interesting note from the Wine Opinions survey was that consumers whose financial situation was unaffected (and even those who saw financial improvement) during the recessionary period reported trading down on wine spending during that time. By 2012, financially secure consumers were less likely to buy wines in the $6 and under price category than they were three years before. “A lot of the psychological impact of the recession on wine buyers has been reversed,” Miller said.

More respondents in 2012 reported seeing California wines and brands they didn’t recognize than in 2009—a possible effect of luxury brands that launched labels at lower price points to keep afloat during the recession. And 45% of respondents said there are more wines suited to their preferred taste than in 2009.

The importance of value to consumers grew during the recession and remains high; nearly 60% of panelists claimed to believe that if you shop carefully you can find wines under $10 that are as high in quality as $10-$20 wines.

What’s in the bottle
While Miller discussed consumer habits related to buying wine, Rebecca Bleibaum, vice president of Taragon Corp., discussed sensory research about the preferences of consumers. There is a “difference between what they want on the shelf vs. in the glass—and what they want that wine to taste like,” she said, adding that taste is the factor that leads to repeat purchases.

Bleibaum said that capturing consumers’ perceptions of wine via sensory evaluation allows researchers to look for relationships between their responses and predict the characteristics that are widely appreciated by wine consumers.

“If you come up with a model to predict what consumers like,” she said, “then you can exploit that,” or use the information to make wine in a style that consumers will enjoy and buy more often.

A lot of criteria that companies look to when drawing conclusions about consumer preferences aren’t factors at all, said Bleibaum, who argued that characteristics like age and gender are extraneous compared to physiological traits. Some people are wired for bitterness, she offered by way of an example, while others are not.

‘A huge opportunity’
In one study of about 300 consumers, red blends stole the top spots above varietal wines and other retail darlings.

“The thing that jumps out to me is that the market leader is not the best liked,” she said of the results. “That is very typical” of consumer research findings. Regarding the resounding preference for red blends compared to their availability in the marketplace, Bleibaum stressed: “These segments exist whether you want to delve into the data or not. There is a group of wines that get very high scores (in consumer studies)…and there are no commercial wines that offer blends. That is a huge opportunity.”

In 2001 and 2013, consumers identified taste as the No. 1 factor when making wine purchases. Price is a little more important now than it was in 2001, Bleibaum said. Consumers ranked vintage and brand as less important than in 2001.

Bleibaum also related results from a consumer survey having to do with wine closures. Consumers said screwcaps and synthetic stoppers were about even with natural cork for at-home and everyday drinking, while natural cork is still preferred for special occasion wines and gift giving.

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