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How much info is too much info for consumers?

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A sparkling wine house recently sent me a bunch of their new non-vintage sparkling wines for review, but they didn’t include the varietal composition or case production numbers, so I emailed back their P.R. manager to inquire.

I like to have this information so I can share it with readers, if I think it’s appropriate. For example, a reader might like to know if a wine should be easy to find (with a case production of, say, 10,000), or whether it might be very hard. Readers might also enjoy understanding what’s in a blend, aside and apart from the actual score and review.

The P.R. person (who gave me permission to use her name and that of the winery, even though I subsequently decided not to) quickly sent me the information I asked for. But she also emailed: “We do not normally give varietal percentages for sparkling wines as these are non-vintage products which include a percentage of reserve wines for consistency and complexity. I find that people looking for this information don’t readily understand that concept; they think of these percentages as they would for still wine blends.”

This puzzled me. On the one hand, I agreed that most people probably don’t understand the concept of how a non-vintage wine can be as good as a vintage wine, since all their lives they’ve been told by “experts” that “vintage” is the highest thing a wine can aspire to.

And I also understand that most people probably don’t know that a good non-vintage sparkling wine will have a certain percentage of expensive older “reserve” wines blended in, for richness and complexity.

However, I didn’t get the connection between that, and why the P.R. person didn’t like to reveal varietal percentages. So I emailed her again to ask.

This time, she called back, and we had a good conversation. She said, “With sparkling wine, what I believe is that the percentages aren’t as important as how much aged wine goes into the blend, and how much lees, and that, as a non-vintage product, it’s blended for consistency.” (She means “consistency of taste,” not consistency of varietal composition.)

I agreed with that, too. But as I thought about it, I replied, “What you say is true. But I think people want more information these days, not less, in the name of transparency. Of course, with all that extra information, that gives them a greater responsibility to understand it appropriately and in context. Which in turn gives us educators more responsibility to explain these things to people.”

The P.R. person explained that she was telling her sales people the same thing she told me: she discourages them from revealing the varietal composition in their sparkling wines, because she doesn’t want them leaning on such crutch phrases as “This wine has 40% Pinot Noir and 40% Chardonnay.” I can see how a harried sales person might fall back on an easy sell like that. After all, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are prestigious names that practically sell themselves. And next year, if the wine contains only 35% Pinot Noir, the buyer might think it wasn’t as good.

Beyond that, few people have heard of Pinot Meunier, which goes into several of the winery’s bubblies. That might cause some buyers to wonder why a grape they never heard of, and which they might easily think is inferior, is going into a high-end sparkling wine. Of course, Pinot Meunier is widely used in the greatest French Champagnes, but most people don’t know that, and even if you tell them, they might not believe it. As they say in politics, as soon as you have to explain yourself, you’ve lost the argument.

I do completely understand the P.R. person’s point of view. Selling wine is very different from writing about it. When you’re a writer, you want as much information as you can get, in order to have the fullest palate (as in the artist’s palate) to paint your word-picture. It’s all about freedom of information, and the more, the merrier.

When you’re a sales person, you want to say the things that will persuade your customer to buy your wine. Sometimes, success depends on, not what you say, but what you don’t say.

Still, when all’s said and done, I’m on the side of complete  information (although I’m not sure if I favor listing all wine’s ingredients on the label). If we — critics and wineries alike — don’t collaborate on educating consumers, who will? We can’t bemoan their ignorance, and then do nothing to correct it. I’ve made the same observation when it comes to wineries not putting the name of smaller appellations on their labels. This happens from Santa Ynez Valley to Arroyo Grande to Atlas Peak. “Nobody’s ever heard of Santa Ynez Valley,” people will tell me. “But everyone’s heard of Santa Barbara County.”

I ask them back, “How do you expect them to hear about Santa Ynez Valley when you won’t tell them about it?”

“That’s not our job, it’s yours,” they frequently reply.

Well, yes, it is my job, as a wine writer and educator, to let people know where a wine really comes from. But it’s also the producer’s job, isn’t it?

All I’m saying is that we’re in a new age. People want to know the facts. I think they can be trusted with the facts. They don’t want information selectively spoon fed to them in tiny amounts because somebody thinks they can’t handle the truth. And besides, a smarter wine consumer is more likely to spend more money than an ill-informed one. I don’t have any studies that prove that, but I’ll bet you anything it’s true.

  1. Interesting post, Steve. I’ve spent most of the last 12 years thinking about what to tell consumers and what not to, how much information is too much, etc. Gathering anecdotal and scientific data across multiple fields, I keep coming back to the same conclusions:

    - If consumers wanted to be more educated, they’d be more educated. Truthfully, for most people, being educated beyond a soundbite is either too difficult or too specific for their needs. When they do want to be educated it’s almost always situational and temporary.

    - The percentage of people who want to know more than what fits on a label (in any business) is always going to be less than 2%. They might be the most vocal and powerful 2% but it’s only 2%. (Thank you, bell curve.)

    - The only exception to all of this that I’ve seen is anything related to Sports where suddenly the dynamics change and social currency is part of the mix. My husband likes to refer to professional and collegiate sports in this country as “the new religion.” New being relative the old ones, of course.

  2. I prefer to err on the side of providing too much information to writers and consumers. They’ll take from it what they will and if there are any questions about anything, I presume that they’ll have the good sense to email or call me for clarification. It’s been my experience that they usually do, but most of my clients tend to be small, artisanal producers and people who are interested in their wines in the first place are also interested in the minutiae. This might not hold true for higher production wineries, so the wariness and caution exhibited on the part of the sparkling wine publicist is understandable. Sort of…

  3. Carlos Toledo says:

    All I’m saying is that we’re in a new age. People want to know the facts [correction: I think people want to know facts. Not THE facts].

    And besides, a smarter wine consumer is more likely to spend more money than an ill-informed one.
    [OK Steve, but revenues-wise, who’s the dominating group here? The ill-informed, i assume/think/believe. We talk about the person who drinks rose wine at room temperature. The person who thinks barolo is a grape and so on.

  4. Dan, I “get” your “sort of.” Everything has a little of the yin and the yang in it.

  5. Jessyca, you’re undoubtedly right about the 2%. But why withhold information from wine writers and sales people? I think they should give it to us, and let us decide whether and how to use it.

  6. Steve, did you like it? That is all that really matters. Write about what you like about it, the smell, the taste, the packaging etc. It’s a non-vintage sparkler, if I have to start knowing every grape and percentage in a sparkler to think I like it, I won’t be buying any! These were meant to drink, not study and save for my 20-25 year anniversary. The other problem with knowing percentages is then I would be out buying only wines with that percentage and yet it wouldn’t taste the same, then I would be disappointed. Just my .02

  7. The question of how much information is too much depends on the audience, it seems to me. Writers whose audience pays to read what they/we perceive tend to be among the informed 2% and so is their audience. Maybe that audience is not significant buyers of some non-vintage bubblies, but there are plenty of $20 non-vintage CA sparkling wines and $50 non-vintage Champagnes that are drunk by the reading audience. If the buyers of those wines are reading Wine Enthusiast or Connoisseurs’ Guide, many of them are guaranteed to be interested in cepage informaiton. That is why folks like Steve and I publish that information.

    And, Jessyca, don’t forget that Steve and I are also an audience. We are an audience that uses information to help us understand and communicate. To be sure, our first responsibility is that which has been enunciated by David Cole, but having information can help get to that place.

    When wineries ask what I want, my answer is the following: TA, pH, RS, cepage, production level, ABV, vineyard source and anything else the winery would like to tell me about the wine, its production methodology or itself. When that information is for me uniquely, it is part of both my overall continual learning curve and also informs my understandings of what I have tasted. It rarely finds it way into print, except for cepage and a reference to availability, and it is only viewed after the wine has been tasted and evaluated. But information does not hurt the process of communicating with the audience, it helps.

    And, for that reason, I share Steve’s puzzlement at the reluctance that some producers have to supply said information.

  8. David, well, as a writer/educator, I have to think about more than “Do I like it?” That’s part of my job. But another part is to inform readers of as much info as I can, in a 40 or 50 word review. If the winery sends me a brut, but doesn’t tell me the varieties, all I can describe it as is “brut.” If they let me know it’s 50-50 pinot noir and chardonnay, I can say “This classic brut blend of pinot noir and chardonnay…” blah blah, and the reader ends up more educated.

  9. This is why I put “Calaveras County” instead of Sierra Foothills. I also don’t really understand holding back detailed info about a wine. Heck, I’ll tell you the color of my underwear on the day we bottled it if you think that will help your readers.

  10. Jefe, what color was your underwear when you bottled the 07 Spaniard? And boxers or briefs?

  11. Agreed. if you don’t provide information to your customer chances are they will find it elsewhere without your perspective. Also don’t be a snob, I think wine drinkers, even the “ill informed,” can handle the truth when presented in context.

  12. Agree with you, Margaret. Wine drinkers want more information. A lot of it can be presented online.

  13. Interesting, Steve. As it happens, I tasted a lineup of NV sparklers a couple of days ago that also failed to indicate the varietal blend. What bothers me the most is that not all domestic sparkling wines are chardonnay, pinot noir, or pinot meunier. Some are riesling, some are god knows what. I think it’s important to know what’s in the bottle! And there is no such thing as too much information for a journalist. Send it all; let us do the sorting and organizing. That’s what journalists do.

  14. Steve, Charlie, Paul and everyone:
    I can’t get enough information; enough facts. I hate prose in press kits. I like facts. As many as you can cram in. Oh, and the facts have to be correct. Like a birthday. It is only one date. But it -a specific date – may have an impact on something else I read or researched. Or, as is often the case, be correct while mostly incorrect in Google’s top 1,000 instant hits. If the facts are correct, the opinion is, in my opinion, more valuable.
    I really hate when something is in “the 1970s” as opposed to at least the year or even the date. I hate when a vineyard is “old vine” – compared to what? Old as you replanted your phylloxera vines early – and now have to replant with new rootstock? Old as in planted in sand and it and its children are still on original French rootstock? Old as in one old vine you keep around for the hell of it to say “old vine” since there is no rule for what that is?
    So, facts are always interesting. You know when you did it, planted it, built it, made it, sold it…why not tell me? And if you’re not keeping track, how in the world will the Steves of the future be able to refer to original documents or Steve’s, Charlie’s, Paul’s or my work as accurate after the winery or vineyard has passed through many hands or doesn’t exist and the wines themselves can’t tell the story?
    One of the Bordeaux companies has an oenologist as the PR person. She does many things right and one thing is that you know the facts (of which there are many) are correct (besides which, wineries in the EU have to write down and report all this stuff).
    We don’t all want to know the same thing – neither as journalists nor as the 2% – each pocket of knowledge has its own 2%.
    I also want to know as much as possible because, at some point, it will make sense. Wineries, distributors, retailers and a lot of drinkers may not want it to, but eventually it will.

  15. Kathy, I totally agree! Wineries could do a much better job of posting facts on their websites — and keeping them up to date. There’s nothing worse than a website that hasn’t been updated for months. It’s an embarrassment to the winery.

  16. Hi Paul. One of the sparkling wines in question had Muscat. Anyway, let’s all keep up the pressure on producers to give us more, not less, information.

  17. Answer: It depends on the Consumer!

  18. Steve – that was my tighty-whitey phase…

  19. How much info is too much for consumers? It depends on where you are publishing the info. I am definitely on Steve’s side that the info needs to be available somewhere. The producers need to be transparent so that the consumers can get the necessary info. However, I do believe there’s only so much info needed on the package. They should publish varietals and percentages on a website and the wine writers should have easy access to all this info.

  20. As one who works both the retail and wholesale sides of wine sales, I want all the information I can get. The more tools in the tool box, then the greater chance I have of selecting the proper tool(s) to make a sale. It’s up to me as a salesperson to NOT inundate the poor customer with TMI — and as I am naturally the kind of person who will tell you how to build a watch when you ask me, “What time is it?” then I have to carefully edit my presentation.

    As to the “vocal and powerful” 2% that Jessyca referred to above, those are usually the most important decision-makers and gatekeepers. They carry power disproportionate to the 2% sample size; again, it’s important to know what NOT to say, rather than cloud their decision-making process.

    You must know your audience, give them what they want, give them what they NEED (an important distinction) and let them make a decision. You can always answer follow-up questions if they need additional info.

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