The New Wine Fundamentals
– Tim Hanni, MW

Wine Fundamentals - Tim Hanni - Master of Wine

“We all have different palates” is a commonly repeated cliche but there is little understanding about what it really implies. With somewhere in the neighborhood of 80,000 different wines, the challenge is how to satisfy the needs of every guest with the right mix of products and pricing, without burdening your P&L or storeroom with unnecessary inventories.

gold gamma award winner 2012Wine consumer phenotype segments are created by grouping people using a combination of physiological taste sensitivity elements and the inevitable changes in wine preferences that occur from interactions with other wine drinkers, social influences, aesthetics, habituation, and fashion. This approach helps us understand the key elements driving consumer choice. It also helps narrow down and target populations of wine consumers with the right products, language, and messages on your wine list and from your staff.

My colleagues and I have segmented wine consumers into four basic phenotype groups: Sweet, Hypersensitive, Sensitive, and Tolerant.

Snapshots of consumer phenotype segments: Following is a brief description of the four primary phenotype groups, along with typical wine preferences.

Sweet: This is a very large and undervalued consumer segment of people who are physiologically among the most sensitive. They tend to dislike more foods and to be conservative about their wine choices — they stick to what they know. Sweet wine fashions may come and go, but sweet wine consumers are here to stay.

The direction to take for Sweet consumers is toward wine with 3% to 6% residual sugar, impeccably made, and toward promoting these wines with the foods that they eat on a regular basis. Skyrocketing Moscato sales are proof-positive of the opportunities for this segment; don’t let false perceptions of who they are and what they want get in the way of your sales or their preferences.

Hypersensitive phenotypes comprise the largest segment in our studies: 36% of men and 38% of women. Like the Sweet phenotypes, Hypersensitives live in a vivid and intense sensory world of taste, smell, light, touch, and sound. Hypersensitives love the flavors they experience from Pinot Grigio and really appreciate the trends that provide slight sweetness in traditionally dry wines like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and some red wines. They are also favorably inclined to love Riesling and light, fragrant red wines that are low in alcohol and devoid of the reductive or other aromas that constitute complex wines for less sensitive tasters. This group could be very receptive to rosé wines and light red wines. They must be impeccably crafted, lighter in intensity and alcohol levels, and very low in bitterness or tannin.

Sensitive consumers comprise about one-quarter of our survey respondents. They are by far the most compliant segment because of their predisposition to enjoy a wide range of flavors. They will be satisfied with more delicate wines yet are also able to tolerate, if not fully enjoy, the full-blown, high intensity wines of the Tolerant world.

It is very likely that early in their learning about fine wines, they may be lured to the simplicity of the 100-point rating system and the “more is better” way of comparing wine value, only to tire of high intensity, tannins, and alcohol over time. As they grow more confident they will seek wines that they consider better balanced (relative to their standards of balance) and less overblown and over-the-top.

The Tolerant segment is two-to-one male: 32% of men and 16% of women in our study. Clearly the red wine set, Tolerant consumers love intensity in wine and are often able to appreciate Cognac, Scotch, strong black coffee, cigars, and big red wines. They measure experiences by the standard of “the bigger the better,” and the 100-point system of rating wines makes better sense to Tolerants than to other segments. Tolerants find that high levels of alcohol taste sweet and they seem to be oblivious to high levels of bitterness and tannin. Tolerants are the inspirational segment for the current practices in wine merchandising, which promote wines by the 100-point rating system that appeals to these consumers.

Take-Home Messages

No one wine suits all people all the time, but we can improve how we segment the market, target wines to reach specific segments, and in many cases, remove stigmas or arcane wine and food messages that drive consumers to other beverage choices. This means returning sweet wine to a place it has occupied for centuries: the table. It also means allowing people who love big red wines to feel completely at ease enjoying a glass of the wine they love the most with their sushi or shrimp cocktail — a combination they may savor with relish.

Appreciating and understanding these differences will help fine-tune your wine list and interactions with your guests, and help achieve the goals of selling more wine with greater guest satisfaction.

In the next issue of in the Mix, I will delve into more details on the flavor categories and specific wines that intuitively appeal to each of the phenotype segments. More information on consumer insights and the New Wine Fundamentals program can be found at: