Sometimes, it seems, we need confirmation of the fact that water is wet, fire burns, bears don’t use public toilets and the Pope… well, you know the rest.
The British wine distributor Berkmann Wine Cellars has teamed up with the highly respected psychologist and gastrophysicist, Professor Charles Spence to research the difference in the way people perceive wine when drinking it at home and in a restaurant.
Spence has published fascinating papers on the impact of the colour of food, the plates on which it is served and the environment in which it is consumed that are of genuine use to anyone in the catering business. How many people imagined, for example, that popcorn tastes saltier when eaten from a coloured bowl?
His latest findings are less likely to come as a surprise.
- Over nine out of 10 survey participants reported that the flavour of food and wine was better when consumed with ‘people they loved’.
- Nearly seven in 10 enjoyed wine more in company than when alone.
- Nearly two thirds said drink tasted better when consumed outside their own home.
- Just over half got more pleasure out of wine when combining it with a meal enjoyed with their family, again under a different roof.
- Over a third liked a wine better when serving it to friends and family at a lunch or dinner.
- More than a quarter acknowledged that ‘they would alter the type of wine they drank depending on where they were drinking it’.
- A similar proportion believe the flavour of wine is improved wine tastes best 'when they feel relaxed, happy, or excited'.
Reading these, one could replace wine with ‘movie’ and many of the statistics would probably be pretty similar. How many people are as happy to go to a cinema by themselves as in company? How many really enjoy watching James Bond on their screen at home as much as in the local Multiplex? How many laugh as uproariously at a comedy after receiving an unexpectedly large tax bill?
Some things don't change. Water hasn't got wetter. Humans are social creatures, and the ancient Romans and Greeks went to taverns to drink in company.
Even so, however apparently obvious the conclusions of Spence's research, it is actually useful in an industry that far too often focuses on the intrinsic quality of a wine rather than its effect on the sentient, emotionally-driven human beings who have bought or been given it.
The downside of blind tasting
I’m part of this problem. I’m on the board of Meininger's MundusVini competition and I’ve chaired and tasted at a ludicrous number of blind tastings across the world. As I write this, I am preparing for a large benchmarking tasting of our le Grand Noir wines against ones we see as their competitors. I believe absolutely in the value of assessing wine as objectively as possible.
But I also know that whatever objective the score a wine gets in these circumstances, it becomes a single data point to be set alongside the packaging, price, ‘story’, setting, company, timing, glass, food and mood. A supermarket-bought, frozen apple pie that has done poorly in a blind tasting will taste a lot better when served on good crockery by your mother who pretends to have prepared it herself and spins a pretty yarn about the trouble she took to find the right apples and her special trick when making the pastry.
Plenty of research has revealed the – positive – effect on participants of being told that a wine carries a high price tag. Other studies have shown how wines with hard-to-pronounce names struggle for sales.
At a time when wine is increasingly under threat from other beverages, the research we really need is into how to persuade people to buy it rather than an alternative. I'm sure that Berkmann Wine Cellars are hoping that media coverage of the results of this study is somehow going to encourage British pubs to put more effort into selling wine, but I'm not convinced that saying that people enjoy wine in company and outside their home is really going to be more effective than the next well-funded marketing campaign by a spirits, beer or hard seltzer brand.
Just as crucially, now that heavier bottles – a proven sales-aid – are increasingly unacceptable, we also need serious research into how wine brands are going to combine appealing packaging for more premium wines with environmental responsibility. Beyond simply saying ‘there has to be a story’, we also need to understand which kinds of stories work best – and on which customers. Which words are going to be most helpful in getting a person to trade up and pay a little more?
Just as importantly, we need to keep track of how the answers to these and other questions change. Unlike the ones reported by Professor Spence which – if he’d been around to ask them – would almost certainly have been the same two thousand years ago. Hopefully, he, and other top academics are already busily at work running these kinds of more valuable studies, leaving others to consider the wetness of water.