Allen R. Balik: The Wine Exchange: Evolving Taste Preferences

Allen R. Balik: The Wine Exchange: Evolving Taste Preferences

While we’re often at a loss to explain and understand why our tastes change, it’s interesting to note that developing taste patterns in wine actually stem from different, yet interrelated, factors.

Beautiful young woman drinking red wine with friends in cafe, portrait with wine glass near window. Vocation holidays evening concept

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First, is the natural evolution of what we like and what we don’t like. Then, there are the prices we’re willing to pay and how we react to changing market trends. And, the fact is that far more tools exist today in the winery and vineyard helping create better wines from areas and varietals that were considered inferior or little known just a decade or so ago.

The Wine Business Institute at Sonoma State recently published a study on our changing tastes that showed 69 percent of respondents stated their wine preferences changed over time.

Acknowledged wine authority, columnist and critic Matt Kramer agreed that taste preferences do change, but he seriously questioned the structure of the study in his May 1, 2018 post on WineSpectator.com. ”The study itself is, statistically speaking, of marginal substance, never mind its academic provenance—it was based on a consumer survey of just 422 respondents. In addition, more than half the respondents were young: 28 percent were members of the so-called iGeneration (early twenties) and 30 percent were Millennials (roughly now between 22 and 37).” Not really an appropriate sampling to determine changing taste patterns over time.

Liz Thatch MW, in her April 20, 2018 WineBusiness.com post on “Do Wine Consumer Preferences Change Over Time? New Research Study Provides Some Answers” also cites the Sonoma State study but takes it several steps beyond by referencing the Thatch & Dutton “Wine Palate Life Cycle Wheel.” The “Wheel” portrays the palate journey of many wine consumers and includes the four phases of taste migration. “Phase one usually begins with semi-sweet whites and rosés. Phase two depicts a graduation to softer reds and dry whites and rosés. Phase three sees a move to bolder more tannic reds and unique whites. Finally, Phase four depicts a shift to more distinctive wine styles, such as earthy Barolos and Burgundies, petrol-laced dry Riesling, and/or nutty Sherry and Madeira.”

close up of toasting friends hands

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Although this seems a more pragmatic approach to changing tastes, Thatch goes on to qualify that “... the Wine Palate Life Cycle Wheel is just a model, with little scientific proof to justify its four phases.” 

I find the results of the Sonoma State study (however flawed the selection process was) and the underlying concept behind the “Wheel” in line with my personal experience. The steely/crisp Chardonnay I enjoyed through the late 1980s morphed (because of critical suggestion and market forces) into wines exhibiting heavy oak, higher alcohol and often the sweetness of residual sugar.

While the market gravitated to this flavor pattern, I felt compelled to search out other white wines in order to avoid one of my early go-to varietals. The same was true for Cabernets, Zinfandels, Pinots and other favorites where I became very selective in my choices so that I could focus on the styles I found appealing. It became apparent at the time that although my tastes weren’t necessarily changing the style of many of my favorites were. Happily, my new discoveries became the reward.

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Now it seems that the pendulum is swinging back toward more elegant, restrained and balanced wines as the market influence of other often lesser known varietals and growing areas begins to expand our choices and the stylistic direction of many producers.

While stylistic changes are always occurring in the market, many wine consumers are also inclined to move from one wine group to another as suggested by the “Wheel.” For example, younger California Cabernet lovers may, in time, begin to seek out the less powerful and finely structured wines of Bordeaux. As other taste preferences begin to emerge, the journey may continue by venturing past Cabernet based wines to the Rhone with Syrah and Grenache or Pinot Noir and Burgundy as well as many other categories.

This natural progression is readily apparent when studying both commercial and charity auction programs. As tastes change, many old favorites remain in the cellar while room and capital are needed to refresh collections with newly found treasures. So how better to accomplish the task but to donate these “old loves” or sell them outright on the secondary market. It’s all part of a likely evolution.

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As the co-founder and co-chair of the charity wine auction, “A Culinary Evening with the California Winemasters,” I can say firsthand that many collector friends and supporters use our event to donate precious wines, clearing space on their shelves for newer discoveries and styles. In fact, one very loyal donor recently told me, “I hate to say this, but I’m running out of wines I no longer enjoy drinking to donate to Winemasters.” A shared dilemma for sure!

I’ve long observed the evolution in consumer taste patterns, the historic developments in winemaking and viticulture and the emergence of little known varietals and growing areas as factors driving the market. But, I must admit until recently, I regarded them as separate entities merely co-existing rather than the integrated forces of change they are in today’s wine world.

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Allen Balik has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years. Each year, he and his wife, Barbara, produce the Evening Of The Culinary Winemasters event at Warner Bros. Studios, a benefit for Cystic Fibrosis.

He regularly appears on CRN Digital Talk Radio's What's Cookin' and What's Cookin' on Wine programs.

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