Monday, June 4, 2018

What is a "most admired" wine brand?

The short answer is: It depends on what year it is!

Each year, the April edition of Drinks International magazine contains a supplement with a survey called The World’s Most Admired Wine Brands. A group of people are asked to vote for the wine brands they "most admire" based on the criteria that each brand should:
  • be of consistent and / or improving quality
  • reflect its region or country
  • be well marketed and packaged
  • respond to the needs and tastes of the target audience
  • have broad appeal among wine consumers.
So, while "admiration" is admitted to be an intangible thing, there are clearly a few pointers here.

The people polled are drawn from "a broad spectrum of the global wine community", which apparently includes: masters of wine, sommeliers, commercial wine buyers, wine importers and retailers, wine journalists, wine consultants and analysts, wine educators, and other wine professionals. There were only 60 people involved back in 2012, but there are now more than 200.

The people could originally vote for up to six wine brands, but apparently they are now asked for only three choices. Furthermore, they are provided with a list of previous winners, including "a list of more than 80 well-known brands and producers, but as usual we also encourage the option of free choices". David Williams has presented his own take on what it means to take part in this poll.

The polls

I have compiled the poll results for the years 2011-2018 inclusive. Each of the published lists contains only the results for the top 50 ranked wine brands in that year — all we know about the other brands is that were ranked lower than 50th place in that year.

Across the 8 years, 98 brands have appeared at least once in the lists. However, only 15 of these brands appeared in all 8 lists, with a further 10 brands appearing in 7 of the 8 lists. There were 20 brands that appeared only once each. There is thus a great deal of variability in "admiration" from year to year.

The first graph shows the yearly data for 9 of the wine brands that appeared in all 8 lists, with the vertical axis showing their ranking from 1st on down to 50th. As you can see, even for these brands their results varied dramatically from year to year. Indeed, only the top three brands have shown any consistency at all — these are Torres (from Spain), Concha y Toro (from Chile), and Penfolds (from Australia). Indeed, Torres was ranked either 1st or 2nd every year, which must make it the most admired brand of all.

The "most admired" wine brands from 2011-2018

To this list of consistent brands we can also add E. Guigal (from France) and Ridge (from the USA), both of which missed the 2011 list but had relatively consistent ranks thereafter (mostly in the top 10).

The second graph focuses on the wine brands from Bordeaux, including those that did not make it onto all 8 lists — this is far and away the best-represented wine region in the lists, with 10% of the brands.

The "most admired" Bordeaux wine brands from 2011-2018

These are all top wine chateaus, of course, with the most expensive wines. The most successful of them seems to be Château Margaux, but even it varies in rank from 7 to 29 across the years. Château Latour and Château d'Yquem are the only ones to get into the top 5 in at least one year, but these two chateaus then missed the list entirely in other years. Clearly, Bordeaux does not engender unmitigated admiration in the wine world.

As far as countries are concerned, France hosts 20% of the admired wine brands:
You will note the very poor showing from Burgundy — there are not many large wine brands (only Louis Latour makes most of the lists), but instead a host of smaller brands marketing very expensive wine (Domaine de la Romanée-Conti makes it onto two lists).

The remaining countries include:
New Zealand
South Africa
Even though the Porto region hosts 4 of Portugal's admired wine brands (Dow's, Graham's, Sandeman, Taylor's), these have only ever made it onto two of the lists (2016 and 2017).

The brands

I have provided a summary of the data relating to the individual brands in the following network. It displays all of those brands that appeared in at least 50% of the lists (ie. 4 out of 8). This is a form of multivariate data summary, as described in my post Summarizing multi-dimensional wine data as graphs, Part 2: networks. [Technical details: this is a neighbor-net based on the gower distance.]

Each brand is represented by a dot in the network. Brands that are closely connected in the network are similar to each other based on their ranks across the 8 polls, and those that are further apart are progressively more different from each other. So, for example, the three top-ranked brands (Torres, Concha y Toro, Penfolds) are together at the top of the diagram, followed by the next pair (E. Guigal and Ridge). From there, the network progresses down to the less-admired wine brands at the bottom.

Note that Guigal and Ridge are at the head of a bunch of 13 wine brands, all of which are relatively highly admired. Then there is a group of 7 intermediate brands (the network area from Oyster Bay down to Pétrus), plus Marqués de Riscal on its own — the latter is isolated in the network only because it inexplicably missed the 2017 list.

You will also note the proximity in the network of Yellowtail to Château Mouton-Rothschild and Cheval Blanc! This should make you wonder about the criteria for "brand admiration".

The basic issue with these lists

There are potentially at least three things wrong with the "best of" type of list: (i) there is rarely any clear idea of what "best" is supposed to mean; (ii) the list is of arbitrary length (eg. Top-10 or Top-50 only); and (iii) the ranking does not reflect the differences in the original scores. In this instance, we have some idea of what "most admired" is supposed to mean; but the other two issues definitely apply here.

More importantly, there is an issue with interpretation that is rarely mentioned. To say, as many of the media have, that "In the 2018 poll the industry voted Torres the most-admired wine brand" is wrong, because there is no evidence that the people polled did any such thing. Indeed, we do not know how many people actually did put Torres (or any other brand) on their own personal list of three brands. All we know is that Torres is listed as the no. 1 brand because more people put it on their list than did so for any other brand — it may have been a lot of people or it may not.

To provide a concrete example of what I mean, I will refer to my previous discussion of a similar situation for the "Greatest Films Poll" produced every decade by Sight & Sound magazine, which lists the top films as voted by selected film critics. The critics are asked to each list 10 films; and in the most recent poll Alfred Hitchcock's film Vertigo topped the overall poll. However, the vast majority of the critics (77%) said that this film doesn't even belong in the top 10 (ie. it was not on their personal list), let alone first. However, it is listed as the no. 1 film, because more critics (23%) put it on their list than did so for any other film. Similarly, 91% of the critics said The Searchers should not be in the top 10, and yet it is ranked no. 7. So, the rank order of the films is simply that — a rank order; it does not tell you how many critics think highly of each film.

This is the same point that I am making for the wine brands, although in this case I do not have the detailed information to say exactly how many people listed each brand.

In a similar vein, anyone who knows anything about banking will known that "the most trusted bank" is nothing more than the "the least mistrusted bank". The distinction is not trivial for the consumer.

This knowledge does not stop the misuse of these sorts of lists, of course. For example, Voxy recently noted: "Villa Maria [was] named the world’s most admired New Zealand wine brand by Drinks International". This is, strictly speaking, true, but Villa Maria did go down from 4th rank overall last year to 8th this year!

In a future post I might looks at some of the other industry awards, such as The World Ranking of Wines and Spirits and The Drinks Business Awards.


  1. "A group of people are asked to vote for the wine brands they 'most admire' based on the criteria that each brand should:

    ~~ be of consistent and / or improving quality
    ~~ reflect its region or country
    ~~ be well marketed and packaged
    ~~ respond to the needs and tastes of the target audience
    ~~ have broad appeal among wine consumers."

    Nowhere is this salient question asked: brands that I, as a judge expressing my admiration, have first-hand experience tasting.

    I can admire a winery from afar, but if I have never tasted their wines then what are my bona fides for voting for it?

    By way of example, I can admire this "supercar" . . .

    "2019 McLaren Senna: A [Million Dollar] Pet Racecar for Billionaires"
    The Wall Street Journal - June 1-2, 2018

    . . . but if I have never driven a McLaren, who am I to champion it?

    Judges should have first-person "skin in the game" experience.

    (Aside: Speaking as a marketer, how does an outsider judge the criteria "be well marketed and packaged" and "respond to the needs and tastes of the target audience" without access to the winery's brand marketing plan and proprietary data? Short of that access, one is purely guessing at the winery's goals and objectives and performance.)

    1. There is no implication in the poll guidelines that the poll is about the wines themsevles. The poll is, instead, solely about the brands. So, you are quite correct, in that one could admire the brands of wine (or cars) from afar, and still validly vote in the poll. The poll is, therefore, about the marketing of wine, not about judging the product being marketed.

  2. Oen mentioned criterion: "have broad appeal among wine consumers."

    Do any of the hyperexpensive First Growth Bordeaux have broad sampling by the 200+ wine professionals surveyed by Drinks International magazine?

    Do any of the hyperexpensive First Growth Bordeaux have broad sampling by wine consumers to possibly garner "broad appeal"?

    1. As noted above, the poll is about the brands. The question is: "do the brands have appeal?", not: "do the wines have appeal?" Usage of databases like WineSearcher seem to indicate that the Bordeaux chateaus do have broad appeal as brands, even among people who have never tasted the actual wines.