Monday, October 29, 2018

Should there be a "floor price" on retail alcohol sales?

In amongst all of the discussions of whether there are health benefits of moderate wine consumption, it has been universally accepted that there is such a thing as excessive alcohol consumption, and that this is unhealthy. There is no universal definition of "excess" in this case, but clearly it involves such things as addiction to alcohol, and consuming alcohol under circumstances that are likely to lead to serious problems, such as when you are pregnant.

Most societies have long been concerned about this, not least because alcohol is often related to both domestic crimes as well as seriously anti-social public behavior. However, what to do about it is another matter entirely. How does a society as a whole restrict unhealthy alcohol consumption while still maintaining at least a semblance of societal freedom?

Here, I look at the possibilities that have been tried, before outlining the recent one of having a minimum (floor) price for alcohol beverages.

The past

Health warnings have long been mandatory for tobacco products, and they are becoming more common for alcohol, as well. For example, warning labels advising pregnant women about the dangers of drinking alcohol are soon to become mandatory in New Zealand and Australia (Alcohol to have mandatory warning labels after move backed by transtasman health ministers). Ireland is set to introduce even more serious warnings (Cancer warnings on labels: the latest battle in alcohol regulation), and California has recently introduced the similar "Proposition 65". However, there has also been strong resistance to this idea elsewhere within the wine industry (New health warnings on wine bottles could 'damage the soul' of France, winemakers say). Mind you, the medical professional has a justifiably jaundiced view of the alcohol industry (Is the alcohol industry doing well by ‘doing good’?).

The setting of a minimum age for drinking and/or purchasing alcohol is common in most countries, but this is usually hidden amongst a whole series of other restrictions on the young, including driving, voting and having sex. There is, of course, no universally accepted legal minimum age for any of these activities.

Another obvious approach has been to restrict activities when people are affected by alcohol. To this end, for example, most places in the world have a maximum permitted blood alcohol level for driving a motorized conveyance. This level varies widely from country to country (see Wikipedia).

Some decades ago, the USA and Canada tried one possible extreme action, which was attempting to ban retail alcohol sales completely, which they called Prohibition. This turned out badly. In fact, the major effect was to proliferate and entrench Organized Crime syndicates, the effects of which are still being felt even today. The publication of photos of Hollywood celebrities openly drinking in speakeasies was simply one of the most obvious indications that the public at large was not all that impressed by Prohibition. Only a few other countries have gone down this same route (see Wikipedia).

Some of the Nordic countries tried almost the opposite tack, including Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden. This was to have the government take control of alcohol distribution. This did not mean that the government tried to restrict alcohol availability or consumption in any general way, although this is often claimed in the foreign media even to this day. Instead, rigorous requirements could be implemented to restrict alcohol availability to minors and to inebriated people. Furthermore, education programs could be initiated to dissuade people from drinking spirits until they became blind drunk, which had been the traditional approach to alcohol. Instead, the idea was to persuade people to switch to beer and wine.

The 17 liquor control states of the USA

Quite a few locales have tried this tactic elsewhere in the world (listed in Wikipedia), including some states of the USA as well as Canadian provinces. According to the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association, 17 US states (shown in the map above) control the sale of distilled spirits and, in some cases, wine and beer through government agencies at the wholesale level; 13 of those jurisdictions also exercise control over retail sales for off-premises consumption. Perhaps not the least incentive of this approach for governments has been the potential tax windfall.

The present

Recently, Australia has tried yet another approach to the issue, which is to introduce a so-called floor price for alcohol, which sets a minimum allowable sales price for alcoholic beverages. The idea is to eliminate the availability of really cheap alcohol, so that getting drunk becomes an expensive activity, thus providing a deterrent.

Discussion of the topic in Australia dates back to June 2012, when the Australian National Preventive Health Agency (ANPHA) published a formal Issues Paper - Exploring the Public Interest Case for a Minimum (Floor) Price for Alcohol (A government inquiry has been told wine is cheaper than bottled water). It pointed out research showing that price and availability are two of the main drivers of problem drinking, such as binge drinking and under-age drinking, and investigated a model for a floor price on alcohol. Public comments were called on the Issues Paper, prior to recommendations being delivered to the federal government the next year.

Among the responses, public health experts called for a crackdown on websites that promote ”ridiculously cheap” alcohol (Cheap wines provoke health fury), and The Winemakers’ Federation of Australia (WFA) claimed that “There is no clear consensus in the relevant research that a minimum price would reduce harm” from alcohol abuse (Aussie winemakers dispute data behind minimum alcohol pricing). An alternative proposal, from the Distilled Spirits Industry Council, called for all alcoholic beverages to be taxed according to alcohol content, instead (Cheap wine could get more expensive, spirits cheaper, under proposal for alcohol tax overhaul).

Interestingly, it was the latter proposal that the ANPHA ultimately recommended, apparently finding little support for the idea of a minimum price on alcohol (Australian National Preventive Health Agency calls for volumetric tax on cask wine). So, there was a reform of the so-called “wine equalization tax” and the implementation of volumetric taxation, in order to reduce the availability of cheap wine, in particular. Both winemakers and distillers were happy not to have a floor price on packaged liquor, but the distillers were happier than the winemakers with the concept of volumetric taxation. (Note: Scotland recently introduced a minimum price based on alcohol content.)

However, one of places with the strongest call for a floor price has been the Northern Territory (NT), a federally managed Australian territory occupying the north-central part of the country — it is the bit containing Kakadu National Park, and the Uluru - Kata Tjuta National Park (aka Ayers Rock), which are the only Australian things most foreigners recognize aside from the Sydney Opera House. Drinking for the sake of getting drunk has long been recognized as a major social problem in the NT (Wine cask haul fuels call for grog law changes).

So, earlier this year, it happened, anyway. In August, the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education recommended that the NT Government introduce a minimum price level of AU$1.50 per standard drink, to reduce consumption levels and related harm. That recommendation was adopted as NT law as from the beginning of October, although AU$1.30 was the price chosen (Northern Territory brings in $1.30 per standard drink floor price on alcohol). This effectively bans the cheap AU$4-5 (= US$3) bottles of wine favored by alcoholics (and possibly other people), because the minimum price of a bottle of wine in the NT is now AU$9.

The WFA has noted that this action may breach the Australian Constitution (Alcohol floor price may breach Australian Constitution), but it will support the NT Government because of its “special problems” around alcohol: “We are supporting the NT government in developing good methodology to assess its effectiveness. We would hate to see other states bringing in a measure that is not only illegal but doesn’t work.”

That last comment is a reaction to the fact that the Western Australian state government announced back in 2017 that it has been considering the same option (WA Government mulls minimum price on takeaway alcohol), and it has renewed this intention since the NT action (State government continue to mull over minimum alcohol price). A recent community survey indicates that they may have the voters' support in doing this (Majority of WA adults support introduction of minimum price on alcohol).


Alcohol continues to be a legislative problem throughout the world. No one solution has apparently yet been proposed to the issue of balance between social activities and social problems. You'd think that health-damaging activities would obviously be avoided by human beings, that this is clearly not so. What should societies, who as a whole bear the brunt of the problems, do?

Monday, October 22, 2018

Repeatability of wine-quality scores

I have written a couple of times about the ability of experienced wines tasters to reproduce their quality scores when tasting the same wine two or more times:

In the first of these posts I presented six datasets in which someone tasted the same wine / vintage combination on two separate occasions. The first table here shows the percentage of the variation among the quality scores that was reproducible. As you can see, no more than 50% of the variation in the scores was reproducible — the rest was what we politely refer to as "random variation".

Jeremy Oliver

James Halliday
Wine Spectator
James Laube
Jancis Robinson  
Penfolds Grange Bin 95
Penfolds Grange Bin 95
Cullen Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot
Château Lafite-Rothschild
1986 vintage California Cabernets
Henschke Hill of Grace Shiraz

This does not seem like a particularly good situation. Indeed, it leads me to ask whether other people have found this same result when they have looked at the issue of reproducibility.

It turns out that Robert Ashton asked the same question back in 2012 (see the literature references at the end of the post). He found six published studies that had collected data to investigate reproducibility, five of which I have summarized in the second table.

Brien et al. (1987)

Lawless et al. (1997)

Gawel et al. (2002)
Gawel & Godden (2008)

Hodgson (2008)
Study 2
Study 3
Study 4
Study 5
Panel CB
Panel G
Panel PB
Panel C

Panel Q
Panel x
6 / 8
6 / 8
6 / 8
6 / 8

Each of the studies involved several tasters, often grouped into subsets for the study, as indicated in the table. Indeed, one of them was a large-scale study carried out over several years, with several hundred people. So, in the table I have listed the percentage reproducibility for the most successful person in the group ("highest") and the least successful ("lowest"), along with the average reproducibility across all of the participants.

As you can see, these results are perfectly in accord with my own — less than 50% of the variation in wine-quality scores is reproducible, even for experienced  tasters. This is true irrespective of whether the wines are tasted on the same day, the same week, or the same year.

This compares very poorly with most other fields in which people make quality judgments. In his paper, Ashton lists 41 studies across six other fields with which he has been familiar (meteorology, business, auditing, personnel management, medicine, and clinical psychology), and cites average reproducibility rates of 49-83% (compared to the 8-55% shown above for wine).

Wine tasting is obviously not an exact activity, at least compared to other fields of human endeavor.


Robert H. Ashton (2012) Reliability and consensus of experienced wine judges: expertise within and between? Journal of Wine Economics 7:70-87.

Chris J. Brien, P. May, Oliver Mayo (1987) Analysis of judge performance in wine-quality evaluations. Journal of Food Science 52:1273-1279.

Richard Gawel, Peter W. Godden (2008) Evaluation of the consistency of wine quality assessments from expert wine tasters. Australian Journal of Grape and Wine Research 14:1-8.

Richard Gawel, Tony Royal, Peter Leske (2002) The effect of different oak types on the sensory properties of chardonnay. Australian and New Zealand Wine Industry Journal 17:14-20.

Robert T. Hodgson (2008) An examination of judge reliability at a major U.S. wine competition. Journal of Wine Economics 3:105-113.

Robert T. Hodgson (2009) How expert are "expert" wine judges? Journal of Wine Economics 4:233-241.

Harry Lawless, Yen-Fei Liu, Craig Goldwyn (1997) Evaluation of wine quality using a small-panel hedonic scaling method. Journal of Sensory Studies 12:317-332.

Monday, October 15, 2018

How aware are wine drinkers of wine regions?

A couple of decades ago, I used to order book from Barnes & Noble, in the USA, and have them sent to me, in Australia. I stopped doing this when twice in succession the books went to Austria, instead.1 B&N were charging me airmail rates but providing me with surface-rate service — Powell's bookstore, also in the USA, used to send me books by seamail, and they got to Australia faster, by not going via Europe.

The point here is that geography is not most people's strong suit, and they rarely consult a map — everyone "knows" that Australia is a small island somewhere off the coast of South America; and that Sweden (my current location) is somewhere in the Alps. It is only the locals who know where they really are.

So, how can we expect the average wine drinker to know where their wines come from? It turns out that we can't. Even awareness of the names of wine regions is very poor amongst the average wine drinker.

Wine Intelligence, a London-based organization that provides information support for the wine industry, conducts many surveys each year,2 and some of those surveys involve questions about wine regions. One of the 2018 surveys included a list of named wine regions, worldwide, and 4,000 "regular wine drinkers" in the USA were asked to specify which ones they could actually recall as being wine regions. The results are shown in the first table. [Note: the arrows refer to changes from previous surveys.]

You will note that there are 5 US wine-producing regions in the list, which all make it into the top 12 in terms of awareness. It is not surprising that Napa Valley heads the list, but you might like to ask yourself why 27% of the respondents have not heard of it, at least with regard to wine. Moreover, you could ask yourself why some of the foreign wine regions are better-known than the local ones. In particular, the winemakers of Oregon seem to have a lot of ground to make up.

Wine Intelligence survey of US wine drinkers

The French actually do better than the Americans, in the list, having 3 out of the top 5 regions, all with >50% awareness. The Italians do reasonably well, although you may be surprised that more people are aware of Sicily as a wine-producing region than they are aware of Chinati, Prosecco or Piedmont. We are repeatedly told by wine writers that Tuscany and Piedmont are the best-known Italian wine regions, but this survey says that they may have to revise their opinions.

No region outside of these three countries makes it into the top 20, or gets more than 20% awareness among the US wine drinkers.

Almost this same survey was also given to 2,000 well-to-do Chinese people who self-reported as being drinkers of imported wines. Their results are shown in the next table. Note that the general awareness of the names of wine regions is less than it is for the US drinkers (possibly due to the language barrier).

Wine Intelligence survey of Chinese wine drinkers

Bordeaux is the only region that achieved >50% awareness, even though French wine massively dominates the Chinese wine-import market. Moreover, Bordeaux handsomely beats the only Chinese region in the list. Other countries do better in this survey than in the American version — for example, the Australian regions have greater awareness, which is not unexpected given that Australian wine is second only to the French in China.

For me, the most interesting result is, once again, the position of Sicily in the list, which has considerably greater awareness than all of the other Italian wine-making regions. It is only a dozen years or so since Sicily returned to the "wine map" of Italy, as drinkers and critics alike started to realize the vinous potential of the island, but it has clearly come a long way in that time.

Australian wine regions

Wine Australia, the nationally funded statutory service body for the Australian grape and wine community, has been interested in the awareness of Australian wine regions, outside of Australia. To this end, they commissioned Wine Intelligence to conduct a bespoke survey in July 2018, in both the USA (1,000 people) and China (2,000 people). The survey had two parts: (i) a list of 15 Australian wine-growing regions, used as a prompt for awareness; and (ii) a request to list Australian wine regions without any prompting.

Wine Intelligence survey of US and Chinese drinkers

The results are discussed in this report: What’s in a name? A look into awareness of Australia’s wine producing regions. I have summarized the data for the prompted list for both countries in the above graph, which shows the percentage awareness. [Note: the tables shown above are reproduced directly from this same report.]

Note that the recall of the names of Australian wine regions is much greater among the Chinese than among the Americans — indeed, the greatest US recall is equal to the lowest Chinese recall. Furthermore, the four regions labeled in the graph indicate that the Americans and Chinese recall very different wine-making regions from Australia.

The final table (below) shows the responses from the US drinkers when asked to name some Australian wine-producing regions without any prompting. The table lists the top 15 responses, listed from top to bottom in terms of frequency; and they are grouped into columns based on what the names actually represent.

Wine Intelligence survey of US drinkers

The most popular response (from only 6% of the respondents) was the name "Yellow Tail", which of course is the name of the most popular imported wine brand in the USA (see this blog post). The wine-producing region for this brand is actually called South-Eastern Australia, since the grapes come from several irrigated grape-growing areas.

So, only 4 of the 15 responses listed in the table are actually the names of wine-making regions in Australia; and 3 of the others are not even geographical terms, but merely words from wine labels.

This reminds me of another recent report I read, which showed that UK drinkers do no better — when asked about the most famous Australian wine region, the answer by the majority was apparently "Jacob's Creek", which has been the most popular Australian wine brand in the UK.

I will have to redress this general lack of awareness of Australian wine geography in a future blog post!

1. The name "Austria" comes from the Medieval Latin word "Austriaca", which is the Latinised form of the Old High German name for the country "Ostarreich", which translates as 'eastern kingdom'. The name "Australia" comes from the Latin word "Australis", translating as 'southern', as used in e.g. the expression "Terra Australis", the southern land.

2. The survey methodology is described as:
"Invitations to participate in an online survey programmed by Wine Intelligence are distributed to residents in each market. Respondents are directed to a URL address, which provides access to the online survey. Based on given criteria (e.g. age, beverage, frequency of wine consumption) respondents will either proceed or be screened out of the survey. [We] monitor completed responses to build samples representative of the target markets’ wine drinking population based on the most recent calibration study. When a representative sample is logged, the survey is closed. Wine Intelligence will then clean out all invalid data points (e.g. those who sped through the survey or gave inconsistent answers to selected questions) and weight the data in order to ensure representability."

Monday, October 8, 2018

The number of wineries per US state

A few weeks ago I wrote about The number of wineries in the USA, looking at the changing number through time. However, I did not look specifically at the current numbers of wineries in each of the states, which is what I will do here.

The data shown here come from the U.S. Tax and Trade Bureau (Bonded wine producers count by state: 1999–2018), and are current as at 30 June 2018. Note that: "Bonded winery premises include every licensed production facility of single firms or individuals, licensed warehouses, experimental wineries and wineries with no casegoods production or fermentation capacity." It is also important to note that the number of winery premises per state is not necessarily related to either wine production or vineyard area.

The number of wineries in each of the US states

Note that the vertical axis in the graph, which counts the number of wineries, uses a logarithmic scale, while the states are simply listed horizontally in decreasing order of winery numbers. As expected, California is way out in front (with 4,481), followed by Washington (1,089) and then Oregon (713). Interestingly, Texas (602 wineries) is then just ahead of New York (593), indicating that not all "winery premises" are necessarily associated with either vineyards or large wine production.

One thing that I have emphasized in this blog is that so many potentially complex patterns can often be modeled with incredibly simple mathematics. In particular, patterns are often very well fitted by what are known as Power or Exponential models, which are among the simplest available. This is what makes mathematicians fascinated by the world, and leads to their long-held belief that the creator of the universe was obviously a mathematician. (Biologists, such as myself, think instead that the creator had "an inordinate fondness for beetles".)

It is, however, important to remember that we are interested in both the way in which the data fits the model and the (possibly many) ways in which it does not fit. Both aspects tell us something, although often very different things — the proverbial glass is both half full and half empty, and we would do well to be interested in both halves.

In this case, the next graph shows you that the winery count data fit an exponential model (drawn as the line) very well (97% fit), with two exceptions. Both California and Washington do not fit the model (highlighted in pink), although most of the other states do fit very well.

An exponential model fitted to the number of wineries in each of the US states

In this case, the excellent fit to the model is intriguing. There are obviously many factors that could possibly influence the number of wineries that exist in any given state of the USA, and yet these all seem to "cancel each other out", leaving us with a very simple pattern. The commonness of such patterns tells us that we should not be surprised by this — it is simply the way the world works, so that complexity leads to simplicity.

On the other hand, California and Washington stand out clearly — they both have many more winery premises than the model indicates can be expected for the top two states. This is presumably a by-product of history. For example, not only has California been the leading wine producer since the Spanish missionaries first started making wine there, but it weathered Prohibition better than any other state, and was thus in a position to take advantage of the post-World War II boom in wine appreciation. "Go west, young man" has a special meaning for viticulturists, as well as movie makers!

Monday, October 1, 2018

Grape clones and varieties are not always what they seem

The twin ideas of "varieties" and "clones" are basic to grape-growing, whether they are used for wine-making, table grapes, raisins, juice, jelly, canning, or rootstocks. However, these concepts don't quite match the usage of these words in general biology. In practice in grape-growing, a variety is a variety when it is officially declared to be such, and the same for a clone, not when they match the biological definitions.

Illustration By Keith Ward

Jamie Goode (What is a grape variety? What is a clone?) notes that, in biology, a new variety is produced by sexual reproduction, where there is cross pollination between a mother and a father flower from different varieties, resulting in a seed, which is then grown as a new plant. That new plant could then be a new variety. Clones, on the other hand, come from vegetative propagation — a genetic mutation occurs in a plant's growing tip, which then forms a new shoot, and then a cutting of that shoot is taken and propagated, to form a new plant. That new plant could be a new clone.

Obviously, new varieties and new clones are normally recognized in the grape-growing industry only if they have desirable characteristics that are not present among the current collection of varieties and clones. If not, then the new plant will be discarded. So, not all mother x father crosses will produce new varieties, nor will all cloned plant material be recognized as a new clone.

The point here is that varieties will have considerably different genetic makeup from their parents, since they have genomes that are a mixture of those from both parents. Clones will, instead, be almost identical to their parents, likely differing only in a single mutation in their genome. This is what creates the difference between the word "variety" as used in grape-growing and its more general usage in biology — grape varieties are sometimes almost identical!

The Pinot group of "varieties"

You see, by these formal definitions of variety and clone, grapes like Pinot noir, Pinot gris and Pinot blanc would not be separate varieties, but would instead be separate clones — they were originally produced by the process of vegetative propagation, and are genetically almost identical. Pinot noir is a very ancient variety within which many mutations have occurred naturally over the centuries, some of which we have recognized as worthwhile, by viticulturists taking cuttings and producing new plants — hence, the "family" of Pinots.

The table shown later in this post shows you what I mean. However, most people don't know how modern viticulture uses genetics to recognize different grape clones and varieties, so I will first explain the genetics here.

Each individual organism has its own unique genome, even identical twins (after their first cell division). However, there is an awful lot of each genome that is identical across groups of organisms, whether those groups are entire kingdoms, such as animals or plants, or much smaller groups, such as grape varieties. This allows us to use the genome to identify which group each individual belongs to. All we need to do is find some bits the genome that vary between the groups but not within those groups.

Microsatellites are bits of the genome that are useful for identifying closely related organisms, such as varieties. Each microsatellite is a location in the genome that is known to be very variable, because part of the genome sequence at each location is repeated many times. This is illustrated above, which shows three genomes (horizontally) — the first genome has 5 repeats (represented by the blue arrows), while the second one has 7, and the third one has 3 repeats.

Just as importantly, each microsatellite needs to have an immediately adjacent region of the genome (marked in red in the figure) that does not vary within or between groups. We use these flanking regions to find the microsatellite within the genome, and to count the number of repeats between the paired flanks.

Note that there are two copies of the genome for each individual in the figure, just as we ourselves have — one from our mother and one from our father. The blue arrows point in opposite directions for the two copies, because the copies actually function in opposite directions.

There are oodles of microsatellites in the genomes of all complex organisms, but for grapes we have chosen just nine of them, which we have given the fancy code names listed at the head of each column in the table below. To identify any given grapevine genetically, we simply count the number of repeats it has at each of the microsatellite locations, and we then compare this to what we already know about different grape varieties. When we find a match — bingo, we have identified its variety, which is why this procedure is sometimes called DNA-fingerprinting.

Microsatellite counts for different Pinot grape varieties

For the Pinot example in the table, I provide the relevant genetic information for six different grape varieties (taken from Liste des clones agréés en France). The columns of the table refer to the nine microsatellites, and the data within the columns tell you how many repeats there are for each microsatellite (typically several hundred repeats).

The rows refer to the six grape varieties. Different varieties usually have uniquely different numbers of repeats for these nine microsatellites. There are two "alleles" for each variety, because the grapes have two copies of their genome — the allele pairs do not have to have the same number of microsatellite repeats.

Looking through the table above, you can see that Pinot noir, Pinot gris and Pinot blanc have 18 identical numbers, meaning that they are genetically identical for both alleles at all nine locations in their genomes. This is what you can expect to see most of the time when comparing clones — clones are expected to be identical. As also shown in the table, Pinot meunier, another Pinot clone, differs in only 2/18 numbers.

For comparison, Gamay noir differs from Pinot noir at 10/18 microsatellites, while Chardonnay differs at 7/18, indicating that in both cases they were originally produced by cross-pollination, not cloning — they vary too much to be clones. This information also suggests that Chardonnay is more closely related to the Pinots than is Gamay (the microsatellites are not involved in determining skin color, and so the color mutations are not involved in the identification process). Both Chardonnay and Gamay are currently estimated to be the result of crosses of Pinot noir with the Gouais blanc variety, which is no longer even listed for viticulture in France. The Gamay cross is likely to have occurred much earlier in history (and there are lots of other varieties that are also the offspring of Pinot x Gouais crosses).


Grape varieties are whatever the grape industry decides to recognize. Mostly, they match the definition generally used in biology — new varieties result from sexual reproduction, while new clones come from vegetative propagation. However, modern genetics has allowed us to recognize that this is not always so — some clones are too important to the industry not to have their own varietal name.

Finally, it is perhaps worth noting that not all new varieties are universally revered. Sometimes, they are more "interesting", rather than simply an improvement (eg. An ancient, rare wine that can be beautiful, or smell like old lady's perfume: Lacrima di Morro d'Alba ).