Monday, March 18, 2019

The current status of Prohibition in the USA

It seems to surprise many Americans that there are still prominent remnants of Prohibition throughout the U.S.A. This is not "Neo-Prohibition", as some Americans like to call it — these are the remnants of the same old Prohibition from the early 20th century.

This situation arises from the fact that the USA differs from every other country on the planet, in being a country created from a collection of states rather than a country divided into states. Everywhere else, the national government has all of the power, and it delegates some things to the states or provinces (if they exist), which in turn further delegate some things to local administrative areas. In the USA, on the other hand, the states retain most of the political power, except for those things they have delegated to the national government (pertaining principally to international relations), or which they have delegated to local administrative areas (ie. counties).

Pretty much the only way for the national government to regulate the states is by changing the U.S. Constitution (or, to be precise, by adding things to it); and they also have a lot of power over what happens with national taxes, too.


This creates the unusual situation of the United States being distinctly non-united on a number of topics. Some of these relate to alcohol, since alcohol laws are currently a state matter. For example, there is much current discussion about that fact that some states allow the sale of alcoholic beverages by retailers based in other states, and some do not — that is, inter-state shipping is prohibited by some states. Here, the European Union is much more united than the United States, because any retailer can send anything from anywhere in the EU to anywhere else in the EU, as this is a basic tenet of the original creation of the Union — there is free trade.

However, the USA once went much further than this, and decided nationally to ban the sale of all alcohol-containing products, except those intended for medical or sacramental purposes — this was done via the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. Most Americans think that this situation was changed again in 1933, when the 21st Amendment repealed the 18th Amendment. However, this is not quite so, nationally. There are still prominent remnants of Prohibition throughout the country, with complex state-by-state differences in the status of alcohol availability.

Since this seems to surprise many Americans, it worthwhile to summarize the situation here.

When was Prohibition repealed?

Section 1 of the 21st Amendment (added to the U.S. Constitution in 1933) explicitly repealed the 18th Amendment. However, Section 2 banned the importation of alcohol into states and territories that have laws prohibiting the importation or consumption of alcohol. This means that each state was allowed, in practice, to decide for itself whether Prohibition should be repealed. Prohibition had been an admitted failure, in terms of addressing alcohol consumption, and so most states simply allowed alcohol sales as from 1933. However, the following states did not do so until later:
Texas
North Carolina
Tennessee
Kansas
Oklahoma
Mississippi
1935
1937
1939
1948
1959
1966

So, there are currently no states that completely ban the sale of alcohol (but there were when I was born!).

Alcoholic beverage control states

Since individual states retain the right to regulate alcohol as they see fit, there is what has been called "a dazzling array of confusing alcohol control laws under seemingly arbitrary regulatory agencies."

At the moment, there are 17 U.S. states that currently control the sale of alcoholic beverages to one extent or another. They are shown in the following map (from Wikipedia).


Green: State control of beer, wine, and spirits
Utah — state-run stores (aka State Liquor & Wine Stores) for sale of all alcohol over 4% ABV
Dark blue: State control of wine and spirits
Pennsylvania – Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board stores (aka Fine Wine & Good Spirits) control the sale of spirits, while wine sales licensees are limited based on county population sizes
Light blue: State control of spirits
Alabama – liquor stores are state-run or on-premises establishments with a special off-premises license
Idaho – state monopoly over sales of beverages with >16% ABV
Iowa – spirits are sold to privately owned retailers by the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division
Maine – spirits sold in state contracted liquor stores
Michigan – state monopoly over wholesaling of distilled spirits
Mississippi – spirits sold in state contracted liquor stores
Montana – spirits sold in state contracted liquor stores
New Hampshire – spirits sold in state-run liquor stores
North Carolina – state Alcoholic Beverage Control Commission controls wholesale distribution and oversees local ABC boards, which own the liquor stores for sale of spirits
Ohio – state contracts with private businesses to sell spirituous liquor
Oregon – spirits sold in stores operated and managed by state appointed liquor agents
Vermont – spirits sold in state contracted liquor stores
Virginia – Virginia Alcoholic Beverage Control stores control sale of spirits
West Virginia – state monopoly over wholesaling of distilled spirits
Wyoming – state monopoly on wholesale importation
Orange: Other alcoholic beverage control states
Maryland — by state law, Montgomery County operates under a control model.

Alcoholic beverage control counties

Alcohol regulation occurs even more commonly at the level of counties, which is what creates the "dazzling array" referred to above. There are currently at least 200 counties nationally that remain Dry, in that there is some ban or other on the sale of alcohol. Most of these are in the east and south-east, as shown in the following map (from Wikipedia).


Blue: Wet
Red: Dry
Yellow: mixed (according to city or alcohol type).

This example from among the Yellow counties is from the American Association of Wine Economists' Facebook page:
As of 2013, there were eight completely dry towns in Massachusetts: Alford, Chilmark, Dunstable, Gosnold, Hawley, Montgomery, Mount Washington, and Westhampton. Plus, there are many partially dry (moist) towns. For instance, in Rockport, alcoholic beverages may only be served to patrons who are consuming a full meal.

Import of alcohol from out-of-state retailers

Some states currently ban alcohol import direct from from out-of-state retailers. This is the so-called Three Tier system, which was one of the practical outcomes of Section 2 of the 21st Amendment — states control alcohol by imposing a middle tier for alcohol movement, separating the customers from the source. That is, a local distributor must import the out-of-state alcohol, and pass it on to local retailers, who are the only legal suppliers to local customers.

At the moment, it seems that inter-state courier companies are delivering wine only to the following territories:
Alaska
California
Idaho
Louisiana
Missouri
Nebraska
Nevada
New Hampshire
New Mexico
North Dakota
Oregon
Virginia
Washington D.C.
West Virginia
Wyoming

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of 2016:
Alabama, Oklahoma, Utah — specifically prohibit the direct shipment of alcoholic beverages to consumers
Mississippi — does not have a statute that specifies that direct shipments are allowed
Rhode Island — allows intoxicating beverages to be shipped when purchased on-site
Delaware, Massachusetts, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Vermont, Virginia — allow the direct shipment of beer and wine, as specified
Arizona, Florida, Hawaii, Nebraska, New Hampshire, District of Columbia — allow direct shipment of all spirits, as specified.
The remaining states allow direct wine shipments, to one extent or another. For example, Tennessee has laws requiring liquor store owners to be TN residents for two years, which is currently being challenged in court (Wine shipping gets its day in court).

Many states in the U.S.A. now allow alcohol import direct from U.S. wineries, although for most of these states this is only a recent phenomenon. For example, Kentucky is the most recent (2019) state to pass a bill to allow inter-state shipping (Kentucky opens doors to wineries).

Note: Pennsylvania (2005) and Massachusetts (2010) have had statutes ruled unconstitutional by state courts. Delaware has a statutory provision that requires orders to be processed and shipped through licensed wholesalers.



This is just like Australia in the 1950s and early 1960s. Even as late as the 1970s, alcohol could be served on Sundays only to travelers — that is, a public house (ie. a pub) in the countryside could serve alcohol but not one in a town or city. I lived on the outskirts of a big city, so my mates and I only had a short country drive to get to the nearest pub. Current licensing is much more lenient.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Australia's biggest wine companies

We often read in the media about a particular company being "the biggest" or perhaps "second biggest", often without specifying the criteria. Which wine companies are Australia's largest depends very much on which criteria you use — the biggest sales, for example, do not necessarily generate the biggest revenue.

According to Winetitles Media, there were 2,257 wine produces in Australia in 2018, with a 7.7% drop from 2017 in the number of small producers (crushing less than 100 tonnes). However, the top 5 producers accounted for an estimated 87% of the total export volume, so they may be the only ones you have ever heard of. Circa two-thirds of Australian wineries produced fewer than 5,000 cases, which means that direct-to-customer sales are important for the majority of wine businesses — 90% of wineries have a cellar door, accounting for half of all direct sales (Cellar door survey shines light on direct sales opportunities for wineries).


Various features of these 2,257 producers are summarized on the page The wine producers in numbers 2012-2018, including what types of wine are made, usage of social media, and export destinations. However, I will focus here on the biggest companies only.

The table below lists the top group of companies, showing their size ranking for each of five wine-producing characteristics. The data are taken from Winetitles Media, which lists only the top 20 companies for each of the characteristics. Therefore, data are not listed for a company if they do not make it into the top 20 for any particular characteristic.



Treasury Wine Estates
Accolade Wines
Casella Family Brands
Pernod Ricard Winemakers
Australian Vintage
De Bortoli Wines
Warburn Estate
McWilliam’s Wines Group
Kingston Estate
Yalumba Wine Company
Zilzie Wines
Andrew Peace Wines
Brown Family Wine Group
Qualia Wine Services
Idyll Wine Co.
Angove Family Winemakers
Berton Vineyards
Calabria Family Wines
Tahbilk Group
Total
revenue
1
3
4
2
5
7
8
6
12
10
15
17
9
14
18
13
19
20
11
Sales of
branded wine
2
1
3
4
5
6
7
9
16
11
19
8
13

10
15
12
17
14
Total wine
production
3
1
2
4
5
7
10
11
6
13
9
12
19
8
14
17
16
15
20
Wine-grape
intake
3
1
2
4
5
7
11
9
6
13
10
12
16
8
15
17
19
14
20
Vineyard
area
1
10
2
6
3
8
7
11
4
12
15
16
13
14

17


19

The conglomerates

Treasury Wine Estates (TWE) has one of the most complex, and embarrassing, histories of any Australian company (see Southcorp Limited history). It was founded as a brewing company, which started acquiring wineries in the 1980s, followed by other businesses not related to alcohol. It then sold off the original brewing business (to another brewer), and changed its name to Southcorp. It then sold off the non-alcohol businesses, and focused on wine. In 2001 it merged with Rosemount Estates, at the time Australia's most profitable wine company. This was a reverse takeover — Southcorp paid the money but the Rosemount executives ran the new company. It was all downhill from there, as every decision to rationalize the joint company turned out to be wrong, leading to record financial losses — it is a case study in dysfunctional decision-making (see the book Contemporary Issues in Management and Organisational Behaviour). (Trivia: one of the decisions was to sack one of the two US distributors, who immediately joined forces with Casella Wines to make Yellow Tail the no. 1 imported US wine brand). The remnants of Southcorp were bought in 2005 by a brewing conglomerate, Foster's Group, who tried to run it like a beer business. Beer and wine do not mix, because their modern business models are radically different; so Foster's eventually spun TWE off as a separate company in 2011.

This company was pretty much non-functional because of all of the historical baggage — it has taken until very recently for a turn-around, having discovered the benefits of selling premium wine rather than mass-market wine (TWE delivers strongest organic growth rate in net sales revenue in its history). TWE's recent sparkling results have been boosted by exports to China (Treasury sees ‘tremendous opportunity’ in China to continue to grow), although it is not clear what the future of the Chinese market will be (China takes a shine to Aussie wine). TWE also has wine activities in California and New Zealand, and has announced plans to invest in French wineries (Penfolds owner to buy French wineries to satisfy Chinese tastes). They own Australia's 4th largest winery (Lindemans Karadoc Winery, processing 110,000 tonnes per year), which was the first one to be modeled on an oil refinery (see picture below). Their best-selling brand is actually Beringer, from the USA (9th in the world); but their most famous Australian brand is Penfolds, among many, many others.

Accolade Wines is now owned by the private equity giant The Carlyle Group, having recently been bought from another equity firm, CHAMP, plus Constellation Brands in the USA (the world's 2nd largest wine company, which is itself embarking on a premiumization strategy: Constellation brands to discontinue 40% of wine & spirits portfolio). Accolade is a classic example of the aspiration to become a virtual wine company, one that manages the sales and marketing of consumer brands but no longer owns many vineyards (similar to Constellation: Why you don't need land for a winery) — it has been steadily selling most of the ones that came with its various winery acquisitions. It has also recently announced a major restructuring plan (Carlyle Group takes knife to Accolade Wines); and it recently acquired the head of TWE's Asian operations (Treasury Wine's top Asia executive departs to rival Accolade Wines), which probably indicates a new direction.

Accolade owns Australia's 2nd largest winery (the Berri Estates Winery, processing 230,000 tonnes), so it does actually make wine — indeed, it is Australia's largest producer, as well having the greatest grape intake. Accolade has a big portfolio of premium Australian brands, but their best-selling brand is Hardys (8th best-selling wine brand in the world). It also has brands from Chile, Italy, New Zealand, North America, South Africa and the United Kingdom.

Pernod Ricard has wineries in Argentina, California, France, Georgia, Mexico, New Zealand, Portugal, South Africa and Spain, so Australia may not play a big part in its global plans. However, its main brand from Australia is Jacob's Creek, the no. 1 bottled wine brand in Australia, both by volume and by value. It was recently ranked Australia’s 8th strongest brand (Jacob’s Creek ranked in Australia’s top ten strongest brands 2019), the only wine brand to make it into the top 10. Oddly, when Pernod Ricard decided to re-brand all of its Orlando branded wines, it changed all of the premium wine names to Jacob's Creek, which was its mass-market brand name — one does not normally replace a higher-status name with a lower-status one. The company has recently announced that it will be using 100% renewable electricity in all Australian sites by mid-2019.; and it is reported to currently be considering the sale of its wine division (Pernod considers offloading $500 million wine unit).

Australian Vintage is the descendant of a conglomeration formed from a merger of McGuigan Wines and Simeon Wines. They own a lot of vineyards, but don't really have any premium brands to speak of — they target the lower-middle market at best. Their current financial report is optimistic (AVL’s profits up but predicts vintage yields will drop). They own Australia's 3rd largest winery (Buronga Hill Winery, processing 150,000 tonnes per year); and they recently invested in a fancy new packaging facility (Australian Vintage invests AU$11m in packaging facility). They seem to be very proud to have been the first wine producer in Australia to run 90% of their operations on solar and wind power (Australian Vintage signs ‘landmark’ renewable energy deal).

Karadoc winery

The others

Both the Brown Family and Tahbilk specialize in premium wines — note that they have a lower ranking on intake and production compared to their higher position on revenue. They are both still family owned, and have been for a very long time (see Keeping the family wine business is often hard). The Tahbilk winery still has some of its original buildings, including its famous wooden tower, where tastings are held. I well remember one visit in which I had to cup the tasting glass in my hand for several minutes in order to warm the wine sufficiently to taste it! The Brown Family, on the other hand, have probably the biggest tasting room I have seen. They are located on the road to one of Australia's skiing fields, and the overlap between skiing enthusiasts and wine enthusiasts is large. This has allowed the winery to be one of Australia's greatest experimentalists, because they can try out new ideas on a large and inquisitive customer base.

Other big producers focus on bulk wine or cheap wine, including Warburn Estate, Kingston Estate, Zilzie, Andrew Peace, Calabria and Qualia Wines. They are located in the large inland Murray-Darling irrigation areas, originally populated by returning soldiers but thereafter dominated by southern European migrants — Warburn, Kingston, Zilzie, Andrew Peace and Calabria are all still family owned. Most Australian wine drinkers will never have heard of these companies, but if they drink inexpensive wine then they are very likely to have tasted their wines — Warburn, for example, owns the Coolabah bag-in-box label as well as the AC/DC celebrity brand. These wineries tend to be large exporters of unbranded wine.

Idyll Wines and Berton Vineyards did not start out in the irrigation areas, but have instead moved into them from the premium end. Idyll, like Qualia Wines, offers "end-to-end solutions" for customer own-brand development, as well as having brands of its own.

Both De Bortoli and Casella originally started out as immigrant bulk-wine producers from the irrigation areas — Casella owns Australia's biggest winery (at Yenda, processing 250,000 tonnes), while De Bortoli own the 5th largest (at Bilbul, 100,000 tonnes). However, both companies have been trying to break into the premium market over recent years. Both are still family owned, with De Bortoli being the older, being founded in 1928 compared to 1969 for Casella, which much the larger company. De Bortoli came to fame as the result of its Noble One (Botrytis Semillon), still recognized as Australia's premier Sauternes-style wine; and its Black Noble rivals any Pedro Ximenez wine from Jerez. The company used this springboard to start buying wineries and vineyards in the premium areas of south-eastern Australia; and it is now the archetypical large family producer covering all brand segments.

I have discussed Casella before (Yellow Tail and Casella Wines). They have been using their rise to the top position for US wine imports (with Yellow Tails as the 5th best-selling wine brand in the world) to fund the acquisition of wineries and vineyards in the premium areas of south-eastern Australia. This is clearly (as it is for De Bortoli) a recognition that you don't survive long in the wine industry by selling bulk wine at slim profit margins, especially with the modern trend to premiumization among drinkers. However, Casella have also been trying to maintain their no. 1 position in the American market, by forestalling any drop in buyers. Their Super Bowl ads over the past three seasons were extremely expensive, and there is little evidence that they produced any increase in sales. The ads are, instead, all about maintaining "brand awareness ... in a declining category and outpacing all of our competitors" (Yellow Tail returns to Super Bowl for third year).

There are some very long-standing family firms in the table, including McWilliam’s, Yalumba and Angove (see Keeping the family wine business is often hard). These are the archetypal survivors: mid-sized family companies targeting the premium market, who have not succumbed to corporate takeovers. The latter is the fate of almost all mid-sized wine companies in Australia — once they attract attention, the corporate predators descend, they are bought, stripped of their assets, and their wine brands are devalued. I have spent my entire life as a wine consumer watching this happen time and time again to premium-wine companies — stay small or be eaten. One has to respect those families who have resisted this onslaught.

Seppeltsfield Road

Other companies

There are also a couple of companies missing from the above list, but which have large vineyard areas.

Seppeltsfield Wines (9th largest vineyard area) may well be the first winery I ever visited, back in the late 1970s. The Seppelt brand is now owned by TWE, but the property was bought from TWE's predecessor a decade ago; and the new company has been been buying other premium vineyards, as well, some of them from TWE. My main memory of my visit is the impressive arrival along the Avenue of Palms (see the picture above) — a 5 km driving avenue of more than 2,000 Canary Island Date Palms, which were planted by Seppeltsfield workers during the Great Depression (to keep them employed).

Duxton Vineyards (5th largest vineyard area) is a massive consolidation of pre-existing vineyards in the inland irrigation areas (including two of Australia's largest vineyards), planning to produce 5% of Australia’s wine-grape harvest each year. It sells grapes, and a few wine brands of its own, but specializes in bulk juice and wine.

Finally, it is worth mentioning the rapidly increasing investments from China, both by buying established companies (Grape expectations: The Chinese investors buying into Barossa Valley wineries) and by establishing new vineyards (eg. the Weilong Wine Grape Company's activities in the irrigation areas).

Monday, March 4, 2019

Global bulk wine routes visualized

In a recent post I discussed the use of heat maps to display patterns of data that are often shown in a tabular format (US 2018 grape harvest prices visualised). In the current post I will discuss an alternative type of graph, one that shows flows of things from on place to another — the Sankey diagram. This has obvious relevance to the wine industry, in which grapes and wines move globally as well as nationally.

In this case I will look at the movement of bulk wine between countries. I have compared world-wide imports and exports in an earlier post (Where does all of this wine come from and go to?), but not shown the actual flows of the volumes.

The data come from Comtrade, the United Nations International Trade Statistics Database. I accessed the data available for 2017 in the category: "Wine; still, in containers holding more than 2 litres" (code 22042). This may include pretty much anything (bulk or otherwise), except import/export of single bottles of wine, but excludes sparkling or fortified wines.

For an example of a Sankey diagram, let's look at Spain, the world's largest bulk-wine exporter. Spain actually exported to 116 countries in 2017, according to the database, but I have shown only the top 15 countries in the figure.

Bulk-wine exports from Spain in 2017

The diagram shows flows from left to right, so in this case the exporting country is on the left and the importing countries on the right. There is one line connecting to each importer, with the thickness of the line indicating the relative volume of wine. So, in this case France is far and away the biggest importer of bulk Spanish wine, followed by Germany. The countries tail off pretty quickly, past Italy and Portugal.

That France is a massive importer of bulk wine has been commented upon before, and it is usually assumed that it is being added to cheap French wine, without being mentioned on the label (the latter is only required if the addition exceeds a certain percentage). In this case, though, the Comrade database show that the reported Spanish exports exceed the reported French imports by 4 million litres, which is rather a large discrepancy (0.9%).

As an alternative, we can look at Germany, which is the world's largest bulk-wine importer. Germany actually imported from 28 countries in 2017, but once again I have shown only the top 15 countries in the figure.

Bulk-wine imports to Germany in 2017

The diagram shows us that, at the moment, Italy slightly exceeds Spain as the main source of bulk wine for Germany, with a pretty rapid decline after that.

We can also look at both exports and imports. For this, we might look at the USA. In 2017, the USA exported to 58 countries but imported from only 15 countries, when looking at large containers. These are shown in the next two graphs.

Bulk-wine exports from the USA in 2017
Bulk-wine imports to the USA in 2017

Clearly, the United Kingdom is far and away the largest recipient of American bulk wine, while Chile, New Zealand and Australia vie to be suppliers.

The Sankey diagram also allows us to combine imports and exports into the same graph. The data for the next figure are taken from the American Association of Wine Economists' Facebook page: World's Top 30 Bulk Wine Routes 2017. So, the Sankey diagram illustrates the 30 largest movements of bulk wine during 2017. As above, wine is exported from the left of each line and imported at the right, so that importer / exporters will lie in the middle.

The top 30 bulk-wine movements in 2017
In this case, the diagram indicates that Spain exports to Italy, which in turn exports to France, which exports to Germany. Spain also exports directly to France and Germany, and Italy also exports direct to Germany. Any flow of bulk wine opposite to these flows is not among the top 30 routes. Note that it would be impossible to show all of the routes in a single diagram using this arrangement, because flows can only go from left to right.

Perhaps the most interesting outcome of this arrangement of the diagram is what is shown about Canada, which exports more bulk wine to the USA than it produces! Clearly, Canada is re-exporting wine, mainly imported from Australia, while there is also a direct route from Australia to the USA.

Another version of this same diagram is actually shown in the comments section of the AAWE page linked above, created by Yuta Kanazawa. I have included it here, because it is such a pain to directly access old Facebook posts. In this case, countries appear at both the left and right of the diagram, depending on their role as either an exporter or an importer (eg. Canada, France, Italy, USA). With this arrangement, rather than the one above, we could, indeed, show everything.


Monday, February 25, 2019

How much difference can there be between critics?

I have previously written a couple of posts in which I looked at wine-quality scores where critics tasted exactly the same bottles of wine at the same time:
In these cases the quality scores differed to one extent or another. However, what I have not yet considered is just how big those differences can get, between any given pair of professional wine tasters. Here, I present an example where those differences are very big indeed.


When looking at variation in wine-quality scores, it is important to eliminate the effects of different bottles and tasting conditions, by having the scores be produced from the same bottles at the same time. This is, of course, what happens at most group wine tastings. Wine Spectator magazine is a useful source of this sort of information, as it has occasionally held direct tasting comparisons between pairs of its critics, among the tastings conducted by each of the region experts on their own.

The exercise

I have previously used data concerning James Laube and James Suckling, who have both provided wine-quality scores to Wine Spectator regarding Cabernet wines (Laube versus Suckling — their scores differ, but what does that mean for us?). This time, I will compare James Laube with Per-Henrik Mansson, as they have both provided scores for Chardonnay wines, with Laube as the California expert and Mansson as the Burgundy expert. Mansson has subsequently moved on from the magazine.*

James Laube Per-Henrik Mansson

The dataset I will use here is from the "Chardonnay Challenge" of 1997 (see Wine Spectator for November 15, 1997, pp. 46–70), in which our two critics tasted 10 California Chardonnay wines and 10 Burgundy white wines from both the 1990 and 1995 vintages.** However, there were only 39 bottles of wine with which to compare their scores, as one of the Burgundies from 1990 was not available in time for the tasting.

The data are shown in the first graph, with Laube's scores vertically and Mansson's horizontally. Each point represents one of the 39 bottles.

Mansson vs. Laube for 1990 and 1995 chardonnays

This does not look too good, to me — in fact, it looks terrible. There is a wide spread of points in the graph (note, also, that Mansson's scores cover a bigger range than Laube's) The mathematical correlation indicates only 3% agreement between the two sets of scores, which is almost no agreement at all. To make this clear, the solid pink line shows what agreement would look like — for bottles whose points are on this line, the two critics perfectly agreed with each other. Clearly, this is only 2 out of the 39 bottles. The Laube score is > the Mansson score 22 times, and 15 times it is the other way around.

The two dashed lines in the graph show us ±2 points from perfect agreement — for bottles between the two lines, the two sets of point scores were within 2 points of each other. This allows for the approximate nature of expert opinions — technically, we are allowing for the fact that the scores are presented with 1-point precision (eg. 88 vs. 89 points) but the experts cannot actually be 1-point accurate in their assessment.

There are only 10 of the 39 bottles (26%) between the dashed lines. So, even when we allow for the approximate nature of expert opinions, there is much more disagreement here than there is agreement.

Another way of dealing with the approximate nature of expert scores is to greatly reduce the number of score categories, so that all the experts need to do to agree is pick the same category. The Wine Spectator does it this way:
95 – 100
90 – 94
85 – 89
80 – 84
75 – 79
50 – 74
 Classic: a great wine
 Outstanding: a wine of superior character and style
 Very good: a wine with special qualities
 Good: a solid, well-made wine
 Mediocre: a drinkable wine that may have minor flaws
 Not recommended

Mansson vs. Laube for 1990 and 1995 chardonnays

So, I have shown this scheme in the second graph. For bottles within the boxes, the two critics' point scores agree as to the word categories of wine quality. Rather poorly, this is only 6 of the 39 wines (15%). So, even this broad-brush approach to wine quality assessment provides only one-sixth agreement between the two critics.

For comparison, the Laube versus Suckling Cabernet tasting (mentioned above) produced much better agreement. Their mathematical correlation was 29% (only 3% this time), there were 5 out of 40 bottles on the solid line (2 out of 39 this time), 23 out 40 bottles between the dotted lines (10 out of 39 this time), and 25 out of 40 bottles within the squares (6 out of 39 this time). Suckling and Laube did not agree much with each other, but Mansson and Laube hardly agree at all.

To make this point clear, the third graph illustrates the differences in the paired scores, expressed as the Mansson score minus the Laube score (horizontally) and the count of the number of scores (vertically). Clearly, the scores differ by up to 10 points (Mansson greater than Laube) and 13 points (Laube greater than Mansson). I have rarely seen scores differ by this much — 13 points is a lot of quality-score difference. It is pertinent, I think, to ask whether these two people were actually tasting the same wines!

Mansson vs. Laube for 1990 and 1995 chardonnays

As an aside, it is worth noting the overall low scores given to the wines. Only 16 of the wines scored >90 points, even though they were all quite expensive. This is quite comparable to the previous year's Cabernet tasting, where only 17 wines scored >90 points.

What does this mean for us?

Obviously, we should be asking what is going on here. The magazine is presenting their scores as representing some sort of Wine Spectator standard of quality, but clearly this is not an objective standard of quality. The scores are personal (but expert) judgments by their individual critics, who may have very little in common.

In this case, the situation is illustrated in the final graph, which shows the average scores for each critic for the four types of wine — California versus Burgundy, for both the 1990 and 1995 vintages. Put simply, James Laube preferred the California wines in both years, and Per-Henrik Mansson particularly liked the 1995 Burgundies. The only wines they agreed about were the 1990 Burgundies.

Mansson vs. Laube for 1990 and 1995 chardonnays

Mansson's preference for the 1995 Burgundies is explained in his notes:
I looked beyond aromas and flavors for what I think are the two most important factors in determining a great Chardonnay: a seamless, silky texture in the mid-palate and a clean, elegant, balanced finish ... I often find that young California Chardonnays taste overly oaky and acidic. After a glass or two, they seem heavy, even dull and flat. The 95s reinforced this negative impression; compared to the beautifully balanced, elegant, supple yet succulent white Burgundies, the California whites tasted slightly bitter to me, with a few notable exceptions.
Laube's consistent preference for the California wines, however, is not explicitly explained. His published notes are almost entirely about how much better value for money the California wines were compared to the Burgundies — the Burgundies cost up to 10 times as much but were no better. However, since the wines were tasted blind, this cannot explain his scores. His only brief comment is:
California Chardonnays tend to be fruitier, white Burgundies a shade earthier.
This is consistent with his notes for the previous Cabernet tasting:
I like my wines young, rich, highly concentrated and loaded with fruit flavors.
The problem for us is that these critics' quality scores are not really comparable. They give us a rank order of preference for each critic, but any attempt to directly compare them makes little sense. Unfortunately, comparing them is precisely what the magazine actually asks us to do (and I did!).



* I bet his name was Månsson before he left Sweden.

** Thanks to Bob Henry for sending me a copy of the magazine.

Monday, February 18, 2019

If not scores or words to describe wine quality, then what?

The point that I have been making in a number of my recent blog posts is that wine-quality scores give the illusion of being mathematical without having any useful mathematical properties. This is not quite fraudulent, but it is unfortunate — the apparent precision of the numbers gives an illusion of accuracy.

This means that, in practice, quality scores do nothing more than express personal preferences — they allow the critic to put wines in some sort of rank order. There is nothing wrong with wanting to do that, of course (see Wine tastings: should we assess wines by quality points or rank order of preference?). Indeed, if you can find someone with the same tastes as yourself, knowing about their preferences can be very helpful for buying wines.



However, this does raise the obvious question as to what we might use, instead, to express a rank order of preference. This question has been raised by a number of people who have expressed their conclusions publicly, as well as by many who have not. This blog post gathers together some of the public ones. The collection is neither comprehensive nor exhaustive, but merely introduces you to some of the suggestions that I have found interesting.

Using letters not numbers

This approach is what teachers use, whether they are at a high school, a university, or a community college. So, you are all familiar with it. Each student's academic score (expressed as a %) for each semester or year-end is converted to a simpler grading system, which then expresses the student's achievement.

Sometimes, the grade ranking is something like this (from best to worst): A, B, C, D, E and F, where D conveniently means "Deficient" and F means "Fail". Other times it might be like this: A+, A, A-, B+, B, B-, C. The one I had at university in Australia used: High Distinction, Distinction, Credit, Pass, Terminating Pass, and Fail. Note that in this case D means "Distinction", not "Deficient"! There is nothing universal about educational grading systems.


This general approach is thought to work better than the original percentage scores because there is an explicit meaning to each of the grades — getting an A means something quite different to getting a B. This forces the teacher to be very careful about which students get which grades. As noted by David Schildknecht:
Scores of wine critics aren't bound to intuitively meaningful letter grades as are those of educators — although I grant that the association of a 100-point scale with educational grading is so strong that even in wine criticism, despite incommensurability, many consumers will think of e.g. "90" as having some intuitive sense.
This grading system can work provided that the institution involved has a convention for assigning a particular numerical range to a given letter grade, and that the grades objectively correspond to a specified level of academic achievement,

Moody credit rating system

This idea was suggested by wine merchant David Farmer (John Moody and brave or foolish judging). David was unhappy with current wine judging systems, particularly the well-known fact that a wine can win a gold medal at one show and nothing at all at the next show. He was therefore looking for a more complex judging system, which he calls Three Dimensional:
After a bit of searching I stumbled across the inventiveness of John Moody who in 1900 developed a rating system for financial paper. I found his ideas had a three dimensional character to grading which offered, if not solutions for wine judging, a display of technique which could perhaps be adapted ... As I studied the Moody system I found it offered many parallels to wine judging.
Moody's rating system is one of several that are used to express credit ratings in the financial world (the others being from Standard & Poor, and the Fitch Group). It can be applied to bonds and to countries, for example, to indicate their credit-worthiness. The initial idea was to provide to investors impartial information on credit-worthiness of financial entities, which the credit ratings agencies were being paid to provide.

We do not need to concern ourselves with the methodology used for the economic evaluation, but only with the way the outcome is expressed. The Moody system uses a linear ranking with 21 levels (from best to worst):
A
A
A
A
A
A
A
B
B
B
B
B
B
B
B
B
C
C
C
C
C
a
a
a
a



a
a
a
a
a
a



a
a
a
a
 
a






a
a
a






a
a
a

 

1
2
3
1
2
3
1
2
3
1
2
3
1
2
3
1
2
3

 

Clearly, the system is more complex than a simple score of 0 to 20, such as might be used for wines. In the Moody system, it matters whether the entity being rated is in group A, B or C, and within the groups it matters how many "a"s it gets. For example, being downgraded from Aaa to Aa1 has a specific meaning within the system (see Wikipedia). This is in contrast to a wine-scoring scheme, where adjacent scores have little or no objective meaning.

This general approach to expressing a rank order has a lot of similarity to that of the educational system, as described above, being at heart a more elaborate version of it.

Wine tally

James Ho uses the name WineTally on Facebook, Instagram and CellarTracker. He has suggested what he describes as "a Simple, Sensible Scoring System for wines to enable every consumer to articulate one's evaluation and experience." This boils down to providing the reader with the individual sub-scores as well as the final score.


There are 4 wine-character-dimensions (Accuracy, Balance, Complexity, Depth), with 3x4x4x3 = 144 possible outcomes. Technically, the wines are thus placed into one of 144 points in multi-dimensional space (ie. there are only 144 possible different wines). These 144 outcomes are then reduced to one of 11 possible scores (scale 0-10).

Most of Ho's wines get a score of 7, 8, or 9, occasionally 6, rarely 5 or 10 (see the examples below). There are 18 ways to get a score of 7 (ie. 18 distinct wines could get a score of 7), ten ways to get 8, and four ways to get 9. So, this certainly keeps things simple, in terms of expressing a rank order of preferences.


We might see this as a simplification of the previous two systems, but at the same time providing more detail.

Music rating

Bob Henry has suggested using a form of reviewing that already exists for assessing music. He has noted:
Audiophiles who read British review magazines have been introduced to a twin scale: one judging the sonic fidelity of the recording (against the reference standard of live acoustic music performed, without electronic amplification, in a concert hall), and artistic interpretation of the musical piece.
As an extreme example: over 100-year-old Edison phonograph cylinder recordings of operatic tenor Enrico Caruso have low sonic fidelity (by contemporary standards) to the sound of the human voice and accompanying acoustic instruments ... yet could represent the finest artistic interpretation in recorded history. The recording gets two scores: an “F” letter grade for [poor] fidelity and an “A” letter grade for [great] artistry.
Similarly, a wine could be less than true-to-type or even technically flawed (50 points) ... and yet be hedonistically sublime (100 points).
Thus, this expands the wine score to two separate components, one technical and one artistic, rather than the usual approach of confounding the two. Each wine gets two scores, which may be numerical or not.

Further thoughts on music

The connection between wine and music has been taken much further by other people. For example, Morten Scholer has noted:
Some winegrowers, in particular in Italy, have loudspeakers in their vineyards and in their cellars playing classical and baroque music. They have experienced that the sound waves have a positive influence on the quality of the grapes and wine.
He lists a few specific examples; and David Schildknecht adds another (2012. The World of Fine Wine, issue 36, p. 32). This idea has been formally examined by Charles Spence and Qian Wang (2015. Wine and music (I): on the crossmodal matching of wine and music. Flavour 4: 3).

Of more relevance to the discussion here, Michel Bettane has suggested (The music of wine):
For me, the individuality of a noble wine is analogous to music-tone, voice, song. I think of wine as a musical score, composed of geological, climatic, agronomic, and enological notes that must be sight-read, understood, and interpreted. The taste is the result of that interpretation.
The Australian wine critic Mark Shield took things even further than this. He used an alternative approach to that of numerically scoring wines, by comparison to music itself — that is, the music that the wine most resembles, or the music it makes you wish you were listening to. This is analogous more to a wine note than to a wine score.

Mark Shield

Philip White has noted:
Mark Shield, the dreadfully missed Melbourne wine writer, made no bones about how the music of Thelonius Monk influenced his palate as he reviewed wine. He said he couldn’t taste properly without it, and often referred to different compositions of his favourite jazz composer and player relative to specific wines.
As but one specific example of Shield's approach (using classical music):
If they ever bottled Beethoven's 5th Symphony it would be the 1982 Cape Mentelle Cabernet sauvignon.
Shield was a widely admired writer in a self-confessed Australian larrikin style. It is a great pity that his wine columns (Rough Marc in Wine and Spirit, Noble Rot in the Sunday Age, as well as others) are not freely available on the web, for all to read. His missives from the Rat Shack are among my fondest memories of my first forays into the wine literature.

Monday, February 11, 2019

US 2018 grape harvest prices visualized

It is of some interest to know what prices are paid for grapes, as this obviously affects wine prices. In particular, there are often big price differences between areas and between grape varieties. The problem, for me at least, is that this information is usually provided in a large table full of numbers, which is a bot overwhelming.

Even when a table is arranged in a visually helpful way (and many of them are not), I still find it awkward to find the patterns I am looking for. What I want is a picture, not a mass of numbers. This blog post provides such a picture, for the 2018 grape harvest prices in the USA.


The data come from Grape Connect, which describes itself as "a transparent and secure wine-grape, juice, and bulk wine marketplace". They have a neatly arranged table of the Average Grape Pricing by U.S. Appellation [2018 Harvest]. It "includes pricing data for the 25 most represented varietals in respect to online listing count from 1/01/18 until 9/26/18; it shows average per-ton pricing by AVA for the 2018 harvest."

The table is arranged in four columns: Grape variety, US state, American Viticultural Area (AVA), and $US price (weighted average Price-per-ton, with listing quantity as the weight). So, each row in the table presents the data for one grape variety in one AVA. This allows the reader to look up the price of a particular grape in a particular area, but it is very difficult to compare prices between areas and between varieties. The latter is also of interest.

In order to see pricing patterns among the grape varieties and AVAs, the table would be much better arranged with the varieties as the columns and the AVAs as the rows. Each cell in the table would then contain the price. That way, I could compare prices between grape varieties within each AVA by simply looking across a single row; and I could compare prices between AVAs for each grape variety by simply looking down a single column.

Even better would be a picture, not a table. Such a figure is called a Heat Map. This uses colors to represent the prices, rather than using the actual numbers. Here is an example, based on the Grape Connect data.

Heat map of the US 2018 grape harvest prices

Click the image to see the full size (879x1600 pixels), where everything is readable.

The grape varieties are in alphabetical order, horizontally; and the AVAs are in alphabetical order within states, vertically. The prices (average weighted price per ton) are shown by the colors, as indicated by the scale in the bottom-right corner. The prices have been log10 transformed — the minimum price is $400 = 2.6 (orange); and the maximum is $9,500 = 4.0 (crimson). Missing combinations are colored white (ie. areas without price data for that grape variety).

The heat map quickly allows us to see how widespread is each grape variety, by how much of each column is filled — for example, Cabernet is more common in California than elsewhere, and Pinot is more common in Oregon*. We can also see which AVAs have lots of grape types, by how much of each row is filled — for example, the Washington AVAs tend to have more varieties than the other states (4 out of the 12 AVAs have at least 10 varieties**). We can also see the grape prices, by the colors — for example, Cabernet has the highest prices. These patterns are not necessarily unexpected, but the point is that we can easily see them using the heat map, which we cannot in the original table.

It might be even better to re-arrange the rows and columns of the heat map, to put the highest prices near each other. This can be done, but I do not currently have access to suitable software. The downside of doing this is that it would probably no longer allow the state prices to be seen (because AVAs from different states would be mixed).

[Postscript: the Grape Connect web page has been updated with a neat heat map of its own.]



* Cabernet sauvignon has prices for 60 of the AVAs in the table, which is 50% more than its nearest competitor (Syrah).

** Columbia Valley, WA and Rogue Valley, OR each have 15 grape varieties out of the 25 varieties that make it into the table.

Monday, February 4, 2019

How many 100-point scores do critics really give?

There has been much talk about the apparently inexorable increase in the values of wine-quality scores over the past few decades. The scores from 1983 (when Robert Parker introduced his 100-point scale) to the year 2000 averaged much less than have the scores from 2000 to 2018. Indeed, Jamie Goode noted two years ago: "The 100-point scale is very compressed at the top end …. and this scale is becoming so bunched at the top end that it is nearing the end of its useful life."

This leads to the obvious question about just how crowded the top end might be, irrespective of whether we use 100 points or 20 points, or something else.


Before looking at the actual data, though, it is important to note that there are two possible interpretations of a maximum-point score: (i) the wine is as good as we expect to meet in our lifetime; or (ii) it is the best that could ever be. If we mean the latter, then we run the risk of claiming that we are the arbiters of perfection. As Ambrose Bierce defined it:
PERFECTION, n. An imaginary state of quality distinguished from the actual by an element known as excellence; an attribute of the critic.
So, it may be best to claim that we mean option (i), not option (ii). Under these circumstances, of course, when we do subsequently do encounter a better wine then we would need to assign a score in excess of 100 points (see Why not expand the 100-point scale?).

Some data

One suitable place to look for data about how often wine commentators use maximum scores is the Wine-Searcher database. Here, we are provided with hundreds of thousands of wine-quality scores from 30 critic sources, or so (some of which represent groups of people). For most of the critics we can, at the click of a button or two, get a list of their 500 top scores. This allows us to compile the data reported here (mostly compiled at the beginning of this year).

The only tricky data to compile come from Robert Parker himself, or more generally his publication the Wine Advocate, as the scores actually come from a number of people. The issue is that there are more than 500 100-point scores in the database. For example, Lisa Perrotti-Brown recently noted just how many 100-point scores the Advocate has for the 2016 Napa wines, alone. So, I would like to thank the people at Wine-Searcher (especially Robert Anding) for looking up some of the numbers for me.

The data that I compiled cover 23 critics who use the 100-point scale and 6 critics who use the 20-point scale. In each case, I calculated the percentage of their scores that are the maximum; and for the 100-point scale also how many were near-maximum (99 and 98 points).

Proportion of maximum wine-quality scores from selected commentators

The first graph shows the 29 critics, ranked in order of how many of their scored wines received maximum points. Not unexpectedly, Robert Parker and the Wine Advocate team are the principal culprits, although Jeff Leve (at the Wine Cellar Insider) is trying very hard. However, quite a range of the other commentators have non-negligible numbers of top scores. Indeed, only 9 of the critics (one-third) have no maximum-point wines in the database. Interestingly, this includes 3 of the 4 critics from Australia (Jeremy Oliver, Huon Hooke, and the three-headed Wine Front).

This leads me to wonder whether some of these people are giving high scores but without being willing to produce the attention-getting maximum scores. I examined this by looking at the percentage of scores covering the 98-100 points range for those 23 critics using the 100-point scale. (This does not really work for the 20-point scales, since the data collection would involve half-points, which Wine-Searcher does not record.)

Proportion of 98-100-point wines from selected commentators

These data are shown in the second graph, with the critics still listed in the same order as above. This shows that everyone uses near-top scores, and that some people use them a lot. In particular, Luca Gardini has no 100-point scores but quite a few at 98 and 99 points. Furthermore, Tim Atkin and Daniele Cernilli (at Doctor Wine) clearly use an over-abundance of 98 and 99 points, compared to 100 points.

If we exclude the Parker/Advocate scores, then 0.3% of the scores in the database have maximum points (ie. 3 out of every 1000 wines); and 0.8% of the scores are in the range 98-100 points. These numbers may be lower than many people are expecting. This seems to be mainly because 34% of the Wine-Searcher scores actually come from the Wine Spectator magazine (or 32% if we include all of the database scores), and its contributors produce relatively few scores in the 98-100 range (0.07%). The Wine Enthusiast is the next-biggest contributor (17% of the scores), and even it has only 0.16% of its scores in the 98-100 range.

Finally, it is instructive to look at the four Australian critics plus the lone New Zealander. James Halliday has long been singled out in Australia for handing out a lot of high scores (eg. What's in a number? Part the second), and the data show that he does indeed use 100 points more than do any of his compatriots. However, the 98-100-point data show a very different picture. Jeremy Oliver is the only one with fewer 98-100-point wines than Halliday; and Huon Hooke and Bob Campbell exceed Halliday to the tune of 3.0 and 3.6 times as many wines! Apparently, only Oliver has not yet succumbed to the lure of the high-level scores.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Wine consumption ranked by city

A few weeks ago I looked at wine consumption in different countries, pointing out that since 2010 the USA has been the world's biggest wine consumer. However, that situation is at least partly because the US is the third most populace country, so that even moderate consumption per person will quickly add up.

Another way that people have looked at wine consumption is based on individual cities. Once again, we would expect the largest cities to have the biggest consumption; but we can still ask the question as to the rank order of these large cities.

One organization that has been interested in trying to compile these data is the Wine and Spirit Institute of France’s INSEEC Business School. They have released their estimates for both 2016 and 2018; and these are shown in the graph. The estimates are in terms of millions of standard (750 ml) wine bottles.


Wine consumption per city estimated for 2016 and 2018

For each year, the only data we have are for the top 10 cities, and only eight of these appear on both lists — Naples and Madrid appeared only in the 2016 list, and Berlin and Tokyo only in the 2018 list.

Clearly, the estimates of consumption for 2018 exceed those for 2016, except for Paris (the pink line indicates equality). The biggest increases were for Milan and the conurbation of three cities from the Ruhr industrial region of north-west Germany (Essen, Dortmund and Duisburg now merge into each other). The data for Berlin also seem to show an increase, while the data for Naples and Madrid decreased.

Paris is the clear leader in terms of wine consumption, with second place not getting even close. Paris is not a particularly populous city compared to some of the others in the graph, but it has long been recognized as the most-visited city in the world. Since tourists are likely to have a (French) wine or two while they are in town, trying to estimate per capita consumption would need to take that into account. Indeed, Decanter magazine did have a go at this without correcting for tourism, and their results clearly show the futility of trying to estimate how much wine each person in Paris (local + visitor) is drinking.

Mind you, wine is not cheap in Paris, no matter where you buy it. Indeed, French wine is probably cheaper in your homeland than it is in Paris. So, bring your money with you, if you want to indulge.


Finally, it is worth noting that the definition of a city is not straightforward (see Wikipedia), and I have no idea what version was used for the data collection here. However, no matter what definition we use, none of the cities listed above makes it into the top 10 largest cities in the world. Only Tokyo comes close (top 15), followed by London and New York (top 30). All of the other most-populous cities are not in countries noted for high per capita wine consumption.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Are words better than numbers for describing wine quality?

Last week, I wrote about using numbers to describe wine quality (The fundamental problem with wine scores). The advantage of expressing quality this way is that numbers conveniently have a simple linear order from minus infinity to plus infinity, so that they give the impression of being unambiguous. The disadvantage is that, in order to have a number mean anything worthwhile, it has to combine all of the various components of quality together, in which case its interpretation is actually ends up being quite ambiguous. Much of this discussion was recently summarized in: The demise in popularity of critical wine score pronouncements.


The only alternative we have is to use words. After all, we can use a whole set of words, describing each of the various quality components, so that we don't really need to combine multiple dimensions into a single word. As Kevin Brogle has noted: "I value the description more than the score. The score only tells you how much they liked it, not how much you will like it." So, this post is for Phllip White, who has always preferred words to numbers, and wine to either of them. Get well, mate.

Words versus numbers

Before we start, it is important to note that to the general wine-drinking population, words can apparently be just as effective as numbers. For example, consider this 2017 survey of purchase influences in the USA, from Wine Opinions. It suggests that a positive written wine review does just as well as 90+ score, in terms of influencing a purchase.


On the other hand, it is clear that the actual descriptions themselves are often not helpful. As an example, consider the poll conducted by One Poll for Lathwaites Wine 2013 survey: 66% of wine drinkers find wine descriptions UN-helpful in choosing wine. The people surveyed considered some words to be useful (eg. fresh, zesty, peachy) and some other words to not be (eg. brooding, haunting, tongue spanking).

There is a lesson here, I think, which is that words have serious limitations.

Some limitations of words

We regularly see blog posts from around the world noting that there are several different limitations to words when they are applied to wine (eg. Have we reached the end of wine criticism?). These include:
  • wine descriptions are not uniform, so we cannot compare them;
  • wine descriptions are too imprecise to help us evaluate wines;
  • wine descriptions are too flowery or pompous to be of practical value.
The last point may be a matter of taste, just like wine. For example, the above-mentioned Philip White has engendered this comment from Kim Brebach: "Philip White writes about wine in a way no one else ever has." This may very well be a good thing, which you can check out for yourself at his blog Drinkster.

However, the first two points can be addressed in a more objective manner. After all, we can still be quantitative about wine descriptions, even without numbers. For example, here is the Wine & Spirit Education Trust's recommended word "formula" for describing a wine.

WSET Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine

Not unexpectedly, most wine commentators go far beyond this. Indeed, they would probably have very few readers if they didn't show a bit more literary flair. And therein lies the basic issue of lack of uniformity and precision in wine descriptions.

Much of the information on this topic is summarized in the 2009 book by Adrienne Lehrer, Wine and Conversation, 2nd edition. The book discusses the large set of English words used for wine description (usually adjectives, and frequently metaphorical), and whether they each mean the same thing for different people. The author concludes that there is very little consensus about the meanings of wine words, although enologists are better able to agree on descriptions of wines than are lay people. However, most people are not able to describe the wines they have tasted so that other people could reliably match those descriptions to the actual wines.

Uniformity and precision

Steve Lay has noted: "Straw, tobacco, black cherries, currants, blackberries, crisp apples, floral, etc. These are just a few of the standard aroma definitions and some taste profiles of a wine; for which we can all agree." This is true, although the vocabulary actually goes way beyond these few words. Indeed, Lehrer's book starts with a list of 238 words "found in the wine literature". Therein lies the communication problem: how could we ever be either uniform or precise with so many words?

As a simple exercise, I have compared the 5-word descriptions from Journey Through Wine: an Atlas (Adrien Grant Smith Bianchi & Jules Gaubert-Turpin. 2017) and Wine Folly: the Essential Guide to Wine (Madeline Puckette & Justin Hammack. 2015). For each of the wines from 40 different grape varieties, I looked for words in common between the two books, interpreting this very loosely. The resulting counts are:
Words in
common
0
1
2
3
4
5
 Number
 of wines
6
17
11
3
3
0

So, most of the descriptions (70%) had only 1-2 words in common out of 5, and some had no words in common at all, which is pretty much what I was expecting. Even at this basic level, the words are neither uniform nor precise.


Solutions?

Sadly, I have no solutions, myself. Instead, I will present a couple of suggestions from other people.

Let's start with Oliver Styles: Wine writing's lack of judgment, who is apparently tired of repetitive tasting notes, and wants firm opinions rather than lists of adjectives:
while this ability to find and use new expressions for having a smell and a taste of something hints at a future on the Mills & Boon roster, we rarely get more understanding of whether the critic getting creative with language likes the wine or not. Basically, that's left to the number.
That is, instead of relying on florid word descriptions plus a number, we should actually write about whether we like the wine or not. Sounds simple, doesn't it? I doubt that it is, though.

Another alternative is to treat the data as multi-dimensional, just as I did last week for wine-quality scores. The bottom line is this: it still takes multiple words to describe all aspects of a wine's quality, and summarizing this in a word or two does not change anything. As I said for the situation of using numbers, we are still summarizing multiple dimensions (expressed as words, this time) into one dimension (a small set of words).

I pointed out last time that, under these circumstances, we actually need to draw graphs, in this case graphs of the word collection, rather than numbers. This idea has long been applied to wine descriptions, for example the early works by Louise S. Wu, R.E. Bargmann & John J. Powers (1977. Factor analysis applied to wine descriptors. Journal of Food Science 42: 944-952) and H. Heymann & A.C. Noble (1989. Comparison of canonical variate and principal component analyses of wine descriptive analysis data. Journal of Food Science 54: 1355-1358).

It is difficult seeing the wine-buying public going for this solution. However, I have shown one example picture below the line, along with a discussion, for anyone who might be interested.

Conclusion

It has been suggested that a wine-quality score is actually a word not a number (A wine rating is an adjective, not a calculation). If it is, then perhaps we should use actual adjectives, rather than supplying mathematical substitutes. Unfortunately, adjectives do not really seem to be up to the job of expressing quality, at least not in a uniform or precise manner. In which case, literary wine descriptions will continue to hold sway, with or without an attached score.

To quote Rusty Gaffney:
Some astute wine consumers look closely at the descriptors in a wine review and find it of paramount importance relative to the score. The description of the wine seems of greater usefulness, especially if the reader can see “between the lines”, and understands certain words or phrases that the writer uses that are a tip-off indicating a special wine. Wine descriptions would seem to be of most value to well-informed wine consumers, while others less knowledgeable about wine look more to scores for guidance.


Below is an ordination diagram, as an example of summarizing multi-dimensional wine information. It is taken from:
Alice Vilela, Bebiana Monteiro, Elisete Correia (2015) Sensory profile of port wines: categorical principal component analysis, an approach for sensory data treatment. Ciência Técnica Vitivinícola 30:1-8.
In this work, a panel of tasters evaluated each of each 28 port wines for a set of 23 characteristics. The characteristics could each be described by a word, representing colors, aromas, flavors, mouthfeel, balance and persistence.


Each of the 28 labeled points in the diagram represents one of the wines, labeled as either a White Port (BW), a Ruby Port (BR) or a Tawny Port (BT). The proximity of the points to each other represents how similar they were in wine style, based on their descriptions (by the evaluators). Note that the wines do cluster by type, with all of the whites grouped at the bottom-left, the rubies at the bottom-right, and the tawnies at the top of the diagram.

The 23 words represent the descriptions that were evaluated for each of the wines. The location of each word (or set of words) on the diagram tells us which wines they were associated with. For example, the description "Dried fruits" was associated mainly with Tawny Ports, whereas "Red fruits" was associated with Ruby Ports, and "Honey" was associated with White Ports. On the other hand, the descriptions "Woody" and "Golden" were associated equally with Tawny Ports and White Ports, but not with Ruby Ports; and "Red fruit flavor" was associated with Tawny Ports and Ruby Ports but not White Ports.

The diagram thus shows us a single picture of how all of the word descriptions related to all of the different wines.