Monday, August 19, 2019

Wine descriptions are related to perceived wine quality

One does not have to spend more than a few seconds reading wine writing to realize that this is not normal human discourse. The writing style used for descriptions of wine seems to cover the full gamut of human expression with the sole exception of normalcy. That is, it covers hyperbole, flowery, literary, allusive, obscure, flamboyant, and sometimes (sadly) even pretentious.

If you want a good laugh, then plenty of people have ridiculed the style of wine descriptions, in everything from books to cartoons. You could try The Complete Guide to Wine Snobbery, if you want a well-written and educational introduction to the topic (by a New York children's-wear manufacturer co-incidentally named Leonard Bernstein); or if you want a rough-around-the-edges look at the topic then try The Illustrated Winespeak (by cartoonist Ronald Searle).

Way back in 2007, Mike Steinberger wrote about Why wine writers talk that way. He started by quoting Fran Lebowitz (well-known for “her sardonic social commentary on American life”), to the effect that: “Great people talk about ideas, average people talk about things, and small people talk about wine.” Steinberger was not impressed with where this must leave people who talk about wine writing.

Well, I have been interested to write a data-analysis blog post about wine words, and wondered how I might do it, while simultaneously avoiding Ms. Lebowitz's sharp tongue. I stopped worrying about it when I realized that someone had already done it for me, and so I could hide behind him, instead.

The basic idea is that there are often commentaries to the effect that the modern idea of giving wines a quality score may not be the best way to discuss wine, and that the descriptions are better. This leads to the obvious query about whether the points and words are actually related.

This has been looked at by Olivier Goutay (2018): Wine ratings prediction using machine learning. He studied the online wine reviews from Wine Enthusiast for the years 1999–2017, totaling c. 92,400 unique wine reviews. The data of interest, for each wine, concern the quality score reported plus the word description.

The first thing he notes about the relationship of points and descriptions is that the higher the points the longer the description. This is shown in the graph here, reproduced from the original.

The quality points are shown horizontally, and each score has a separate box-and-whisker plot above it, showing how long are the descriptions (ie. the number of words). The boxed area shows the range for the middle 50% of the description lengths, with the horizontal center-line indicating the median (50% of the lengths are above the median and 50% below). The vertical line (whisker) on each side of the box indicates the range of most of the rest of the lengths. However, unusual (outlying) values are shown by individual symbols.

The lengths of the descriptions increase continuously from 80 to 95 points, more than doubling from 15 words to 35. This is somewhat reassuring — higher points should indicate a better quality wine, which is then worth a few more words, showing appreciation. The lengths plateau after 95 points, which may also be reassuring — editors must realize that there should be a maximum length to wine descriptions! The sudden increase in length at 99 points (40 words) and 100 points (45 words) is not unexpected, I guess, as the writers wax lyrical about perfection.

Olivier Goutay's purpose in his data analysis was somewhat more ambitious than this: Is it possible, through the computer technique called machine learning, to predict a wine rating (in points) based on its word description? Technically, this is a type of text analysis, sometimes called sentiment analysis.

He concludes that it is possible to produce a very good prediction, at about 97% precision. I will not bore you with the details, which you can read for yourself by checking out the original. However, it should be obvious from the above graph that simply counting the number of words in a Wine Enthusiast description will allow you to work out the number of points pretty accurately, at least up to a score of 95.

As a last point, we might leave the final word to Jon Cohen, who, when describing wine descriptions (Jabberwiney, 2000), noted: “Why do these people write this way? Is this what happens when your job requires you to drink before noon?”


  1. Quoting from that cited 2007 wine column from Mike Steinberger . . .

    Excerpt from Slate
    (Posted June 15, 2007):

    “Cherries, Berries, Asphalt, and Jam.
    Why wine writers talk that way.”


    By Mike Steinberger
    “Drink: Wine, beer, and other potent potables” Column

    In his book "The Taste of Wine," legendary French oenologist Émile Peynaud elegantly explained the conundrum. "We tasters feel to some extent betrayed by language," he wrote. "It is impossible to describe a wine without simplifying and distorting its image." This linguistic failure is surely one reason that numerical scores for wines have proven so popular; points are simplistic and distorting, too, but they at least give you something to hold onto -- more so than, say, "spice box," "melted asphalt," or "liquefied minerals."

  2. Quoting from Oliver Goutay's article titled "Wine Ratings Prediction using Machine Learning":

    "THE model

    "It looks like our dataset has too many possibilities. This would probably burden the predictions. A 90 points wine is not that different from a 91 points wine after all, so the description is probably not that different also.

    "Let’s try to simplify the model with 5 different values:

    "1 -> Points 80 to 84 (Under Average wines)
    "2 -> Points 84 to 88 (Average wines)
    "3 -> Points 88 to 92 (Good wines)
    "4 -> Points 92 to 96 (Very Good wines)
    "5 -> Points 96 to 100 (Excellent wines)"

    Let's compare Goutay's rating point bracket "values" with Wine Enthusiast magazine's actual 100-point scale.


    "Our reviewers assign ratings to all wines using the following scale:

    "Classic 98-100: The pinnacle of quality.

    "Superb 94-97: A great achievement.

    "Excellent 90-93: Highly recommended.

    "Very Good 87-89: Often good value; well recommended.

    "Good 83-86: Suitable for everyday consumption; often good value.

    "Acceptable 80-82: Can be employed in casual, less-critical circumstances.

    "Wines receiving a rating below 80 are not reviewed.

    "Although each of our reviewers is free to use their own rubric, we stress the importance of evaluating balance, length, intensity and complexity as the basis for our ratings. . . ."

    I think Goutay should have adhered to the rating point brackets and nomenclature ("rubric") of Wine Enthusiast magazine itself, if he was going to use their ratings as a dataset.

    For example, what Goutay deems a "Good" wine (up to 92 points), Wine Enthusiast deems "Highly recommended."

    Goutay is also at odds with Wine Spectator magazine and Robert Parker on segmenting the 100 point scale and assigning qualitative values to those segments.

    Citing Wine Spectator's 100-point scale:


    "Wine Spectator tasters review wines on the following 100-point scale:

    "95-100 Classic: a great wine
    "90-94 Outstanding: a wine of superior character and style
    "85-89 Very good: a wine with special qualities
    "80-84 Good: a solid, well-made wine
    "75-79 Mediocre: a drinkable wine that may have minor flaws
    "50-74 Not recommended

    For example, what Goutay deems a "Good" wine (up to 92 points), Wine Spectator deems "Outstanding."

    Citing Robert Parker's The Wine Advocate 100-point scale:


    "96-100: An extraordinary wine of profound and complex character displaying all the attributes expected of a classic wine of its variety. Wines of this caliber are worth a special effort to find, purchase, and consume.

    "90 - 95: An outstanding wine of exceptional complexity and character. In short, these are terrific wines.

    "80 - 89: A barely above average to very good wine displaying various degrees of finesse and flavor as well as character with no noticeable flaws.

    "70 - 79: An average wine with little distinction except that it is a soundly made. In essence, a straightforward, innocuous wine.

    "60 - 69: A below average wine containing noticeable deficiencies, such as excessive acidity and/or tannin, an absence of flavor, or possibly dirty aromas or flavors.

    "50 - 59: A wine deemed to be unacceptable."

    Once again by way of example, what Goutay deems a "Good" wine (up to 92 points), Wine Advocate deems "Outstanding."

    "Good" versus" "Outstanding" is no small difference on assessing the quality of a reviewed wine.

    That is the difference between indifference and endorsement.

  3. An observation in response to Jon Cohen's puckish comment in his Slate wine column titled "Jabberwiney":

    "Why do these people write this way? Is this what happens when your job requires you to drink before noon?"

    Speaking as a wine industry professional who does A LOT of drinking (read: tasting and spitting) before noon at near-weekly frequency wine industry trade tastings/seminars/masterclasses [*], let me proffer a comment from the esteemed Michael Broadbent MW.

    An excerpt from Michael Broadbent’s
    “Pocket Guide to Winetasting: How to Approach and Appreciate Wine”
    (Sixth Edition, copyright 1995):

    “When to Taste”

    “The best time for doing anything constructive and creative is when the mental and physical states are freshest. This, for most people (whether they appreciate it or not) is in the MORNING. It is said, incidentally, that the palate is sharpened by hunger, which would indicate the benefits of pre-luncheon tasting sessions.

    “In point of fact, the majority of wine trade tastings are held in the MORNING. The most quiet and business-like tastings may be held around 10 AM, possibly at noon. Tastings to which trade or private customers are invited usually begin around 11:30 and may end with a buffet or light luncheon, during the course of which selected wines are shown off against appropriate food. (It is not without significance that the simpler and more wholesome the repast, the better the wines show; there are fewer distractions of flavour. For example, simple cold roast beef and mild English cheeses provide the most perfect foil for good French reds.)”

    [CAPITALIZATION used for emphasis. ~~ Bob]

    *Yes, dear reader, despite the perception to the contrary, attending wine industry trade tastings is WORK. Likewise judging wine competitions is WORK.

    Slogging through scores and even hundreds of wines in a single day to find gold instead of pyrite is physically and mentally taxing.

    I have often quipped that I should print up and hand out business cards that read:


    "I taste all the shitty wines . . . so you don't have to!"