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wine rating

Wine – the only industry where critics are so essential: but why?

How did wine critics become so essential to this business when it is not the same for other industries?

2/3. This article is the second of a three-part series dedicated to AI and the wine business. In the first article, I review the AI techniques that enable consumers to become connoisseurs. In the second article, I reflect on the marketing techniques of the wine reviewers. In the last article, I suggest ways to use AI based on winemaker profiles.

I had the pleasure of interviewing leading players in the wine industry to write this article. Thank you to the interviewees. Our discussions fueled my thoughts that led to this article! Here are the personalities I spoke with:

Julian Perry, CEO of Wine-Searcher – Katerina Axelsson, CEO of Tastry – Charles Slocum, CBO of Tastry – Pam Dillon, CEO of Preferabli – Andrew Sussman, CTO of Preferabli – Tristan Rousselle, Founder & Deputy CEO at Aryballe – Gérard Spatafora, Managing Director at E-Studi’OZ.wine – Vijay Bhagwandas, CEO at Tasting Intelligence – Magalie Dubois, Assistant professor at Burgundy School of Business. I also contacted 7 wine critics but none replied.

To be transparent: I am a lecturer in the MBA Wine & Spirits that Gérard manages in Bordeaux. Magalie and I share the same thesis director. Her thesis is about the “analysis of the recommendation on the wine purchase decision”. The idea of this article emerged while Magalie and I were discussing to prepare one of her conferences.

When I express my opinion, I use a more direct writing style, less "academic". I also changed the design of the paragraph with a preformatted writing and this grey background. It is easier to see the difference, and for you to skip the paragraph if you are less interested in my opinion.

Summary of the first article – Why are wine critics afraid of AI?: I have listed and analyzed four methods of artificial intelligence: 1. AI sommelier is not AI, 2. AI recommendations based on crowdsourced opinion, 3. AI recommendations based on individual preferences, 4. Sensory based AI – Person’s palate is as unique as a fingerprint.

A brief reminder about nudge marketing

In the seventeen years since Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstei’s book “Nudge” was published, nudges have become a widely used consumer influence strategy. Nudge marketing is the deliberately manipulation of the way choices are presented to consumers. Its goal is to influence what consumers choose, either to steer them toward options that the marketer believes are good for them or simply to stimulate purchases and increase sales.

The lack of personalization of experts is discussed in the scientific literature which concludes: if you are not able to choose your wines, at least learn to choose your expert.

Magalie Dubois, Assistant professor at Burgundy School of Business

For example, a supermarket places plastic mats with huge arrows marked “Follow the green arrow for your health” pointing shoppers toward the produce aisle. Within two weeks, produce purchases increase by 9%. A restaurant lists a fish entrée at a clearly overpriced €35 on its menu. It is not interested in selling the entrée; the fish is there as a decoy to make other, more profitable items appear attractive.

Many nudges have virtuous effects, encouraging consumers to reduce their consumption of energy, and save more money. However, not everything about nudge marketing is rosy. In their enthusiasm, marketers have overlooked some fundamental concerns about using nudges. While there are lots of reasons for this, here are the three big ones:

  • Nudges can be condescending. By their very definition, nudges use mental models that give inferior status to consumers’ motivations and abilities. Anytime a nudge is designed to promote a behavior, in effect the marketer is saying to the consumer, “You are too weak-minded and you don’t have enough self-control. You need help. Unless I nudge you, you will not do the right thing.”
  • Even when they “work,” they may not achieve the ultimate goal. The green arrows may divert shoppers toward the produce aisle and lead them to buy more fruits and vegetables, but what happens after they take the produce home? Will it be eaten or will it just sit in the refrigerator until it spoils and is thrown away? Providing consumers with the motivation and the knowledge to tackle such challenges is a harder but more effective approach to reaching such outcomes.
  • They’re really, really hard to get “just right”. Even when they work, weak nudges may not produce sufficient impetus to achieve successful outcomes. The flip side is just as problematic. If a nudge is too strong or too overt, it can easily backfire, angering and disenfranchising customers.

Medals have a great influence on the sale of a wine.

Gérard Spatafora, Managing Director at E-Studi’OZ.wine

Another difficulty is that thanks to popular press coverage, many consumers now know exactly how nudges work. Take the example of overpriced decoys like the fish entrée used in restaurant menus. By now, many regular diners already know about this decoy. Research shows that once consumers understand its workings, they become immune, and the effect of the nudge is blunted.

The essence of a relational marketing strategy is a tacit understanding that marketers and consumers are on equal footing. Anytime marketers employ a nudge to influence consumers, they are rejecting this status quo and claiming an informational or motivational superiority over their customers. Motivational psychologists have shown that such an imbalance is unnecessary. The same purpose can be achieved by treating customers as equals and empowering them.

"Why are consumers so intimidated when choosing wines in front shelves or in restaurant? Everyone is afraid of being misled, of being biased. An expert will always be suspected of being biased, of having taste biases specific to his or her palate, or even worse of having gaps in knowledge.
If you add a dose of "you don't know anything in your cave, let me bring you the light of knowledge" - Allegory of the cave, Plato, you get the old recipe of nudge without marketing.
Consumers will even become more vulnerable because they're intimidated when choosing a bottle of wine [or afraid of being judged], with ready-made phrases such as "No, choose yourself, I don't know anything about wine. Show them the status they have by consuming a certain type of product, and that's it. It's been going on for 50 years. Everyone thinks it's normal: professionals and so far wine consumers." - David BECK.
Please read: Gustave le Bon, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind / Etienne de la Boetie, Discourse on Voluntary Servitude.

Why reviewing wine?

Wine is often argued to be an “experience good” – which means that consumers need to purchase and consume the good first to evaluate it. This subjective nature of wine evaluation and the inability of consumers to know what’s in the bottle before consuming it means that the pricing of wines according to some measure of quality may prove particularly difficult.

Experience goods are products or services with characteristics, such as quality or price, are difficult to observe in advance, but these characteristics can be ascertained upon consumption. The concept is originally due to Philip Nelson, who contrasted experience goods with search goods.

Fundamentally, it is the subjective nature of wine quality assessment and the lack of quality information held by consumers which potentially drives a wedge among price, quality, and trust in experts.

Wine reviews, despite the 100-point scoring system popularized by Robert Parker, aren’t exactly scientific. Or objective. Not that they claim to be. But a numerical scoring system certainly gives the impression of precision and consistency, if not objectivity (the bump to 100 points over the British style 20-point rating system reinforces that impression for many, whether the motivation was intentional or not). Questions like these are at the heart of the odd relationship between science and wine.

Why is it necessary to have notes and expert reviews for the wine industry when it is not necessarily the case in other sectors? Besides, why the approach is much more democratized for beer or spirits but also all the other “goods of experience” such as tea, coffee, spices, cheese… Will experience goods still exist  when sensory AI is democratized?

Winemakers, retailers, and consumers all want to mitigate the risk of a bad experience. Improving brand image and loyalty while reducing wasted product and money are in everyone’s best interests.

Charles Slocum, CBO at Tastry

Today, intermediary bodies are more and more likely to be suppressed. By the way, why are there intermediaries? If it is to make up for lack of skills or time of manufacturers / producers? So technology is an intermediary, isn’t it :). It is just a groundswell in Western societies where hierarchical systems are being fought. We can rejoice or deplore it (especially with the nihilism, coupled with the current individualism destroys everything – everything is worth: the note of an expert as the note of a consumer lambda).

This change is seen as the passage from the law of the father to the law of the brother. It is the internet that has contributed to the end of the authority of the knowers for this generation: whoever can give his opinion, the quidam is worth the expert’s. This insubordination can be linked to the decline of traditional authorities such as churches, political parties, unions and, to a lesser extent, schools.

People follow less and less the wine experts, especially the new generations. Consumers seek to rely on their community, to follow certain influencers or simply a mass of people.Consumers prefer to be in direct contact with the producers if we talk about wine.

READ ALSO AI: correcting the biases of Machine Learning

"Even though expert wine tasters are able to provide a sensory evaluation of a wine’s characteristics, evaluation is subjective and different tasters often maintain different opinions for the same wine.
However, if someone you trust (real or digital) tells you that this wine has a cherry note, you will realize that this wine does indeed have a cherry aroma. This is the basis of learning in a wine school. If you had the opportunity to have this learning on a daily basis, in a fun, interactive way, it would take the appreciation of the wine lover to another level.
With the emergence of technologies - I'm not even talking about blockchain or metaverse that will push this even further - along with a people more and more educated, the need to have intermediaries guiding the people is less felt." - David BECK.

Which came first: the chicken or the egg?

In perfumery, they start from the customer, their emotion, and even the advertising message before creating a product.

Tristan Rousselle Founder & Deputy CEO at Aryballe

The paradox of the chicken and the egg is a very old paradox. Applied to wine, what would it be? Is it the consumers who seek the advice of the experts? Or the experts who make the consumers feel guilty for not knowing the wine?

Who decides: the wine supply or the demand?

Until now it was the winemakers who decided what the consumers should taste. But the context is changing. Overproduction (the Bordeaux vineyard is thinking about grubbing up), the costs that are slipping (dry materials, transport, bottles), the soaring energy costs, the deconsumption of wine in key markets (France, UK) are all issues that make the wine industry look for itself.

When a winemaker does something new, on the typicity of a wine or on the management of negative comments, where the experts censors themself, what will the AI do?

Magalie Dubois, Assistant professor at Burgundy School of Business
"To date, there is no question of accepting that the demand, that consumers decide. At the very least, we realize that they would like the alcohol content to be lower. At the very least, we realize that fortified wines are no longer popular (the Douro is thinking of producing more light wines). We realize the no/low wine, the rise of beers or spirits but all these considerations are too marketing oriented, not noble enough for some wine professsionals.
Why accept to lose control? Why let an AI show things objectively? It's more interesting to have lost consumers, so set up intermediaries to guide them than an AI managed by tech companies, which allows them to understand and learn the "mysteries" of wine." - David BECK.