Wine Has a Design Problem

Ryan Flinn
Feb 1 · 6 min read
Bond, sniffing the cork for potential flaws in the wine

There’s a great scene in Diamonds are Forever, a 1971 James Bond movie, where henchmen are posing as waiters. One pours Bond a glass of Mouton Rothschild; Bond remarks he’s surprised they didn’t serve a claret. The villain apologizes for not having more clarets in the cellar, revealing his ignorance about wine. As any cultured sophisticate (and gentleman spy) knows, Mouton Rothschild is, in fact, a claret (duh). The henchman’s uncouthness is exposed, and Bond can thus dispatch him.

Today, quibbling too much about chateau classifications might be a giveaway you’re actually a spy, or at least, someone not to be trusted. But the bigger issue is that in the wine world is the expectation that drinkers need to know such things in order to get a bottle they might enjoy. I bring this up because recently a tweet about the obscurity of how wine is listed on a menu caused a minor debate online:

I wholeheartedly agree with Helen’s sentiment — I can make an educated guess of what these wines might taste like, based on the region and what I’ve tried before from these areas, or if I can recall reading something about a particular vintage being good or bad for these regions. But the producer names, the terroir of the vineyard-specific wines and the designations of different bottles from each producer don’t mean anything to me. It’s a jumble of words with not much context, other than price and region. How would anyone be able to pick a bottle from this list without consulting the web for not a short amount of time? Sure, you can always ask the sommelier for advice and guidance, but many people are afraid to ask, and it’s also difficult to assess what you would like based on another’s preferences if you don’t know them.

The tweet led to a lot of back and forth between the wine cognoscenti on whether wine lists should be obscure or simple. No doubt, it would be impossible to please everyone with a wine list; complex wine lists can intimidate beginners while overly simple lists could come off as patronizing to those more in the know. But how could a restaurant better inform diners about the wines it has to offer?

The issue at heart is one of design. There’s lots of information about wine that people want or need to know before they will make a purchase, but not all of it needs to be displayed all at once.

A similar challenge affected early London tube maps. With a variety of distances between stops, different independent operating companies for each line, and some stations that allowed transfers while others didn’t, putting all the information together provided difficult. Early versions superimposed their subway route maps on surface maps, so people could figure out where stations were in relation to street roads and other location identifiers, but these made the maps difficult to read. Also, some stations were way out to the suburbs, while others were bunched up in the heart of the city. When you combine all these elements, early maps weren’t very useful for quick assessments by commuters.

Harry Beck solved this problem in 1931 with his version of a stylized map of the tube system. His insight was that commuters didn’t need to know the actual geographic distance between stops or where they were located on an accurate map of the surface, they just needed a clear, easy to read representation of the stops. His diagram was such a revolution, it was eventually adopted for subway systems around the world. Today, the use of this design ubiquitous. (For an excellent description of the evolution of the tube map, read this post by The Londonist.)

So what information should stores and restaurants give consumers about their wines to make a purchase decision? Like London’s tube map, the issue is one of design and data visualization. How do you give consumers a quick way to assess a lot of information to make an informed choice.

To figure out how to solve this, you first need to determine what’s the essential information you need to know before committing to buy a wine. For London tube riders, knowing how to connect underground between stations was more important than knowing what geography lay above those stations, so the surface map indicators could be ditched. But being able to determine the transfer stations was vital to getting around.

For wine, you can list the region, vintage, grape varietals, producer, alcohol level, certifications (organic, biodynamic, kosher, vegan), how it was aged and in what type of barrels (new, used), if it was fined and filtered….the list could go on and on. At times, I’ve looked for different elements from this list to convince me to buy a wine. Maybe I’m curious about concrete egg vinification. Or total days of skin contact for an orange wine. Or if the wine was made using carbonic maceration. Maybe I tried wines from a particular region, like Italy’s Mt. Etna, or read good things about Canary Island wines, and want to explore that.

But ultimately, I just want to know how the wine tastes. Sometimes I want a racy, bracingly acidic wine, other times I want to slosh a dense, fruity sip around in my mouth. Of course, taste is subjective, but there are ways you can break it down for a general audience. Instead of listing vineyard names, producers, winemakers, villages and vintage, what about the relative levels of acidity, fruit and tannins? How about pictures of fruits to correspond to the main tasting profile of the wine? Icons of raspberries, vanilla bean and blackberry jam might inform a drinker what to expect better. The wine’s mouthfeel is a good place to start — whether it is light, tart and tannic, or rich, sweet and smooth. General descriptions of a grape varietal’s flavor profile, what it best pairs with can also be helpful. This merlot card from VinePair is a simple infographic that includes many of these elements.

Wine Folly also does an amazing job of exploring new and interesting ways of graphically depicting wine. I use their book all the time to debate with my mom what a wine should taste like versus the example in front of us.

I also think it would be great to add an element similar to movie reviews. Think about how people decide to see a movie — or not — by gauging the Rotten Tomatoes score of critics compared to average viewers. I do the same for wine — I like seeing the average critic score, and compare that to community ratings on Cellartracker, Vivino and Delectable. What if a wine list showed both the average critic score, compared with the average drinker score? Even better, what about pulling a line from a random person’s review and publishing it below the wine name? I usually see one comment or two that sticks out among the dozens on these apps and colors my opinion of a bottle.

Solving this problem is not just fun to debate for wine geeks like me, but potentially vital for the future of the industry. According to the latest Silicon Valley Bank 2020 Wine Report, “Baby boomers are moving into retirement and declining in both their numbers and per capita consumption, while millennials aren’t yet embracing wine consumption, choosing to stick with spirits or abstain altogether…The lack of engagement by the youngest consumer is both the greatest concern and greatest opportunity.” People who sell wine — whether in a tasting room, restaurant, retail store or online — need to change their approach to communicating about their products if they want to attract new customers. Better design can help.

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