How do wine preferences evolve during our lifetime?

It is a question that many wine marketers or consumer psychologists would love to crack. There is anecdotal evidence that young adults tend to start with lighter and sweeter styles and then move to more flavourful or “complex” wines. Researchers from Sonoma State University conducted the first studies aiming at comparing the evolution of wine drinking patterns between generations, focusing especially on Millenials or Gen Ys (Thatch and Olsen, 2006; Olsen et al. 2007). They found that Millenials (19-34 y.o.) and Traditionalists (65 y.o.+) started experimenting with red wines, while the other two groups started with sweeter wines. Contrary to Generation X (35-45 y.o.) or even Baby Boomers (46-65 y.o.), Millenials drank wine mainly with food. Being at their early stage of wine experience, they tended to try different wine styles and did so mainly with imported wines. These data were collected through face to face interviews of 110 college students (2006 paper) and on line with 5000+ respondents (2007 paper). Both approaches collected information self reported by participants, which have been found a reliable method especially for alcoholic beverages. However these studies did not tackle the difficult question: how do we move our wine preferences from simple to complex and what are the drivers of these changes? One approach would be to conduct a longitudinal study following a cohort of respondents from their legal drinking age to mature adulthood: quite time consuming and expensive solution.

An attempt to capture lifetime wine consumption patterns:
In a recent publication, Melo et al. are discussing and proposing techniques designed to aid consumption recall to measure the evolution over time of wine preferences. Here is what they came up with.

The basis of their methodology is to use ‘life grid’ templates as an aid for recalling events that have marked the society, the family history, or more personal milestones such as a moving to different residences/locations  or the employment history. This structured format was described as ‘a natural organizing framework for the large amount of data to be collected’.

Fifty-one social wine drinkers from Australia were recruited to participate in this study requiring two one on one interviews of one hour duration, 4 weeks apart. The need for 2 sessions was to determine the validity of the methodology; in other circumstances only one session would be enough.

Prior to the first interview, respondents were asked to fill out these life grid templates. Then on site they were asked to define their lifetime drinking history: basically one had to divide his/her life into ‘drinking phases’ and report for each the frequency of alcoholic beverage consumption, the quantity, the type of beverage and type of wine. They also answered questions about any changes in socio-demographics during these lifetime phases. The interview ended by a belief evaluation to determine the main associations respondents make for different types of consumption, the reasons and occasions for such consumption. Finally, current consumption habits were recorded.

Respondents were mostly middle aged elderly, having consumed alcoholic beverages for 39 years. In average, they defined 5 drinking phases in their drinking history, which lasted about 8 years each. The rest of the publication examines the internal consistency of the measures proposed by the authors and the validity of the methodology. Authors concluded that the measures were reproducible over time, inconsistencies being observed only on items less frequently consumed by respondents.

Why could such a survey tool be useful?
Often I am asked how do we move consumers from “fruit forward wines to more complex in flavor wines”. This methodology could offer some insights in the understanding of factors that could favor this type of consumption evolution. The main interest of the ‘life time method’ is to correlate life changing events with consumption changes. This type of information would help marketers design strategies to orient consumers in their wine choices as their lives evolve and mature. What would be interesting too would be to produce a ‘life grid’ for the wine industry history, highlighting critical events that have changed the type or style of products. Think screw caps or Tetrapak® packaging or single serve bottles. How these changes impacted consumer consumption patterns? What about cultural factors? Would we find similar patterns in traditional wine drinking countries versus new ones?

This methodology opens avenues for understanding how consumers transition their consumption patterns and wine preferences, and of course for validating the anecdotal evidences mentioned in the introduction of this post.

Personally, my move to California in 1997 restructured my whole concept of Chardonnay wines and I started to explore other wine styles to please my palate!

 What about you? What are the critical phases in your life history which have changed your wine consumption habits?


  • Melo L., Delahunty, C., Forde C., and Cox D.N. Development and validation of a tool to recall alcoholic beverage and wine consumption over consumers’ lifetimes, Food Quality and Preference, 2010. 21: p. 697-704.
  • Melo L., Colin, J., Delahunty, C., Forde C., and Cox D.N. Lifetime wine drinking, changing attitudes and associations with current wine consumption: a pilot study indicating how experience may drive current behavior. Food Quality and Preference, 2010. 21: p. 794-790.
  •  Olsen, E.J., L. Thach, and N. Nowak, Wine for My Generation: Exploring How U.S. Wine Consumers are Socialized to Wine. Journal of Wine Research, 2007. 18(1): p. 1-18.
  • Thach, E.C. and J.E. Olsen, Market segment analysis to target young adult wine drinkers. Agribusiness, 2006. 22(3): p. 307-322.

6 responses to “How do wine preferences evolve during our lifetime?

  1. Antonio Rocha Graça

    I think a lot of insight can be derived in the way people relate towards other food. It could be easier to approach the lifetime changes relating to different food stuffs, what they loved they started to hate after a while or, conversely, what they hated they started to love eventually. But the real underlying reason has to be a lot more complex than just that:
    . There are things you can’t eat just because you were forced to eat when a child and you developped a trauma. Any child who has been forced to eat asparagus will have a real difficult time to get in terms with a lot of Sauvignon Blancs.
    . There are your own physiological sensitivities. I am very sensitive to acids and can in fact detect amounts of acid in solution below the average level for the population. On the other hand, I am not so sensitive to sweetness so I need a lot of glucose in water to feel it. This probably accounts for me disliking all types of dry red and white wine until I was about 16/17. Specially wines made from hybrid grapes (Isabella, Jacquez, etc.) which were very much preferred in my local town when I was young, I just could not stand one drop of them as they are extremely acid. Lemon juice, green apples, kiwi fruits, never appealed much to me. So, my initial choice was, of course, Port, then Late Harvests, Sweet Muscats and Passitos and only after 19/20 did I start enjoying the milder dry reds and specially oaky, fat whites. The real big red wines only gained my favour sometime between 25 -30 years old. Now, my wife did not drink any wine when we met. But she enjoyed an occasional glass of sparkling. I taught her into the different types of wines and her favourites are always the more acid and astringent ones (Vinho Verde, Dry Rhine Riesling)! But then again, she loves lemon juice, the more acid apples she can get, really tangy grapefruit and everything else that’s acid. Sweets, on the other hand make her feel sick, so she is not very partial towards any type of sweet wines, except young LBV or Vintage Port.
    . Then there are those associations that go beyond taste and make someone relate to wine, not because of the wine itself but because of the fond memories it evokes. Picpoul de Pinet will always remind me of the oysters, cool breeze and the sound of waves as the first place I had it was in Agde, South France in the company of two very good winemaker friends and it got us through one of the most rewarding enological discussions I remember to have. And then there was this woman in a workshop in Australia I attended who claimed that Burgundian Pinot Noir always reminded her of «sex in the woods»…:)!!
    I guess that if you are able to tap into these early associations that people have with food, you will be able to very easily characterize their wine preferences, in a broad way, but I would risk to say a quite certain one.

    • Thank you Antonio for sharing your thoughts and experience. I agree with you that the picture is far more complex. The life grid templates are interesting tools to shape the framework for eliciting memories; however more personal and physiological factors can come into play. Many of us disliked bitterness at a young age, but under peer pressure learnt to love stout beers! The historical event linked to thatshift may be different from person to person but likely related to teenage years.

  2. That reference to bitter reminded me of what a good friend, who is quite devoted to sensual studies once told me about how people grow onto different tastes.

    According to him, we all are born loving sweet. That’s normal, because that’e where energy is, and we need a lot of it in order to feed all those cells growing in our body. Milk is sweet, fruit is sweet, honey is sweet so all of that goes very easily into baby food and it’s not difficult to feed the majority of babies (there are always some exceptions, however) with sweet stuff. Salty and acid become our friends at a later stage and usually salt first. That’s because we need salts to keep the the water balance in the cells of our body, specially when we are growing. Salt is also necessary for the regulation of all our body fluids like blood and to keep our nervous system in good connection. Acid tolerance and even likeness comes at an even later stage, usually in early teen years, but this is highly dependent from person to person. Acids play a number of importante functions: anti-oxydants, regulators, vitamins, hormones, protein and DNA constituents and many more. many young people, however, do struggle to get into grips with acid taste in food until quite late in their youthful years. Now, the last taste to be tolerated is definitely bitter. Why? Very simply because there isn’t one single poison in natures that does not taste bitter and our instintcs shy us away from anything bitter until that moment we can reason about it and understand that bitterness in wine, tea, coffee or dark chocolate is quite safe. Still, in most of the cases we need something to fool our instinct by balancing out the bitter taste: alcohol in wine, milk or sugar in tea or coffee, sugar in chocolate. And the majority of people do not come into terms with bitter taste until they are over their 30’s. It’s not that they cannot like it before, but it’s at this or a later stage in life that bitter really becomes a pleasant alternative to sweet or acid or salty.
    The funny and very interesting thing, however, is that conquering previously intolerated tastes is an unconscious part of our own personal growth. It gives us self-confidence and personal assurance, because it means we are abler to provide for ourselves, we control more of the world around us. When you conquer bitter, you attain the highest level in this process and several researchers believe this is when the person gains the awareness of his(her) real place in the world and society. Little wonder that so many initiation rites relate to having bitter food and beverages. I really am not sure where umami fits in here, but I guess it should be not very far from bitter, but I personally have not a great experience with that taste nor have I ever spoken to anyone about it.

    One other factor I suspect comes into play here is that as you grow, your taste nervous receptors become less and less sensitive, allowing you to tolerate and like tastes that you before could not even try.

    What do you think about this, Isabelle?

    • You are right on. Paul Rozin describes 3 key factors that will shape our food preferences: Biological, individual/psychological, and socio-cultural. I wrote a paper for a conference in 2008 that describe the sensory and cognitive components of food preferences. I posted the paper for your curiosity on this site. To come back to the paper under discussion, adding in the respondents interviews questions about food preferences and how these historical changes may have affecting them would be cool.

  3. That paper makes for very interesting reading. For the producer it all comes down to finding a way of having the consumer experience the «taste» of the wine before purchasing the bottle. That is, today, one of the major focus of my research.

    • This is indeed the major challenge and great opportunity for the producer.
      Matching the bottle imagery with the sensory attributes of the wine inside the bottle.
      I would love to collaborate to your research. This is the graal of the wine marketers.

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