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Behind the Poll

Thomas Matthews
Posted: September 8, 1998

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Wine Spectator 1998 Readers' Choice Awards

Behind The Poll

Magazine subscribers and Web site users differ in demographics, but tend to agree in their choices

By Thomas Matthews

Wine Spectator's second annual Readers' Choice Awards not only honor the brightest stars of the wine world, but the survey also paints a portrait of wine lovers in America. The 15,687 people who voted in the poll share a few defining characteristics--and, perhaps, dispel a few stereotypes.

The Awards survey drew voters from two different worlds. Readers of Wine Spectator magazine received a ballot bound into the March 31 issue; visitors to Wine Spectator's Web site found the ballot on our home page during the month of March. I'll refer to the two groups as "Mail" and "Web" voters.

This arrangement was a change from our first survey, in 1997, which was posted only on the Web. Total response was greater than last year's (11,163 in 1997), but Web voters still represented a majority of all respondents (62 percent). The survey contained 23 questions, nine regarding people's backgrounds and drinking patterns, and 14 exploring preferences in wide-ranging areas of wine, food and travel.

On the whole, voters reflected the readership of the magazine--66 percent are subscribers. The voters are mostly men (83 percent), but they range broadly in age and geographical origin. When asked their level of interest in wine, most responded "serious" (58 percent), while only 4 percent called themselves novices. They indulge their passion for wine; only 11 percent drink it as rarely as once a week or less. (See the accompanying charts for more detail.)

But contrary to widespread stereotypes, wine lovers are not spendthrifts or snobs, and they don't believe you have to pay a fortune to get something good to drink; most of them (60 percent) spend between $11 and $20 for an average bottle of wine.

However, there are significant demographic differences between Web and Mail voters. It's probably fair to say that Mail voters are, on the whole, more involved with wine. For example, almost all of them (94 percent) are Wine Spectator subscribers, while a slim majority of Web voters are Internet surfers who do not subscribe to the magazine. More Web voters described themselves as casual or novice wine drinkers. They don't drink wine as often as Mail voters, and they tend to spend less money on wine. People who voted electronically are younger, with a plurality of them from 26 to 39 years old (42 percent), as compared to the Mail voters (43 percent from ages 40 to 54). There are more women on-line, and Web voters are nearly five times more likely to live outside the United States (19 percent vs. 4 percent of Mail voters).

Despite these differences in character, however, the two groups of voters nearly always agreed in their judgments. Baron Philippe de Rothschild, Gaja, Charlie Trotter's, Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon: These are the first choices in their categories--by wide margins--of both Web and Mail voters. And the agreements go deep. For example, in voting for the best wine producer in Piedmont, Gaja received 50 percent of the Mail votes and 40 percent of the Web votes for an impressive victory, and both groups agreed that Pio Cesare and Bruno Giacosa were the region's next best wineries (at 10 percent each). In voting for the best Cabernet Sauvignon or blend in California, the one-two finish in both groups was Caymus and Opus One.

In fact, the two blocs of voters disagreed only once on the winner of a category. When asked to name the best city in America for restaurants, Mail voters selected New York while Web voters chose San Francisco. This was also the closest vote of any question in the poll. The total count barely tipped the decision in favor of New York (by 36 votes of 14,042 cast).

This was also the only question repeated from last year's survey in which the number one choice for a category changed (in 1997, San Francisco was first, New York second). Some might argue that Wine Spectator's April issue--a comprehensive guide to New York City--influenced readers' decisions, but most votes were registered before the New York issue hit the stands. And though Web voters overall chose San Francisco, the 51 percent of Web voters who are not Wine Spectator subscribers--in other words, the voters least likely to be influenced by the magazine--rated New York over San Francisco.

Some differences of opinion might be of interest, and even of use, to wine lovers in general. For example, in voting for the best wine region for values, members of the wine trade gave much more credit to Chile and France than consumers did. Perhaps it pays to hunt for bargains on some new shelves in the store. And there are disagreements at the top of the wine prestige scale, too. When it came to voting for the best producer in Burgundy, respondents who called themselves serious about wine put Domaine Leroy in second place, two ranks higher than casual and novice drinkers did. You might consider their hard-won experience the next time you decide to splurge on one of the mysterious treasures from the Côte d'Or.

What seems most local in American taste--and most diverse--is food. In the category of favorite cuisine, for example, the style known as Pacific Rim drew its strongest support from people in the Western region. Italian and French are the heaviest favorites in the Northeast, where their cuisines are also closest to home.

Restaurant preferences prove the point: There may be one single best restaurant in the world, but there will never be agreement on what it is. This question drew the largest number of write-in votes of any category; well over a thousand different restaurants were named. The winning restaurant in the poll, Charlie Trotter's in Chicago, drew only 10 percent of all votes cast, the lowest winning percentage of any category. (However, Trotter's margin of victory was impressive: He had twice as many votes as any of the four restaurants that tied for second, each with only 5 percent of the votes.)

Even more parochially, if you break out voters based on where they live, every region voted for one of its own restaurants. Trotter's only won among Midwesterners, his neighbors. Northeasterners chose New York's Le Cirque 2000 (named best restaurant in the city in Wine Spectator's April issue). Southerners crowned Bern's Steak House in Tampa, Fla. Westerners proclaimed San Francisco's Fleur de Lys as the champ (Rocky Mountain respondents agreed). And voters from outside the United States chose Enoteca Pinchiorri in Florence, Italy. (Incidentally, all regional champions hold Wine Spectator's Grand Award for their wine lists, except Fleur de Lys, a Best of Award of Excellence winner.)

Many people couldn't even answer the question. "I can't afford any of these places," grumbled one respondent. It "depends on the night," wrote another. One happy eater named "my own home" as the world's best restaurant. "This is a ridiculous survey," concluded another, who had nonetheless managed to make it to question number 21 out of 23 in all.

Alas, some voters answered early and often. Enthusiasm triumphed over ethics at one U.S. restaurant, as a manager circulated a memo urging all employees to vote for their own workplace in the category of best restaurant. "We are only a couple hundred votes away from making this list," he wrote. (The memo was sent to Wine Spectator by anonymous employees of the restaurant.) In fact, the manager was correct. Two hundred votes would have vaulted his restaurant ahead of Georges Blanc, a French institution that holds three Michelin stars and Wine Spectator's Grand Award. But his team couldn't pull it off, generating only 54 votes (not quite half a percent).

Some distortions were inadvertent. Because of an editing error, ballots bound into Wine Spectator magazines were incomplete, with several nominees missing: Ruffino in the category of best producer in Tuscany; Far Niente and Kendall-Jackson in the category of best California Chardonnay. These producers were included on the Web site ballots. In the accompanying charts, their vote totals are marked with asterisks, because these figures don't represent the true strength of the producers. It's interesting to note that Web voters who do not subscribe to Wine Spectator placed Ruffino slightly ahead of Antinori in Tuscany, and Kendall-Jackson in second place among Chardonnay producers, close behind Beringer, the consensus winner.

In this era of instant and constant polling, we all know that surveys can never reveal the whole truth. But the whole truth is difficult to obtain by any means, and polls at least have the virtue of allowing us to measure ourselves against our peers. For example, who isn't curious to know how other people spend their money? I admire the 33 respondents who can find satisfaction while spending less than $5 for their average bottle of wine. And I'll confess to a pang of envy toward the lucky 392 (3 percent) whose usual bottle costs over $50.

And consider this miracle of statistical analysis, teased out of the data submitted by those who responded to the poll: There are two people out there who spend less than $5 per bottle but still consider themselves serious about wine. And two people who call themselves novices spend over $50 for their average bottle. Maybe they should all get together for dinner.

In the end, though, I submit that true wine lovers are defined less by their demographic attributes than by their beliefs. When you look at the winners of this year's Readers' Choice Awards, some common threads are plain to see. Teenagers may vie for Oscars in Hollywood, but in the land of the vine, the long haul matters most. Angelo Gaja, the late Baron Philippe de Rothschild and the people behind the other winning wines, from Corinne Mentzelopoulos of Château Margaux in Bordeaux to Chuck and Charlie Wagner at Caymus Vineyards in Napa Valley--they were never overnight wonders. All are passionate about wine, talented in their techniques and persistent in their efforts. Wine counsels patience, and that's a quality in short supply in today's throwaway world.

We salute these champions and all the winners of our 1998 Readers' Choice Awards. We'll reopen the ballot boxes next year, and we look forward to hearing from even more wine lovers in the future. Tell us who you are and what you think about an elixir that encourages so much enthusiasm and debate.

Who Voted In the Readers' Choice Awards


Web / Mail / Total
Wine Spectator subscribers 49.1% / 94.1% / 66.4%
Web surfers and newsstand readers 50.9% / 5.9% / 33.6%


Male 82.8%
Female 17.2%


Under 26 4.1%
26-39 35.4%
40-54 40.5%
Over 54 20.0%


Northeast 23.8%
South 19.8%
Midwest 15.2%
Rocky Mountains 5.3%
West 22.7%
Outside the United States 13.2%


Consumer 87.1%
Member of the trade (winemaker, salesperson, sommelier, etc.) 12.9%


Novice 4.4%
Casual 38.1%
Serious 57.5%


Daily 36.3%
Several times per week 52.6%
Once per week 8.8%
Less than once per week 2.4%

Note: Percentages may not total 100% due to rounding.

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