An answer to the long-standing question, is winemaking art?, may be found buried in a survey presented in the American Association of Wine Economists (AAWE) Working Paper Number 245,
Titled, ‘Toward Valuing Willamette Valley Pinot Noir as a Cultural Good,’ the survey was partly motivated by a 2015 book by Denton Marks, ‘Wine and Economics,’ in which the author proposes the “importance of wine as a cultural good.” To test the premise, Neal D. Hulkower, of McMinnville, Oregon, (at the time of the survey a part time employee of Oregon’s White Rose Estate), and S. Lynne Stokes, Department of Statistical Science, Southern Methodist University, created a survey conducted at four Oregon winery tasting rooms in the Willamette Valley.
The survey’s authors claim Willamette Valley Pinot noir (WVPn) is at the top of the heap of costly New World wine. They cite a study by two McMinnville, Oregon Linfield College students (Meyers and Walker, 2018) which “…indicated that percent alcohol of a wine, certification by Low Input Viticulture and Enology, and the rating given by WineEnthusiast explain about 61% of the price variation of WVPn.”
Hulkower and Stokes wondered whether the high price of WVPn, which the authors claim without elaborating is well above the cost of production, reflects its value as a cultural good rather than just another agricultural commodity. Like the earlier study, they selected WVPn because as of 2018 over 80% of Oregon’s Pinot noir vineyards were situated in the Willamette Valley.
The survey was modeled after a similar one used by Economist David Throsby, in his 2001 book ‘Economics and Culture,’ in which the author developed six cultural value characteristics: aesthetic (beauty, harmony, form), spiritual (understanding, enlightenment, insight), social (sense of connection, sense of identity and place), historical (sense of continuity), symbolic (nature of the meaning conveyed and its value to the consumer), authenticity (real, original, unique). But he also argued on pages 31-32 of his book that “…willingness to pay is an inadequate or inappropriate indicator of cultural value.”
A total of 184 respondents participated at four winery tasting rooms. The survey collected gender, age, educational and income level, whether or not respondent was from Oregon, a self-assessment of wine expertise, and responses to nine statements designed to assess each wine tasted on the six cultural value characteristics. Respondents were also asked to provide their assessment of a fair retail price for each wine. The median age was 42, with a range of 22 to 77 years. 79% of respondents were Oregonians, 63% female, 83% had at least a college degree, and 47% reported an annual income that exceeded $100,000. Only 23% assessed themselves as having minimal or less knowledge of wine.
Each survey respondent tasted two WVPns and completed a survey form for each wine. Three separate models were developed: one for all responses and one each for the responses of Oregonians and non-Oregonians. The independent variables of the survey measured cultural value, retail price, winery, and respondent demographics. The aesthetic “I find this wine beautiful” acted as a significant willing to pay (WTP) cultural value driver for all three models. According to the paper’s authors, that phrase suggested “…at least part of WTP is influenced by the perceived cultural value of WVPn.” In other words, the price consumers are willing to pay for a Willamette Valley Pinot noir may have a lot to do with their perception of the importance of the wine to their personal cultural value, which may indicate that the ‘art’ side of winemaking is quite important to a segment of wine consumers.
Even after taking wine retail price and winery into account, the tasters valued the wines based on their perception of its aesthetic value. For non-Oregonians, the estimate shows an increase of about $15 in average WTP for those who rate a median or higher aesthetic value, which was twice the $7.50 average WTP premium for Oregonians.
For expert appraisal, the study authors analyzed hundreds of Rusty Gaffney scores assigned to WVPn’s as well as the wines’ retail cost. From 2001 through 2019 Gaffney produced an online newsletter called PinotFile, focused mainly on Oregon and California Pinot noir. Starting in 2009, he used the following quality assessment scale: 94-100 Extraordinary, 90-93 Outstanding, 86-89 Very good, 80-85 Good and 75-79 Decent. For this study, the range of scores used were wines that fell within an 85 to 98 score, averaged at 90.7. The authors claim their calculation of price and score “…represents a first attempt to use an expert’s quality assessments as the basis for isolating its impact on price…” From that calculation, they derived what they call “…the upper bound for the economic value as a cultural good.”
Is winemaking art, and if so, does it contribute to the cultural good? The complete answer seems to be—maybe. The study is limited by the fact that neither wineries, wines, nor tasters were of randomely selected. Therefore, its authors caution not to generalize; they recommend, “Additional studies should focus on collecting more data across a wider range…” and of course, randomely.