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Wine Typecasting

How the industry pegs consumers

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When I recently stumbled across a wine consumer study called Project Genome, in my head I heard Project Runway's Tim Gunn cry, "Designers!"

The study came out last fall, but I didn't read it then, since the puzzling name sounded more like genetics than wine. Like Project Runway, with its stereotypically catty cast of characters ripping each other's souls out, Project Genome typecasts the souls of wine buyers. The study, sponsored by corporate wine behemoth Constellation Brands, reported the results of an online survey of 3,500 people, asking more than a hundred questions about their recent wine-buying behavior and lifestyle choices. The findings placed people into six neat stereotypical segments. Here are the Project Genome definitions: Enthusiasts (12 percent), who are obsessed and wallow in wine-ness; Image Seekers (20 percent) buy both for sophistication as well as for trendiness; Savvy Shoppers (15 percent) seek out great wines with great value; Traditionalists (16 percent) want wine from an established winery; Satisfied Sippers (14 percent) desire a sensible wine to serve to family and friends; and Overwhelmed (23 percent), which represent consumers who find shopping for wine frustrating.

Cutesy names aside, there is some validity to these segments, and they remind me that typecasting works sometimes. In this spirit, I defined each myself, hoping to cut through the bullshit.

• Enthusiasts: These exploring people try everything and rarely drink the same wine twice. They read anything "wine" and tend to think independently, so you can't peg them. I hang with a bunch of Enthusiasts.

• Image Seekers: Personally, these people make me nauseous and are the main reason why wine is viewed as a stuck-up beverage. They drop $140 on Silver Oak Cabernet or Cristal, no matter how many better wines are on the wine list, just to look cool. I'm depressed the percentage is so high.

• Savvy Shoppers: They want to expand but are nervous about it. The folks frequent wine tastings and buy the best values that night. They aren't scared of more expensive wines, as long as they've tried them. I love these people -- they listen and make my ego swell.

• Traditionalists: These people don't necessarily care about the price but also don't want to be surprised. They buy the same chardonnay each time they go to the wine shop or grocery store, like Mer Soleil (higher end) or Clos du Bois (lower end). Boring people, but hey, they support the industry and keep me working.

• Satisfied Sippers: They lack the explorer gene, probably have consumed the same crappy wine for years, like Schmitt Sohne's Piersporter or Beringer White Zinfandel. They don't give a shit about where it comes from; they just want to catch a buzz.

• Overwhelmed: They struggle at the store, and seek out creative designs on labels for their purchases. Animals hook them every time, and they fall prey to marketing efforts. Advice: Look for reliable Australian brands like Jacob's Creek and Penfold's. No animals, but they are consistent.

Why segment wine consumers? To make money, of course. The industry wants to market its wines more effectively, as well as graduate people through the levels to higher priced brands. But there's nothing wrong with being on any level -- make it work (as Gunn would say) with your taste, wine drinkers.

Recommended Wines

Covey Run 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon Columbia Valley (Washington) Smoky flavor like charred meat, laced with roasted cherries and ripe blackberries. A bit of oak tannin gives it some heft. Sw = 1. $13. *** 1/2

Sweetness (Sw) rating is out of 10, 10 being pure sugar. Star (*) rating is out of 5, 5 being wine nirvana.

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