Explainer

Why Do People Fall In Love With One Particular Wine?

Examining the psychology behind wine brand loyalty

Stacey Lastoe By July 20, 2021July 27th, 2021
Photo illustration by Allison Kahler.

When Alison Sperlongo grocery shops in Parkland, Florida, she makes sure to replenish her stock of her daily wine, a Chardonnay from Kendall-Jackson. 

Like many fans of the affordable and distinctive California brand, she’s devoted to the country’s number-one selling Chardonnay, an accolade it first celebrated in 1992, 10 years after its debut.

The wine even has its own nicknames: KJ Chard or KJ Chardonnay, used as hashtags on social media. 

Sperlongo almost exclusively drinks white wine, and if it’s up to her, it will be Kendall-Jackson’s flagship Vintner’s Reserve California Chardonnay. Which raises the question — what makes someone stick to the same wine, year in, year out, when there’s a whole world of variety out there? 

No surprises here

Back in the 1970s, white Burgundy was the go-to at the retail store. Named for France’s most famous Chardonnay-producing region, the American version rarely had any actual Chardonnay in it, according to a short history that Christy Canterbury MW wrote for Kendall-Jackson. That changed after attorney Jess Jackson planted Chardonnay on an old orchard in Lake County. He took his first vintage, the 1982, to New York and hand-sold it to wine retailers and sommeliers. He would pour the wine, ask people to give him its probable price, and then reveal the real, lower price. Soon, the wine was flying off the shelves. 

Randy Ullom, Kendall-Jackson’s winemaster, characterizes it as an “incredibly food-friendly wine, boasting tropical flavors of pineapple, mango, and papaya with citrus notes that explode on the palate.” 

Ullom says the wine has changed since its debut. “Although it’s quite different than it was 30 years ago — the style is a bit more dry, we source primarily from our estate vineyards, and it’s now 95% barrel fermented — the approach is similar.” 

Sperlongo doesn’t offer much in the way of tasting notes herself and promises she is no connoisseur; she just really likes the wine. One of the biggest reasons? After almost a decade of sipping the medium-bodied, straw-colored wine, she knows what she’s getting. 

“I know exactly how much I can consume, and how it will affect me,” Sperlongo explains.

It’s this specific wine; she doesn’t like Kendall-Jackson’s Grand Reserve Santa Barbara County Chardonnay, which retails for $5 more than its sibling. Its 14.5% ABV, as opposed to the standard’s 13.5% ABV, may have something to do with that. 

Yet the Grand Reserve has its fans too. Rochester, Minnesota couple Paul Grinde, 63, and Debra Jacobson, 68, a lawyer and retired judge respectively, have been enjoying it since the late ‘90s when they visited California wine country and stumbled upon Kendall-Jackson’s tasting room.

It’s been their go-to white ever since, though they’re ok with decent alternatives, J. Lohr or Wente. While Grinde and Jacobson are open to trying new things, they do consider themselves extreme creatures of habit, and enjoy the overall consistency in flavor they can rely on.

How preferences develop

Dr. Jared Watson, assistant professor of marketing at New York University’s Stern School of Business, who studies consumer psychology and behavior, says that “brand loyalty is fostered through product features that satisfy consumer needs, brand reputation, and trust that the brand will continue to perform.”

Watson explains that loyalty develops over time and instills a certain confidence in the consumer. “We believe that sticking with our brand long-term will outweigh any short-term benefits of switching, so we don’t need to entertain competitors’ promotions.” 

Sperlongo, for example, isn’t swayed by the competition, and believes the long-term benefits of drinking her favorite wine far outweigh any short-term benefit of trying a different Chardonnay, many of which have proven to give her headaches or an unexpected, fast buzz.

Knowing what you’re getting is a significant part of brand loyalty, Watson says. There’s even a name for it: prevention-focused mindset. This mindset — I know what I will get with the purchase and it’s good enough for me — drives consumer behavior to a certain extent, but it’s not the whole story. 

People also internalize brands. In what’s called a self-brand connection, we “feel like the brand embodies who we are, our actual self, or who we want to be, our ideal self,” Watson explains.

In addition to enjoying the taste of Kendall-Jackson’s Chardonnays, Jacobson says they like that the Vintner’s Reserve has won awards and has been the top-selling Chardonnay in the U.S. for 26 years running. 

There is also another effect: the mere exposure effect, which states that the more you’re exposed to something, the more you’ll like it, just because you’re more familiar with it. 

We believe that sticking with our brand long-term will outweigh any short-term benefits of switching, so we don’t need to entertain competitors’ promotions.”

Making a change

Yet people can and do change course. A new cultural trend can do it. Remember when White Claw showed up a few years ago, and suddenly, everybody was drinking it? Watson points to this as an example of how a new, fun and exciting brand, can potentially make a person think that their old brand has lost the ability to inspire such feelings, motivating them to change their behavior.

Or someone could learn something about a brand that they dislike and be motivated to make a change. Consider the way companies’ politics have come into play in recent years; brand boycotting has become a rather popular way to take a stand.

Another way is simply to change the physical environment, to stop familiar cues from reinforcing old behaviors. In other words — a new place will prompt new choices.

New York’s Slope Cellars is a classic wine retailer that carries lesser-known labels, for example. Though not pretentious or intimidating, the carefully curated wine store carries wines “made in a more natural, organic style,” says Patty Lenartz, the shop’s proprietor. 

“We prefer to use our money to buy smaller quantities of multiple wines,” Lenartz explains. 

Habits are, however, hard to break. “Whenever possible, we want to minimize the exertion of mental effort,” and this behavior makes us “cognitive misers,” Watson explains.

It’s easier to stick with what we know because it requires less work and less thinking, which frees us up to focus on other things. And for some people, finding a brand that can be trusted is its own pleasure.

Sperlongo describes herself as super rigid and structured, in general, and having found that KJ Chardonnay is the wine that works for her, she’ll drink to that.