Wine Marketing, Consumer Research Earns Cornell Student Wine Market Council Scholarship

Jie Li '17 was awarded the inaugural Bob Kalik scholarship from the Wine Market Council to continue her study of winery owners’ motivations. Photo provided.

Growing up in China, Jie Li ’17 never heard of wine before beginning her studies at Cornell. After enrolling in the course “Introduction to Wines” on a whim, she discovered the wine world and never turned back. 

Now a Ph. D. candidate in the field of Applied Economics and Management, Li can be found sipping Riesling and producing award-winning research in wine marketing and consumer habits. She was recently named the inaugural winner of the Bob Kalik scholarship from the Wine Market Council to continue her study of winery owners’ motivations. The scholarship is given in the name of the late Bob Kalik, a long-time leader of the U.S. wine industry who was a founder of Wine Market Council.

As part of her study with Professor Miguel Gómez, Li surveyed 103 winery owners in non-traditional wine regions in the U.S., such as Michigan and Missouri, in an attempt to understand how owners’ personal reasoning affects wine pricing and quality.

“Wine producers have diverse motivations for entering the business,” Li said. “Some have a personal connection to wine; perhaps their family owned a winery, while others might open a winery after retiring because they think it’ll be a good business opportunity.”

In order to determine the correlation between motivation and quality, she surveyed winery owners with a series of questions, ranging from “Are you entering the wine business because you are driven by profit opportunities?” to “What wineries use your ideal business model?” Li also assessed whether owners grow their own grapes or outsource them, as owners generally have better control of grapes that are grown on location.

After collecting the answers, she used Wine Spectator, a database that records wine ratings from thousands of reviewers, to make an aggregate analysis regarding the quality of the wine in question.

Li’s second project involves analyzing how biological physiology influences consumers’ tastes and wine consumption behavior. Some people are “supertasters,” meaning that they have more taste buds on their tongue than the average person has. These extra taste buds have a protein receptor that makes supertasters particularly sensitive to bitter food and drink, like black coffee, kale, dark chocolate — and wine.

“The concept of supertasters is illuminating, but it is often seen in food science journals versus Marketing Journals. Although supertasters are not a typical socioeconomic demographic, taste physiology can help producers provide better wine recommendations to their customers,” she said.

After rounding up participants, Li will be tracking  the purchasing decisions of supertasters in the Finger Lakes region as well as helping wineries better market their products to people with diverse taste preferences.

Gómez said he is “extremely proud” of his advisee and her research.

“She works very hard and goes out of her way to make sure her research is state-of-the-art. This is a recognition of her efforts and I am very thankful to the Wine Market Council for selecting Jie for this prestigious Bob Kalik scholarship,” Gómez said.

Li too feels “incredibly grateful and excited” to receive the scholarship, adding “it’s made me more determined to work in the wine industry.”

After graduation, Li hopes to becomes a liaison between U.S. wine industry and Asian consumers and bring quality U.S. wines to her home country.

“When I present my work at conferences, I am often the only Asian there presenting wine research, so in a way, I feel it’s my duty to help establish the wine business in Asian countries,” she said.  

Gwen Aviles is a student writer for the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.