Cheap Wine

I spent three years at Harvard in the Society of Fellows. I had no obligations there except to spend my Monday nights eating fancy meals in the company of some of the world’s most brilliant thinkers: Nobel Prize-winning scientist Amartya Sen, philosopher Robert Nozick, etc. Dinner was always accompanied by expensive wine from the society’s wine cellar.

I have an extremely underdeveloped palate. I’ve never liked wine much. Given the choice between gourmet cooking and fast food, I’ll usually take the fast food. While the Society of Fellows was an incredible experience, it wasn’t a particularly well paying one. As poor as I was, it didn’t make sense to me to be drinking $60 bottles of wine that I didn’t even enjoy.

So I suggested that perhaps there should be two tracks: one that drank wine and one that didn’t. Those of us who agreed not to drink wine could perhaps be paid in cash some portion of the savings from our abstinence. My suggestion was not viewed kindly.

So I tried to make my point in a different way. On Tuesday afternoons we had wine tastings. I asked if I could be allowed the opportunity to conduct one of these wine tastings “blind” to see what we could learn from sampling wines without first knowing what we were drinking. Everyone thought this was a great idea. So with the help of the wine steward I selected two expensive bottles from the wine cellar and then I went down the street to the liquor store and bought the cheapest bottle of wine they had made from the same type of grape.

I thus had two different expensive wines and one cheap one. I tried to make things more interesting by splitting one of the expensive bottles into two different decanters. Thus, in total the wine tasters had four wines to taste, although in reality there were only three different wines, with one sampled twice by each taster. I gave them a rating sheet and each person rated each of the four wines.

The results could not have been better for me. There was no significant difference in the rating across the four wines; the cheap wine did just as well as the expensive ones. Even more remarkable, for a given drinker, there was more variation in the rankings they gave to the two samples drawn from the same bottle than there was between any other two samples. Not only did they like the cheap wine as much as the expensive one, they were not even internally consistent in their assessments.

There was a lot of anger when I revealed the results, especially the fact that I had included the same wine twice. One eminent scholar stormed out of the room stating that he had a cold — otherwise he would have detected my sleight of hand with certainty. Armed with this evidence, I again made my pitch for extra compensation to those who passed on the expensive wine at dinners.

My plan once again received an icy reception.

Fifteen years later, I am happy to report that the results of my little experiment have been confirmed by rigorous academic research involving more than 5,000 subjects, as published in a paper entitled “Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better?” from the American Association of Wine Economists published in the Journal of Wine Economics, Vol. 3, No. 1. Their conclusion: fancy people with lots of training can tell cheap wine from expensive wine, but regular people cannot. (A non-gated working paper version is available here.)

What lesson should we take from this? No matter what, do not let yourself become a wine expert who can tell the difference between cheap and expensive wines. When it comes to your pocketbook and wine, ignorance is bliss.

(Hat tip: Camilla Reimer)


Matt

I thought the point of becoming an expert was to make up new words for tastes that sound good to be able to detect, always starting with "notes of" or "a hint of"...

Quelle Dommage

@ #142 ... No one has ever posited that "ignorance is indeed bliss?" I believe it has been posited many many many times by large numbers of people. Were those people ignorant of the full context of the quote? Whether they were blissfully so or not is difficult to determine.

Of course the full quote is a fair corollary to "When in Rome ...."

I do not speak wine and thus got a guilty pleasure out of this twitting.

Still, just because I cannot match the tastes I experience to the descriptions of the experts is hardly proof that their language has no meaning or utility. Did you ever spend time discussing Wittgenstein with any of these Nobel laureates? Quaddition?

Esteban

"Nobel Prize-winning scientist Amartya Sen"

He's an economist (you must know that) and there's no Nobel for economics. Not even if you try to class it as a dismal science.

Joe

Seems like it was all bad wine, and your reviewer's had, um, tough palettes. I happen to know of an excellent $5 Zin-based table wine. But I'll only tell my friends. (Interestingly, one had already discovered it.)

Anton Pavlovich

It's sad indeed that wine has become so tangled up with snobbery. Few people are ever able to see beyond the pompous fakery that is all too often associated with it.

The U.S. is not historically a wine country. Because until quite recently grapes could not be properly grown and wine correctly made in most regions, most Americans rarely if ever had access to it. It was a pleasure available to only the well-off who could afford the expense of importing it. For this reason wine became a status symbol here. As will happen with status symbols, its social cachet eventually took precedence over its inherent aesthetic qualities. People with no appreciation of its taste would and still do merely pretend to enjoy it for fear of being seen as uncultured rubes.

People like Dr. Levitt (probably raised on sugary sodie-pop like most Americans) go off to Harvard or wherever, get their first taste of wine and not getting the familiar blast of sugar to which they've become accustomed are mystified by what all the fuss is about. They pick up on the snob queues of those imbibing around them before they pick up on the subtler flavors of the beverage itself. They conclude that it's all just an empty society game, and consider themselves quite superior for being able to see through it all. Most of those ranting and cheering for Dr. Levitt in the responses above show that he has lots of company. Their disgust for the phony social posturing of wine snobs is to be applauded, but their lack of insight into the real complexities and pleasures of well-made wine is their loss.

I'm not surprised by the results of Dr. Levitt's blind tasting demonstration at Harvard. (Though I am surprised that a Harvard and MIT graduate would be so apparently oblivious to its methodological shortcomings.) I'm not surprised by the results of the study in the Journal of Wine Economics, either. It merely shows that 5000 Americans are not accustomed to drinking wine.

Monsieur De Koster has a point when he says that were a similar study conducted in a traditionally wine-drinking country such as France, there would be much different results. His own Gallic arrogance and ethnocentric pomposity evident in his comments are certainly misplaced, though. I would point out to him that wine is simply part of the local color in France whereas here it is is not. It shouldn't be at all surprising that French people are more discerning with wine than Americans. Americans' ignorance of wine is merely that, an ignorance of wine. The French shouldn't be considered more "developed" because their country has been climatically better suited to one particular agricultural product. What would Monsieur say to a Chinese, Indian or Lebanese people who considered the French barbarians for not having as refined a taste for whatever delicacy their country has been blessed with? (And the above applies not just to wine, but to whatever other French cultural phenomenon you can think of.)

Let's get the snobbery (American and Gallic) away from wine. It's what's in the glass that matters. If you just learn to pay attention to what's there as you continue to drink the stuff, you'll eventually come to see what all the fuss is really about.

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Ed

I guess the cheap wine wasn't Night Train.

Eric

I took a wine tasting class about ten years ago. It was mostly focused on introducing the different varieties of wine, not comparing "good" vs. "bad" wines, but the students frequently asked how to tell if a wine is good or not and how to pick a "good" wine.

The instructor answered with advice I'll never forget: "I've found lots of good wine that cost $6 a bottle. A good wine is one that you enjoy."

Eliot

Penn Jillette performed a similar analysis on bottled water: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XfPAjUvvnIc

suzanne

You have not made a salient point, just a broad generalization. Yes, many people do not have a very good sense of taste/smell and will eat anything, like you and your appreciation of junk food. Fine. That doesn't mean people who enjoy good food and drink will be happy with just anything if we don't know any better. I have had many horrid bottles of wine, including some very musty expensive organics.

The middle-aged men you drank with sound like very pretentious fellows. I completely agree with comment #44 above that there are many tasty, complex wines in the $15 range. Readers should also be aware of the enormous markup restaurants add to all wines they serve.

Reformed Wine Buyer

Learning to distinguish between a good wine and a poor one is easy. Like training yourself to do anything it just takes a little bit of commitment. Simply taste 2 to 4 comparable wines together and take the time to draw conclusions, and repeat. Usually the differences, even between similar wines, just hit you over the head. Try any type of wine that is not immediately accessible to you (for example dry reds) a few times until you understand them. They taste the way they do for a reason, and they are not bad as a class.

That your colleagues in the Society of Fellows could not distinguish between the fancier and plainer wines they were drinking just reveals the not surprising fact that they had never taken this simple step. Were they wasting their money? Probably. Should we feel supercilious toward them? Certainly not. They are distinguished academics - mere humans, not wine professionals.

30 years ago as an unemployed undergraduate I regularly drank bottles of classified Bordeaux that sell for $30 and up today. Now I only very rarely pay more than $12 for a bottle. I recall serving one of those old Bordeaux favorites to family and friends at a dinner where the other wines were excellent California cabs, big wines but with a respectable degree of age. The differences were stupendous and not at all subtle. The old Bordeaux yielded incomparable pleasures.

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OT

I think people get too riled up over "wine snobs". As someone who enjoys the many flavors of life, I know that with wine, as with anything, I know what I like. I was recently thrilled by a couple of glasses of a Gruner Veltliner that a friend brought over. Doing some research I learned, to my great delight, that the bottle can be had for under $11! Several years ago, a friend brought over a Bertani Amarone as a house-warming gift. It is difficult to put into words the sheer joy of this wine. Of course, at just under $100, it is not within my budget to regularly indulge.

A neighbor in my building opened a wine store in New York named Best Cellars. They focus on excellent wines for under $20. I recently spent some time at a small party he had. We were all tasting and enjoying different wines and sharing notes. No one had an attitude, no one was trying to outdo anyone, and with few exceptions, none of the bottles of wine cost more than $15. Oh, and said neighbor was awarded sommelier of the year in the US in 1986 and has represented the US in the international sommelier competition in France.

So there you have it - the media has painted a picture of wine lovers as "snobs", and the "regular guys" like taking pot shots. The reality is, there are a lot of really neat wines to try out there, and people who enjoy wine like tasting it in the company of others who share the same interest. And we are all thrilled when we discover a tasty wine for a reasonable price!

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Patrick K

I disagree with the beer post. Budweiser and the mass-produced beers taste bland as hell, and the microbrews are usually very flavorful.

Or maybe I'm just a beer guy, not a wine guy.

George

It's all 7up to me.

Jay Ham

Even the "experts" can't agree. The Wine Spectator had their California and French white wine experts blindly tasted some of the most famous whites of the two regions using the 100 point scale. They disagreed by up to 20 points on some of the wines. This interexpert variability has been demonstrated many times.

Personally I have found the exact same wine to taste extremely different on different occasions depending on my mood, the ambiance, the matching food, the people with me, etc.

In this day and age of huge supply, it no longer makes sense to me to spend large sums of money for wine (unless you're an investor) because there are thousands of great bottles for a reasonable price. Almost anyone should be able to find good wine for less than $10 and great wine for less than $20.

If you're an investor, buy some of the $100-$500 bottles, cellar them, and make a handsome profit in the future if they have "name" recognition.

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Max

You see similar results with other high-end consumer goods. For instance, "golden ears" -- experts on hi-fi equipment -- turn out to be unable to distinguish expensive gear from inexpensive in double-blind listening tests. Doubtless one moral is that people are highly suggestible and self-deluding. Also, however, it may be that some product lines have become so good that even the cheap stuff is pretty close to the limits of perfectibility.

Clarke

It would be interesting to apply the same methodology to other fields of interest and expertise. For example; study the results of a group of people (who are preferably drinking wine) who are to read various economic theories, some by professors of economics, and others by enologists and wine appreciators, in a blind side-by-side comparison, in order to see which theories seem more plausible to the largest group. You could throw in a wrinkle by telling the participants that world-renown economic experts wrote all of the theories. An interesting follow-up might be to see how those theories held up twenty years later.

There is a complex moral here; yes we all are experts of everything in our own way, but don't confuse your own proud ignorance with insight, even if it is shared by the majority of your peers, and lastly, yes, sometimes the experts have it wrong, no matter how highly paid they are.

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Carrigan

The law of diminishing returns applies to wine- i.e., you pay increasingly greater prices for smaller and smaller improvements in quality. I think it is typically easy to detect the difference between a $5 wine and a $20 wine. Between a $20 wine and one that costs $50, that difference is much more difficult to discern for the average wine drinker.

So there is, I believe, missing information in your example. What was the cost of the 'cheap wine' in your study?

Also, at what point were the 'tasters' commenting on the wines. Once you've had a few sips, are into it, and are actually swallowing the wine- good luck keeping your palate clean and honest!

Fabio Escobar

In response to the first poster: an interesting point is raised here -- whether there is a distinction in fact between "great wine and not-so-great wine." The poster assumes that such a distinction holds as an objective reality, but why should someone accept the assumption? Isn't it just as likely that the development of the palate -- even with its attendant growth in acuity of gustatory discernment -- is a wholly subjective one?

To further my point: consider that when we develop the palate beyond the crude distinctions that the masses can make (bitter, sweet, tart, etc.), we move into a realm of fine-tuned qualities that do not always have public names and about which two or more people have a hard time communicating. This accounts for the fact that snobs (and other self-conceived intellectuals) can often be caught faking a conversation (i.e., the "good will hunting phenomenon"). That this sort of thing seems to happen so often seems to point to the conclusion that there is little to no objective element in matters of taste.

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Jonathan

I think there is definitely a noticeable difference between good wine, and bad wine, it's just not always a price difference. Like anything, price can be driven up by name, rarity, irrational demand, etc., and not necessarily taste.

However... you're more likely to find a better tasting wine, the higher you go, provided you develop a taste of more complex wines (but if you like a $10 chianti magnum, hey... more power to you, you've saved alot of money)

Someone commented about beer. Beer is different... you can't find beer in the $100's of dollar range, not really even in the $50 range (unless we're talking kegs here). But there is a huge difference between budweiser and miller, and a number of microbrews. Maybe I'm more of a beer snob.

David

The irony of all of this is, coming from someone who works in a wine shop, is that all of the haters on here think that the experts drink expensive wines. Usually expensive California crap is just that: crap. Wine experts make fun of these people as well! Many of you are bashing experts, when the experts are drinking the $10 bottles as well. Because the good wines are the ones people don't know about. The great part about knowing a lot about wine, is knowing where to get it, not distinguishing it from Charles Shaw. Anyway, continue with the bashing and please keep making yourselves feel better about it!