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)


Andy T

I totally disagree with his conclusion, 100%. Why not refrain from learning to read; otherwise you'll then be able to tell the difference between lousy pulp fiction and great literature, and will go out and waste your money on collector's editions of William Shakespeare.

erik de koster

@145 I would like to apologize to mr. Pavlovich if I offended him. My remark about a 'developed' country was meant to be ironic, as indicated by the hyphenation and the remark about the tongue in the cheeck. You are obviuously right that this is a cultural phenomenon.

Ken McAloon

The important thing about wine that is never mentioned (and the French don't even a word for it) is the quality of the "high." With a good wine, you drink less, drink more slowly and get a much better sense of "bien-etre" from it.

WCB

It is not the point to develop a palate to distinguish an expensive bottle of wine from a cheap bottle of wine. The point is to distinguish between a good and a bad wine. My take is, and has always been, anyone can find a good wine at $60, but finding a good wine at $15..er...$8 is the goal of developing the palate.
There are almost no bad $60 wines, but there are an awful lot of them at $8.

Paul Wermer

Don't train your senses, its cheaper in the long run. Is that the message? Is that a virtue?

It's also false, based on my culinary experiences.

Mark Norman

#15 Scott ... "Experts have discerning palettes, and that enables them to notice and appreciate the subtle differences". I agree with you! A sense of humor is also a skill that can be refined, whereas looking into a mirror cannot. Judging by your comment on the author's conclusion, if you were to perform the latter you would then notice a lack of the former.

sunshine

"fancy people with lots of training can tell cheap wine from expensive wine, but regular people cannot"

You have missed one point of the Harvard ritual, which is to expose regular people to many varieties of expensive wine, thus giving them the chance to become trained people.

If the tradition is eliminated, your regular colleagues will never become trained and will thus miss out on the joys that only the trained can know when drinking expensive wine.

Robert Sutton

A lot of factors can affect the price of wine that have nothing to do with what is in the bottle. When the movie Sideways came out, Hitching Post's pinot noir sold much faster causing its price to shoot up. But the wine didn't get any better. Because wine makers develop a reputation over many years, the demand (and consequently, the price) for their product can be a reflection of past success, not current value. A wine maker could have ten straight years of fantastic wine and then bad weather in the 11th year, resulting in a high priced but low quality wine. The region is hugely important too. If a wine is made exactly like Champagne but is produced 20 meters outside of the Champagne AOC (AOC is the abbreviation for the legal term of an area that France has designated to allow wines within to be called _____.), then it cannot be called Champagne. That alone could cause the price to drop 20-30%, but indicates very little about the quality of what's actually in the bottle.
The best correlation might actually be between the quality of wine and the yield of the crop. When a wine maker takes the time and effort to reduce the amount of cases per hectare the result is usually a wine that shows more levels of flavor. High yield wines usually taste overly fruity or tannic. Lots of fruit or tannins can dominate the palate and prevent people from tasting other, more subtle things in the wine. But most people without developed palates prefer fruitier wines. I too liked fruitier wines once. But, I never enjoyed any wine then as much as I enjoy some wines now. So to recommend that people remain ignorant of great wine is to do them a great disservice. It is not just a club where everyone pretends to be enjoying something that nobody likes. There is no $2 bottle of wine that can even compare to that rare and complex wine that you can still taste every element of and be enjoying a full 10 minutes after swallowing! Wine is more than fruity alcohol.

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Mary Anne

I think that you enjoy what you enjoy. If expensive wine floats your boat, and you can afford it, then you shouldn't have to feel bad about it. Likewise, if you like the cheap stuff (or don't like wine at all), then you shouldn't feel bad about it either. And, just for reference, Professor Levitt was being just as pompous as everyone else, just in the other direction. Telling people that they are wrong for enjoying a luxury item is not exactly tactful.

teneriff

Irene #63 had the experience. It's like doing acid. Once you've been there, you've been there.

Ron Chen

Steven Levitt is to the Harvard Society of Fellows what George Bush is the Harvard Business School.

Attendance at Harvard certainly did not lead either individual to advance their education. With respect to your assertions about tasting wine Steven, just how do you explain the fact that individuals must successfully pass the rigorous tasting exams in which they have to identify the type of wines, the varietals and the regions from whence they originate before they can be recognized as a Master of Wine?

By the way Steven, does a burnt Sirloin taste like tender Filet Mignon to you?

Edwin Hall

I've always sipped wines that I liked, and over thirty years I've had a lot of time to define what it is I like. Over time I have found that there are wines I used to drink, that I just cannot stand to drink anymore. So even without an externally validated training course, I find I am tending to more expensive wines. My focus has always been on the best drinking experience for the dollar. For a while I was able to drink Crane Lake, but have a harder and harder time now. Some of my price/performance favorites for my tongue are:

Pinot Noir - one of my favorites even before Sideways, but hard to get good ones cheap - my pick is Schug (

Chris

Ignorance is bliss?

Not if you have an opportunity to speak with Amartyr Sen, who is a brilliant economist, and a philosophically minded one at that, and you talk about science.

Diana

What's expensive? I buy wine at Wiggy's, the neighborhood liquor store and they have a terrific selection of great wines starting at $7. Could I tell the difference between a $15 bottle of wine and a $100 bottle? No. I was served Dom Perignon once and it tasted not quite as good as a bottle of $18 sparkling I buy every Thanksgiving.
Austin, Texas

Andrew Bolton

Drink what you like, by all means. But it's stupid and ignorant to suggest that there is no difference in quality between a $7 bottle of California Cab and a 1982 Mouton-Rothschild.

Of course there are many who claim to have a discerning palate but do not -- and the Harvard tasting group Mr. Levitt exposed were among them.

(Likewise, there are many who believe they know little or nothing of wine but whose palates are exceptionally sensitive. Generally these are women, whose noses science has repeatedly shown us are, on average, considerably more discerning than men's yet who, in trial after trial, describe themselves as wine lovers while the men boast of being wine experts!)

Mocking wine connoisseurship -- or an appreciation of fine art or classical music, or any other relatively rarefied field associated with high European cultural traditions -- is easy and satisfying perhaps for those who have never taken the time or made a serious and prolonged effort to understand it themselves. They reveal only their own reverse snobbery in the process.

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Bob Weisberger

Thanks so much for this.

If you haven't yet, read "Taste" by Roald Dahl - a great short story re wine tasting.

Jason

So many chips, so many shoulders. The results of these learned tasting studies reveal only that the participants don't even know what they don't know. Plebes and snobs alike: if you don't want to be fooled by cunning professors and crafty sommeliers learn first what it means to be a wine expert, and become one. You will then have something worthwhile to say. Otherwise stick to "I personally like this" and "I personally don't like this" - anything more, plebes and snobs alike, just reveals your ignorance.

ValleySnark

The big economic point here is the idea of being able to opt out of part of a bundled menu. I'm surprised that an economist would support that idea. Imagine if, with health insurance, people could opt out of coverage for certain diseases. I'm unlikely to get breast cancer, sickle cell anemia or Tay0Sachs. Why do I have to pay for those diseases?

In this situation, imagine if the person who didn't like beef wanted to opt out of the beef course. And then the anti-coffee guy wants his quarter back? I wouldn't want to pay for desert. I'm on a diet.

What you're paying for with dinners like this is a plush event where people have a good time with each other. The sum here is worth more than the parts. The transaction costs of everyone picking out what they won't pay for is bad enough. But even allowing that, the unbundling of the components of the event also unbundles the community building aspect of it. And that is what everyone else was paying for.

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Doktor

this is only making sense if you would give us the prices of the wines you bought. I used to be very unnerved about wine snobs but have changed my mind aroudn 8 years ago when I started to drink red whine daily while I was living in Paris. It is true that taste is very subjective in almost every field but I would say that tasting the quality of wine is one of the few exceptions where people with long tastes can agree on quality. Another field where experts can agree is classical music but any other field you can more or less forget about it anyway.

Now back to the prices:
usually 3 dollar wines are definitly crap - at least from the store. They are the ones who will give you a headache.

a 15 DOllar whine should be better then a 7 dollar whine but it is true that some 7 dollar whines can be better then the 15 dollar. In general I would say 5$ to 22 $ whines are in about the same category. YOu really have to compare a 7 $ whine to a 30 $ to 50 $ whine because that definitly is another category. Now if you cant taste the difference here you are obviously no big fan of whine. I found that it takes around 2-4 years of regular tasting to acquire a basic sense for quality whines. If you once have that it only gets better. It is life enrichening. By the way most whines I buy are between 7- 15 dollar. Of course you find a lot of good ones there.

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Joel

I'm glad someone mentioned the research by Brian Wansink, now of Cornell, the author of Mindless Eating.

He did some great work along these lines was done in a "laboratory" restaurant, where all diners were served a complementary glass of wine. Half of the room was told the wine was from California, the other half from North Dakota (!).

This experiment doesn't go where most people think, with self-reports of how much the diners enjoyed the wine. Instead, the researchers tracked how long the diners stayed at the table, and how much food they left on their plates -- surrogate unobtrusive measures for how much they were enjoying the meal.

Result? The group with the "North Dakota" wine spent less time at the table and left more food on their plates than those with the California wine.

So if you THINK you're drinking high quality wine, you're more likely to enjoy the entire surrounding experience. That certainly explains why Levitt's Harvard colleagues would be so upset by his suggestions.

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