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)

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  1. John says:

    The point of developing your palette isn’t to distinguish cheap wine from expensive wine: the point is to distinguish great wine from not-so-great wine. That’s the distinction that matters, and here ignorance is not bliss.

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  2. Brooke says:

    I don’t know about white wine, but if you’re drinking Cabernet Sauvignon, even a beginner knows the difference between a wine high in tannins and a smoother one.

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  3. Derek says:

    The point of developing your palette isn’t to distinguish cheap wine from expensive wine: the point is to appear worldy (though often pompous) in front of everyone. Of course, ever since Sideways came out, it seems everyone thinks he’s an expert anyway.

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  4. MBirchmeier says:

    From what I’ve read people also like wine/water/anything more if they believe it to be more expensive. A placebo effect on quality if you will.

    So fess up, what was the cheap wine… I’m always open to suggestions for a good cheap red.

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  5. Rob says:

    Surely the point is how much the drinker enjoys the wine, whether this is because of a real or perceived or a real difference in quality. I’m no wine expert, and if I were given cheap plonk in a Chateau Margaux bottle I’d no doubt enjoy it more then if it were in its own bottle, but so what? If monetary value were the only consideration I’d be drinking water anyway.

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  6. Standish Marks says:

    This is so true…but I will say that a very fine aged red Bordeaux is truly discernible, and worth trying at least once in your life (a good item for the “bucket list”), and by fine I mean REALLY fine, like over $500! I drink a certain $4 chardonnay from the bargain bin at Kappy’s (Crane Lake, from California) which is better than 90% of chards I’ve had, and it has no bad habits, the requirement for a cheap wine!

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  7. CH says:

    great story. everybody likes to hear about haughtiness proven to be a sham.

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  8. Stefano says:

    This short guide (not written by me!) saved my life in more than one social situations where fake sommelier skills were all that prevented me from being a total outcast:

    http://theferrett.livejournal.com/1060599.html

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