Keep the Cheap Wine Flowing

I blogged last week about blind wine tastings — my own casual experiments as well as some more serious academic ones. The bottom line is that in blind wine tastings, there is a zero or even slightly negative correlation between the ratings of regular people and the price of the wine they are drinking; for experts the relationship between rating and price is positive.

I’ve learned a few more things from blog readers about cheap wine over the last few days.

Robin Goldstein has an excellent book, The Wine Trials, which describes the blind wine tastings and which cheap wines people liked. The beauty of this book is that you can bring an $8 bottle of wine to a party and explain that it tastes better than the $28 bottle you would have bought. If the host of the party is an economist, you can tape a $10 bill to the bottle for an even split of the joint surplus.

Not until I read Goldstein’s book did I realize just how weak the correlation was in blind tastings between expert evaluations and price in experimental settings. Yet, somehow Wine Spectator, which claims to do tastings blind (at least with respect to who the producer is), has an extremely strong positive correlation between prices and ratings. Hmmm … seems a bit suspicious.

It turns out that the story with respect to cheap wine is even more true for champagne. I’ve never tasted a $12 bottle of champagne that I didn’t enjoy immensely. It turns out I am not alone. In blind tests, Domaine Ste. Michelle Cuvee Brut, a $12 sparkling wine from Washington, is preferred nearly two to one to $150 Dom Perignon if you strip away the labels.

Dan Ariely (author of Predictably Irrational) and his co-authors have an interesting experiment with beer and balsamic vinegar. If you tell people ahead of time there will be vinegar in their beer, they won’t like the taste. If you don’t tell them and do a blind tasting, they do like the taste. If you let them form their opinions and then tell them there was vinegar in the beer, most continue to say it tasted good.

I am generally skeptical of neuro-economics, but here is one such study which finds that the firing of neurons in the brain is affected by how much the subject thinks the wine he/she is being served cost. The bottom line seems to be that if you think a wine is more expensive, you really do enjoy it more.

Finally, a wonderful tale published in The New Yorker a year ago, written by Patrick Radden Keefe, profiled an ambitious conman who fooled the world’s leading wine experts for more than a decade before his nefarious plot unraveled. I can’t remember the last time I read an article this long from beginning to end in one sitting.

(Hat tip: Eric Jorgenson)


Recently, I've had the pleasure of having many conversations with various sommeliers in NYC.

What I've learned is that a higher price doesn't mean a "better" or "finer" wine. Like with anything you buy, you're paying for rarity of the wine and its brand. But, that doesn't necessarily mean it's a better wine.

For instance, wines from New Zealand or South Africa, they're less well-known, but apparently their wine is growing in structure and taste that rival Italian and French wines. But they're cheap.

Lars Marius Garshol

The Ariely experiment was not with beer and balsamic vinegar, but with Budweiser and balsamic vinegar. It's not really much of a surprise that people find Budweiser tastes better with vinegar than without.

The blind tasting effect is extremely real, however. I've always hugely enjoyed and respected Chimay Bleu (Belgian trappist beer). Until I tasted it blind, that is. It's entirely clear to me that expectation influences the taste experience almost as much as the taste itself.


What a nice little metaphor wine has become for America firing on two cylinders. Champions of Two Buck Chuck vociferously exercising your right to your opinion disconnected from any notion of actually having to know what you are talking about. All you bling bling lawyers with your bottles of wine that are the best because they cost a hundred bucks. All you Europhile Professors smacking your lips because the label said Montrachet. All you insecure economists with a wooden palate determined to debunk them. All you Dunkin Doughnuts fans who never had a bottle of real champagne in your life, thumping your chests for preferring the cheap sweet imitation in a blind tasting (quelle surprise!); all your blah, blah, blah practically drowning out the few people who actually did the hard work required to have something useful to say. Why don't you all go fix healthcare and education instead? You would, of course, if you could. And then you could have a nice glass of wine - whatever tastes good.



Dear Bob;

so what if you don't know wines. Seems to be an irrational decision- you have to taste it to know whether you like it. And whether you buy a cheaper bottle or more expensive one there is no guarantee of liking it. the most expensive bottle I once bought, we did not like. It's like playing lotto. So I lately just buy the type of wine as prefered. At least I have a bit of sense of what I am buying from the get go.


After reaing Mike's comment about golf, I have to say that something similar is true for musical instruments: as you improve, you need a better instrument. (I don't know that a beginner will sound worse on a fine instrument - in contrast to Mike's assertion about golf - but she certainly won't sound better.) Besides, I just think it is time to insert some mandolin jargon into this colloquy. Gibson is almost indisputably the brand of choice for ready-made (i.e., not custom) mandolins. When I took up mandolin, 20-odd years ago, I got a sweet-sounding round-hole vintage Gibson for somewhere in the high 3-figures. I was explaining to a a friend that this was the ideal mandolin for me: I would sound as good as I possibly could, but I would not look pretentious, as I would if I spent thousands of dollars on a Gibson F-5 (think: Bill Monroe and numerous other bluegrass stars). People might say, "She can barely play. Why does SHE have an F-5?" My friend a veteran of psychotherapy, shook his head and said, "Don't be self-effacing. Treat yourself well and buy the best mandolin you can afford."
Maybe that accounts for some of the expensive wine. (My friend, by the way, is utterly cheap and probably drinks Two-Buck Chuck. I am still playing the same mandolin and loving it.)



Two buck Chuck still works for us.


This might have been mentioned elsewhere, but the in Wine tasting lore, Steven Spurrier was the hero who slayed the Old world wine dragon. Read more about him and his love with Wines here.


I tested a very good wine cost 6.99$.In this blunt economy i can't expect good test from $80 bottle of wine.If i do it's just fantasy of drinking expensive wine.I know one of my friend who drinks daily one wine brand since last two years,and it cost 8.99$.Even he never tried any another kinds of wine offere free tasting.

cheap wine drinker

So...the reason some wines can be sold at a higher cost is because of great marketing. Especially vintage wines when some fraudster tells you it's a bottle owned by Napoleon himself.

Sometimes, when I browse through a wine store, I think the more expensive $30 bottles and the Two-Buck Chuck are there to sway me to buy the $15 bottle. Really like any other price-targeting scheme.


Another Washington champagne that would fare well in taste tests would be Mountain Dome:


Another comment about blind tastings (am I stealing this from your book, or somewhere else?) is that things taste different on the first sip v. the whole glass. I think Pepsi does better on the first sip than Coke because it is sweeter but if you put a bunch of cans in someone's house for two weeks they will drink more coke?


From reading the post and the resultant comments, I sense at least a tepid consensus in the direction of "buy what you personally enjoy" being on the whole more relevant than "buy according to what a rating says." A personal example:

I live in Germany. In 2001, I bought a "cheap" wine priced at 2,50 Eur from a supermaket chain store on a whim and thought it was still pretty good after letting it stand for an hour. This wine was labeled as being vinted in 1998. It was a 100% "Malbec" red from Argentina. Argentine wines were and are less known than French or Italians in Germany. It was bottled with an actual new cork, not a pressed or plastic one. (screw tops are for the most part still disdained in Germany...) That's part of the subjective enjoyment, I'll admit.

The label said it was bottled in Germany from casks bottled in Argentina. How anyone made money on it I still don't understand.

"Still," I liked it so much, that I bought an entire case and tried 2 bottles each year.

The wine aged well over a period of 3 years--which to me means its flavors on the whole got milder while at the same time more flavors appeared, it lost what little sparkliness it had, the alcohol in it burned less on the palate, and no one flavor stood out to me as overwhelming the others. And it made roasted red meat like lamb taste intenser (more "umami"), and the meat complimented it by making the wine taste less "tannic.", and so forth..

After four years, it started to go a little sour and taste slightly of cork.

From blindfolded tests "inflicted" on me by friends and my wife (and in the other direction) so far we have managed to find a, however slight, correlation between price and our personal tastes. The correlation is stronger for wines under EUR 5, with notable exceptions like the Argentine Malbec, getting more strong as the wine approaches the EUR 1 / liter variety. Our correlation gets weaker above EUR 35, and actually seems to go negative above EUR 50.

Maybe one has to find the right cheese and temperature and bread and mood, and previous food ingested to really appreciate the expensive ones. Maybe wine is so complex that at that level the expectations become by comparison ever stronger when compared to the aroma and taste.

I agree with the sentiment on this blog of being open to trying many different ones and settling on a personal taste. What correlation there may be between taste and price seems to get increasingly esoteric, perhaps even asymptotically esoterc, as price goes up, which semms to me to apply to many other goods as well. (stereos, cars, houses, boats...)

So I will try particular perparations of a specific food including wine at least once every time, and never write off something just because of its label or price tag or cork.

Price to me IS a guide below a certain level--repeated trials between the EUR 1 and EUR 5 pricepoint have led to disappointment at the low pricepoint. (headache, too syrupy, won't stand open for a day or two without starting to ferment)

I will stop buying or trying something after repeated disappointments...but I will also keep trying to find something new in the 3-5 Eur market that I will like better over 3 years and which will make me feel "I'm getting for 3 what would otherwise cost me 20...", which for me is also part of the enjoyment *smiles*



@Mike- Thanks much for clearing that up- where I was interpreting class in your words, I stand corrected, and will agree that experts should pay more if they want something different than the norm. However, I too have never turned down Baklava, as it is scrumptious, regardless of where it is made (although, Antep Baklava is supposed to be the most authentic, as its supposed to be the city of Baklava's origin within the old Turkish empire, at least, according to Turkey's food administration).

But if you're going to buy a gun, think about what you really want in a firearm- dependability, value (history can increase its value to collectors) or accuracy are all things to take into consideration. Russia, Austria and the USA have excellent arms manufacturers; one of my friends has a WWII Russian made bolt action carbine that is still fairly accurate at the shooting range. I myself prefer a 9mm Glock (less kickback, good accuracy) as far as pistols. I don't much like (assault) rifles.



My hunch regarding the correlation between Wine Spectator ratings and wine price is that wines and wine producers that get favorably reviewed by Wine Spectator (and other similar publications) raise their prices accordingly because people will pay more for something that's received a good review, rather than the converse (i.e. Wine Spectator gives good reviews to wines because they're expensive).


The timing for this article couldn't have been better for me. As a law student, I am invited to gatherings hosted by attorneys, and I've squirmed each time some young hot-shot attorney brags about the $50+ bottle of wine they brought. Frankly, I've had no complaints about the wine I bring (Kiona Late Harvest White Riesling, under $20).


if focus groups and blind taste testing worked then we'd all be drinking new coke.

while i'm not a big fan of Dom Perignon the comparison of it to Domaine Ste. Michelle Cuvee Brut is wholly invalid.

the reason why cheap whine do so well in the comparisons is that they are not nearly as complex. they are easier to drink for the novice. part of the mystique of wine is that it takes effort and experience to understand what one is tasting.

when one is 19 one drinks to get drunk, quickly. when one is 21 one can socialize while being drunk. when one is 40 one can savor the flavors of both the company and setting while affording to take the time and expense to also savor the flavors of the wine.


Mike, #9-

Case in point: XXX with Vin Disel. The crappiest best movie I have ever seen.


You say you are generally skeptical of neuro-economics. I'm wondering if you've read Jason Zweig's new book on Your Money and Your Brain. Quite interesting...and his findings/conclusions certainly ring true in when it comes to investing.

Bob at the beach

I have a 1300 bottle wine cellar. The average “Parker rating” is slightly below 95. The average bottle price is $91. My wines priced at $30 or less are sometimes merely fair and sometimes great. My wines priced above $30 are sometimes merely fair and sometimes spectacular. I have wines priced at $25 and rated at 96. I also have wines rated at 96 that cost as much as $245. I've sampled 50 of my wines with ratings of 96; the results were mixed. I guess my point is that the price or score of a wine is quite irrelevant to how it tastes. However, my expectations for the wine are certainly set by the price or score of a wine. That said, I would expect that I would have the opposite results on this test than the author is espousing. I expect more from a higher priced and rated wine and I expect less from a lower priced and rated wine. My advice, taste many wines with an open mind. Buy and drink those wines that you like and can afford.


Ryan Reyna

If you liked the article on the "Jefferson" bottles, a new book just was released on the whole history of the affair ("The Billionaire's Vinegar").