Freakonomics Radio: Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better?
Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better?: They should! It’s a cardinal rule: more expensive items are supposed to be qualitatively better than their cheaper versions.
When you take a sip of Cabernet, what are you tasting? The grape? The tannins? The oak barrel? Or the price?
Believe it or not, the most dominant flavor may be the dollars. Thanks to the work of some intrepid and wine-obsessed economists (yes, there is an American Association of Wine Economists), we are starting to gain a new understanding of the relationship between wine, critics and consumers.
One of these researchers is Robin Goldstein, whose paper detailing more than 6,000 blind tastings reaches the conclusion that “individuals who are unaware of the price do not derive more enjoyment from more expensive wine.”
So why do we pay so much attention to critics and connoisseurs who tell us otherwise?
That’s the question we set out to answer in this podcast. Along the way, you’ll hear details about Goldstein’s research as well as the story of how his “restaurant” in Milan, Osteria L’Intrepido, won an Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator magazine. (Not how you think!)
Also featured: Steve Levitt, who admits his palate is “underdeveloped,” describing a wine-tasting stunt he pulled on his elders at Harvard’s Society of Fellows.
Also, you’ll hear from wine broker Brian DiMarco (featured in the forthcoming documentary Escaping Robert Parker) who pulled a stunt of his own on his very wine-savvy employees. DiMarco also walks us through the mechanics of the wine-purchase business, and describes how price is often a far-too-powerful signal to our taste buds.
A couple of very interesting interviews didn’t make the podcast but are worth a mention here. One was with the noted Princeton economist (and wine buff) Orley Ashenfelter*, who spoke about our general overreliance on experts, whether they’re in the wine field or far beyond:
I mean, S&P, Moody’s, Fitch, these people all rated securities that apparently completely tanked. So there’s obviously something in the demand for expertise, the imprimatur, which is not really about the fact that they do a good job. By the way, those organizations are not transparent either, just as the Wine Spectator isn’t. So there’s some similarity here that I think probably gives us a little insight into things that are much broader than wine and food.
The other interview was with George Taber, author of the fascinating book Judgment of Paris: California vs. France and the Historic 1976 Paris Tasting That Revolutionized Wine. He recalled the moment he realized that even the most sophisticated wine experts can have feet of clay:
And there was just one classic moment when one of the French judges by the name of Raymond Oliver, who was the owner of the Le Grand Vefour restaurant, he had a television show on food in France, he was a big thing in French wine and food circles. He had a white wine in front of him. He looked at the white wine, then he held it up to a light to look at the color very closely. Then he took a sip of it. Then he held it up again. Then he said in French, ‘Ah, back to France.’ And I looked down at my scorecard and he’d just tasted the 1972 Freemark Abbey Chardonnay.
Wishing you the happiest of holiday seasons, and urging you to spend $15 instead of $50 on your next bottle of wine. Go ahead, take the money you save and blow it on the lottery.
* You can hear Ashenfelter in a related Marketplace piece that aired recently.