The Days of Wine and Mouses: A New Freakonomics Radio Podcast

Listen now:

Season 2, Episode 1

We have just released a new series of five one-hour Freakonomics Radio specials to public-radio stations across the country. (Check here for your local station.) These new shows are what might best be called “mashupdates” — that is, mashups of earlier podcasts that have also been updated with new interviews, etc.

If you are a charter subscriber to our podcast (remember this one on the dangers of safety, or this one on the obesity epidemic?), then some of this material will be familiar to you. If you are one of the people who have heard these new shows on the radio and wondered when they’d hit the podcast stream — well, that time is now. We’ll be releasing all five hours over the next ten weeks.

(Photo: Geoffrey Fairchild)

This first episode is called “The Days of Wine and Mouses.” (Download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, listen via the media player above, or read the transcript here.) Here’s what you’ll be hearing:

When you take a sip of Cabernet, what are you tasting? The grape? The tannins? The oak barrel? Or is it the price?

Believe it or not, the most dominant flavor may be the dollars. Thanks to the work of some intrepid and wine-obsessed researchers (yes, there is an American Association of Wine Economists), we have 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.”

Why, then, do we pay so much attention to critics and connoisseurs who tell us otherwise? That’s the question we set out to answer. You’ll hear from Steve Levitt, who admits his palate is “underdeveloped,” about a wine stunt he pulled on his elders at Harvard’s Society of Fellows; and wine broker Brian DiMarco pulled a stunt of his own on his wine-savvy employees.

Also in this hour, I witness an incident in a restaurant that would doom any dining experience: a customer one table away was served a salad with a dead mouse in it. How does a business respond in the face of such a disaster?

Vincent Herbert, the CEO of the restaurant in question, Le Pain Quotidien, explains what happened and how he coped. Crisis-control expert Andrew Gowers gives us some insight from facing the public on behalf of Lehman Brothers, post-collapse, and BP after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.


skg

The story on Pain Quotidian was a real missed opportunity for improving journalism. The reporter let their CEO get away with blaming "organic farming" for having a "dead mouse in a salad."

It is obvious that the restaurant's system of quality control failied on multiple levels. The reporting allowed the CEO to take weeks to respond, and then probably after much PR coaching, frame the incident as a referendum on organic farming.

Journalism is so vacous these days and relegated to sound bites and headlines. Here, the reporter had an opportunity for long form Q&A, analysis and conclusions. But, he just blew it. He missed the opportunity for meaningful follow up. Perhaps these journalistic skills aren't taught anymore....

Donald Da Duck

Hope he makes notes next time that he gets such a good story. Then again there always is a super-duper-freakonomics book in which he can mention all that...

John

Interesting stuff about the subconscious (and often conscious) correlation between wine price and quality. I have also examined this idea on my blog that some of your readers/listeners might be interested in reading. 

http://www.thedrinkingman.com/2011/06/a-tale-of-two-price-brackets/ 

Keep up the good work
John - The Drinking Man

John

Apologies the link to my story appears to be broken - if anyone is interested please try this one:

http://www.thedrinkingman.com/2011/06/a-tale-of-two-price-brackets/

Thanks
John - The Drinking Man

Candiru

The reactions of the wine "experts" when shown that they could not reliably tell the difference between cheap and expensive wines in a blind taste test remind me of what happens when audiophiles -- experts on fantastically expensive audio equipment -- are shown that they really can't hear differences between various electronic components in similar blind testing. Many audiophiles insist that there are differences in sound between different components, as well as between the cables used to connect components, and even the cables used to plug the components into the wall. They often describe such differences as "obvious" or "not subtle." In properly conducted blind listening tests, these "obvious" differences seem to disappear, and most audiophiles can't reliably differentiate between various components, even those with huge differences in price.

Charley Gerard

I didn't like Vincent Herbert's constant spinning of the mouse-in-the-food event. He evaded the issue by harping constantly on his devotion to organic food. Your interviewer made clear that finding a mouse in the salad has absolutely nothing to do with food cultivation methods. One issue that wasn't brought up was the most obvious one: that the restuarant site is vermin-infested. The program sought to make the story an example of "telling the truth is the best policy." It was anything but that.

Jason

I'm almost certain I've found the recording of the song used in this show. It seems to be "In C" on the album "In C - Remixed" by Bill Ryan & Grand Valley State University New Music Ensemble. The downside of wanting to be sure is that one track is an album only purchase and it's $17.99 for the album on iTunes. I'm sure another day of bugging me and it will seem worth it.

Kat

G'day from Australia and thanks for the fantastic show.

Im interested in how the wine experiment would replicate with other food and beverages. Down here we have a big tea and coffee culture which has taken off hugely. Just the other week I ran an experiment with one of these "afficionados", my friend Robyn, who even runs her own specialist cafe. She was very confident that she could tell the difference between English breakfast and Irish breakfast tea. We ran 20 blind trials and guess what? No difference. She actually performed slightly WORSE than would be expected by chance. Science never lies!

Chris Carrier

I enjoy the show, generally, but the mouse story infuriated me for reasons one might not expect.

Anyone with experience in restaurants know that fighting vermin and infestation are a constant battle. It HAPPENS. It's addressed, it's fixed, hopefully, but things do happen on occasion. Establishments with real problems get shut down, and if the health department isn't enough to put them out of business, the resulting reputation will. Finding a mouse behind a prep table is one thing, having the mouse make it into the salad is another and the person in the audio rightly pointed out that five or six highly unlikely things had to happen in congress for the mouse to make it to the table. Yes, it's awful. I'm certain the restaurant had no intention of sweeping it under the rug because the stakes are too high if the story gets out. Every restaurant you've ever eaten at has had an incident or two, or ten, you just don't know about it. It's not common at a reputable place, and it's not something to constantly worry about as a consumer.

That said, the real problem here wasn't the mouse but the Freakanomics show. What typically happens in this incidents is that the offended diner is appeased (or not) but generally most people don't find out about it. It goes away... unless some curious radio show insists on talking about it. I could forgive Freakonomics if it were a consumer advocacy show and felt that the restaurant was not properly addressing this issue, or that the consumer was deeply distrubed and felt that the restaurant had not satisfied her concerns, or that she was damaged in some way, etc. But no, Freakonomics thought pursuing this would be a fun, quirky story about damage control, or something?

I was screaming at my radio when I heard the commentator wonder why no one was calling them back from the business. Of course they didn't - they were horrified that this had caught the attention of the media, not because the offended diner actuall complained, but because the "wrong" person happened to be seated nearby and took a photo. Eventually, the CEO responded so the business would look like it was taking it seriously, only after they accepted it wasn't going away.

The CEOs story about considering abandoning organics was because he needed to show that they were reacting to the event in a manner that might prevent it from happening again. The actual practical reaction to a random event like this one diligence in handling and inspecting the food long before it hits the table. In the end, they blamed the lettuce vendor and stopped using them. But there is no way to solve a problem for which the cause is unknown besides diligence. That he thanked the commentator for making this a big deal (or that it was already a big deal internally) was for show.

Freakonomics probably considers itself a passive media bystander, investigating the situation for it's own reasons and not a consumer organization defending the public's best interest. Freakonomics is, in fact, the driver of this story. I was incredulous listenting to the way the commentator asked the questions, seemingly compeltely oblvious to his role in the process, oblivious to the fact that he was taunting them with an incident that could bring down their business.

The irony is that the actual diner reacted in a reasonable manor and did not want to pursue the issue further, did not want the publicity Freakonomics would bring and wanted to continue dining at this restaurant. It remains to be seen whether that will be possible, thanks to this very podcast and it's pursuit of a story for the wrong reasons.

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Tim

I really like this podcast series but man, talk about beating a dead horse (or mouse) with the Le Pan Quotidien story.

KurtW

I take some issue with your statement that "Robin Goldstein...reaches the conclusion that “individuals who are unaware of the price do not derive more enjoyment from more expensive wine.” What you left out was the qualifier, that this the conclusion for most of the large group of people that took part in the tastings. In talking about the sparkling wine tasting, for example, he stated that the wine experts among the tasters did like the more expensive wines as much or even a bit more than the cheaper wines. He goes on to say the the vast majority of wine consumers are everyday wine drinkers, not experts. I just had a small blind tasting over the weekend where we compared the $12 Dom. Ste. Michelle with the $40 Veuve Cliquot and a $25 Piper Brut. The wines were poured in identical glasses, and of the three people (excluding the person that poured the wines and possibly could have identified them by color), all rated the Dom. Ste Michelle as their least favorite (but still good). One person of the three had no idea of the prices of any of the wines, and another person only knew that one of them was the $12 wine. The person that poured the wine and also tasted blind (the wine glasses were switched after they left the room) actually picked the Ste Michelle as their favorite, so that's one person in 4. But in Goldstein's tasting, 85% of the people preferred the Ste Michelle over the Veuve. Goldstein states that the vast majority of wine consumers are everyday wine drinkers, not experts, that he has picked his testers with this in mind.

I've been doing blind tastings for decades now. They are great fun and almost aways contain many surprises. Its a great way to find out what you really like and not have to rely on someone else's taste preferences. And by the way, it is an excellent book, just be careful with the conclusions. He does recommend doing your own blind tastings and even has some helpful hints on making them successful.

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Donald Da Duck

The ceo of the company is a master spinner. What he does is not address any real thing but keeps babbling how it is a great opportunity and how they improve and stand for this and that. He leaves you not with the story of the mouse but with the story about the values of the company. Those values may or may not be true but you gave him a nice add here. I wonder would the people recognize this restaurant as a mouse serving one or as what he had presented here... There is your idea for a research... About image forming, remembering, emotions that people feel when you say a name of a company and how that correlates with the facts that we know and may forget about the same people/organisations...

Donald Da Duck

AH YES, the end of the spin is "We will go organic and nothing can stop us!!!!" , "It is all because the organic salads must contain mouses" and so on and on he goes.

The letter that the mouse customer wrote was interestingly enough too well written. As far as I know human behavior she would jump on a chair just when somebody mentioned the name of that firm.

Saying "somebody spoke with her" who did speak with her? They managed to all be frightened for a such a long time and AND to speak with you and yet they "had somebody speak with her"?! I smell a rat?

redon

What is the violin piece at the end of the song? Someone needs to go back and list all the music for these things. And make it available on the podcast apps.