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)

Brenda Kane

There really is no such thing as a $5 bottle of wine in Canada...that would be...tap water? Anyhoo, when I purchase wine for someone I respectb I go to the wine store and find a wine that has a good VOQ rating. I give, therefore I get in return.
For myself, a closet wino, I drink a low alcohol content California, I even subject drop in house guests to it...goes with almost anything and doesn't stain the furniture! I never show the label, for gosh sakes, no, that is NOT A GOAL WORTHY OF MANKIND, people...mind your egos.
In a nut pun intended...comment #166 is bang on in my book.


I agree with post #20. I also agree with #67, but I don't think most of the readers here will be able to appreciate these wines. Most Americans palates are like ten year olds if you ask them what their favorite food is they are going to say big macs not foie gras.



I didn't read through all the posts, but there seems to be one nagging possibility that could weaken the findings in the study that was done (the one). The possibility that people can develop an acquired taste for something means that people could learn to prefer cheaper wine to more expensive wine. And given that people who don't drink wine often or would not claim to have a sensitized-palate would probably choose the cheaper wine (logically), they might develop a taste for the cheaper wines and not the more expensive wines. If the test had asked the question, "which wine is more expensive?" rather than "how does the wine taste?" the results may have been different. On the other hand, advanced drinkers of wine might prefer drinking expensive wines when they have a glass, and thus may be sensitized to expensive wines. That could explain their slight preference for those wines in the test.


Alex C.

Joel Stein (columnist for the Los Angeles Times) recently wrote:

"When wine drinkers tell me they taste notes of cherries, tobacco and rose petals, usually all I can detect is a whole lot of jackass."

I love that opening sentence. The rest of the column is a bit disappointing, however. Here's the full text:,0,1892816.story


A truly excellent wine is defined by your taste buds....period. If you don't like wine to begin with you shouldn't even have an opinion. There is such a thing as a placebo effect, so evaluation errors will occur. Now, an excellent wine may taste bland or not at it's best when it is just opened, it may need some breathing first. However, a cheap wine can breathe all you allow it too but it will always be a cheap wine and taste the same. The point is that wine tasting and sensorial evaluation of it is a skill and you must love wine first before you can improve your skill. To me cuervo tastes much better than aged expensive tequilas but this is because i don't like tequila so, I enjoy a cheap tequila more because i payed less not because i have a good library on my taste buds of cheap and great tequilas. Get the point?


just goes to show you that rich people that join clubs for rich people are pompous idiots.


I'm a wine lover and I don't find this result too surprising, nor is it upsetting. Some 'cheap' wine is horribly out of balance and noticeably bad. Some 'cheap' wine is well-made and enjoyable, perhaps more so than many more expensive wines because the winemaker knows how to get the best from more modest means and can make a 'popular' style. Find the right bottle under $10 you can enjoy, and you're set. The most important factor, I think, is that the wine has no one dominant, offensive trait. General non-offensiveness can be achieved at low prices.

Unfortunately, wine is a means of conspicuous consumption. If you always drink $60 wine, then there's no way you'll know the differences between the $60 bottle and the $5 one. There are contrasts in most cases, like the concentration of the wine or how well integrated the alcohol is or how abrasive the tannins are. Even then, there's an imperfect correlation between price and quality.

Personally, I go for $10-$20 wines. Expensive enough that few wineries would have the balls to sell utter crap, but not so expensive that you'd have to rationalize to yourself why it's special.


science minded

Dear Dave (122)

Depends upon the knowledge base.

Joe Flynn

This is why I drink bourbon! The difference between an expensive bourbon and a cheap one is often the difference between something that can be described as "hearty and oak-y" and something that can be described as "tasting like paint thinner".


As Jonathan said in #18 above, when it comes to personal choices, we are not objective machines. And while it may be a good thing overall, it also makes us prone to fall for things we *think* is better. And that's the whole reason the concept of "marketing" exists. Ask any BMW/Mercedes owner!


And what is the message of all 142 of you standing around the Vinegar vat?

The first woman has a sour look on her face, the second wears a bitter expression, but the third is smiling.

"The Vinegar Tastresses"


Would someone please recall that the entire quote regarding ignorance goes like this:
"Where ignorance is bliss,
'tis folly to be wise."
No one has EVER posited that ignorance is indeed bliss: it isn't.

Andreas Raffel

Hey, what's the point of arguing the palate? The more I drink, the prettier I get - brrrrp - and at the same time, the size of my rooster - brrrrrrrrrp - increases dramatically.

Julie parr

Having nothing to do with wines .... but instead with Buck's comment on July 16th: a friend of mine is smart, and frugal. Her father was a professor at a reputable state school to which she received a full tuition merit scholarship. However, she also received a 75% discount as a result of being a faculty child. Rather than cap the payment, the school ended up paying *her* 75% above and beyond the cost of attending, granting her both of the discounts. Rather than take out college loans, she ended up saving money and was able to live for a year without a job as a result when she graduated.


I did a similar taste test with coffee many years ago. The office staff had been agitating for months to switch to Starbucks House Blend from the more prosaic Farmers brand. I set up blind coffee urns and invited people to sample and indicate which urn they preferred. The vote went in favor of Farmers by a substantial margin. When I announced the results, I got a similarly hostile response, much to my surprise. I had expected people to be happy to learn that the coffee they had been drinking was actually preferable to the more expensive brand, but many were actually angry that their preconception had been blown, and more angry that I might 'cheat' them out of the 'premium' coffee that they had lobbied so hard to get.

That said, I'm a big fan of certain varieties of Starbucks coffee, but House Blend is not one of them. I can definitely tell the differences, so I suppose its too late for my wallet... I already have the experienced palate.


Alan Lieb

I once did a similar test using Dinty Moore's beef stew and Alpo beef chunks in gravy,doctored them up a bit with a reduction of cento balsamic vinegar, black pepper, bayleaf and Gallo burgundy, served it to a bunch of wine tasters as a tapa.They ate both dishes up and pronounced them delicious,and they could not say which was the best.Bon appetit!

erik de koster

ou lah lah... Rambo dans le pays des Béotiens...
If a similar study as reported in the Journal of Wine Economics were done in a wine-savvy country such as France (dare I say a 'developed' country with my tongue firmly in the cheeck ?), the results would probably be completely different. In the same series as refered to by Mike B in post #9 ("Oz and James Big Wine Adventure"), Oz and James made their own wine, and did some blind tasting on a french market, where almost every frenchman was immediately able to spot their poor excuse of a wine (the ones who got fooled were non-French tourists). Sarkozy has his work cut out!

Andrew Bolton

Duh, me don't geddit. Wine taste da same to me. To sum udder guyz I knows too!

Duh, so, wine mus' taste da same to yooz guyz too -- if yooz don' agree, den yooz mus' be fakers.

Duh, boy, did DAT show 'em!

-- S. Levitt and his fans, in so many words

William Laine

When we thought we could afford it, we bought St. Emilion, St. Julien, Mouton Roschild, Chateau Nuef d'Pap, Johannisberger Riesling, Chianti (from Italy), red from Rioja, & etc.. Soon, we couldn't afford fine imported wines. Somewhere, I read that the average European who drinks wine daily with meals does not drink these expensive wines that are exported for affluent Americans. For years, we have enjoyed Carlo Rossi Chablis & Paisano (4 litre jugs) as our table wines. If we could find Charles Shaw wines here, we'd try them. Occasionally, we splurge on a more expensive wine. If a good red wine deteriorates when it is not drunk the day it is opened, & we two drink only a glass a day, what is the value of buying a wine that won't keep longer than a day, unless we have company? We have been buying magnums of white wines (such as Glenn Ellen Chardonnay), because whites keep better in the refrigerator.



If one never learns to read, one never need spend money on books!

Think of the money you could save! Why before I could read I enjoyed picture books MORE than books with words, and they retail for but a few bucks. To boot I could never be accused of intellectual snobbery! For most of human history MOST people never learned to read, at least not to the cost prohibitive levels of a full literacy. Why, oh why did I not follow the wisdom of the masses who preceded me and recognize that learning to read was a wasteful and needlessly costly endeavor that would never add to my life in any meaningful way?

This is an economic catastrophe!