The Days of Wine and Mouses

Our Freakonomics Radio project includes a regular podcast and Marketplace segment. But twice a year, we also produce a set of five one-hour specials that play on public-radio stations across the country. Find a station near you.

Season 2, Episode 1

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, Stephen Dubner witnesses something that would doom any dining experience: while eating at a restaurant, 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.

Corban Saezer

Would male peacocks sport huge feathers if they weren't expensive to maintain?


All alcohol can inebriate someone. For someone who just wants the world to disappear, cheaper is better. However, wine's appeal also has a function of prestige, which is couched in its impracticalities. Otherwise, why buy something which gets you less drunk per dollar?

WL Hur


Are these one-hour special not downloadable? I am a huge fan of your radio podcast, but not from America.

Thanks and regards,

WL Hur

Joy Mars

What all these economists and testers — and even wine "experts" — don't know is that wine is not just taste. It's all about the "head" it gives, and as importantly how it marries WITH food. Therefore, taste tests are fol-de-rol. No, make that fiddle-faddle.

Taste does exist, absolutely. But it is just one aspect of wine, and not the most important one. Saying that about something that you ingest is saying something odd. In fact, the obvious concept of taste being THE most important aspect of a drink (liquids don't have the texture aspect of other ingestables; aroma is part of taste) has confused even the "experts."

Maybe they know, but won't say, since taste testings cannot bring out the essential nature of any given wine. Wine Spectator's ratings are therefore nearly nonsense, although I'm sure the system does protect the consumer from a barrage of rotgut, even though some outliers get through.

Wine is an organic entity. It does not take kindly to being tested and rated. Of course if you want dead corporate taste-engineering — which is created by taste scientists like McDonald's fries — then you'll love cheap wines over the comparatively uncontrollable hand-made deal.

Spend a lifetime drinking Carlo Rossi and Gallo Brothers' programed swill, and when you go to northern Italy and sit down to a beautiful dinner with a local wine, your mind will literally be blown. You will wonder how you could have wasted your life.


Jim J

Christ! It was hard to listen to Dubner just torturing poor Vincent Herbert. I think this is irresponsible journalism. There was nothing in this report to indicate that the vermin-in-the-salad was anything other than an isolated incident. When Wendy's was hit with the finger-in-the-chili fraud, it cost the company millions and many innocent low-level people their jobs. The Freakonomics team apparently doesn't care what damage this piece could cost. Dubner relentless grilling of Mr. Herbert was unfair and just plain cruel. How about a little Golden Rule, Mr. Dubner?
I have thought that La Pain Quotidien is so-so, but I have the urge to have lunch there because I feel sorry for them.


Does anyone know what the background music of the piano playing in this episode is called? It sounded beautiful and I would like to be able to hear it on its own. Thank you!