Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better?

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(Photo: Tony Alter)

(Photo: Tony Alter)

Season 6, Episode 10

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?

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. (And not how you’d 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 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.

Plus, selective outrage — why we get so upset over some things, and then not over others.

Marius the giraffe lived at a zoo in Copenhagen. Zoo officials said he was a “surplus” animal: too genetically similar to other giraffes, and therefore he couldn’t breed. It was kinder, they said, to kill him. So they fed him some rye bread (“his favorite food”), shot him in the head, and dissected him in front of a crowd of onlookers, including kids. Next they fed his corpse to the lions. Perhaps not surprisingly, the world reacted with outrage.

How did this compare to the outrage expressed over the killing of hundreds of thousands of people during the ongoing civil war in Syria? Not quite commensurate. Ammiel Hirsch, senior rabbi at the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue in New York, noticed this disparity, and he talks about it with Stephen Dubner.

You will also hear from Wall Street Journal reporter Jose de Cordoba, whose article about the Mexican avocado trade perhaps should have outraged people but didn’t. De Cordoba explains how most avocados eaten in the U.S. are “blood avocados,” made to pass through a criminal cartel that extorts, kidnaps, and kills.

To find out more, check out the podcasts from which this hour was drawn: “Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better?” and “Which Came First, the Chicken or the Avocado.”

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