Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better? (Ep. 14)

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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.

The latest Freakonomics Radio podcast is called “Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better?” (You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed or listen via the player above.)

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.


Eric M. Jones

A gallon jug, Welch's grape juice, some bakers yeast, a balloon stretched over the opening, a few weeks in the basement and---Voila--a fruity and delicious red wine for very little money that tastes as good going down as it does coming back up!

sam

Thirty-five years ago I was at a dinner in a very good Philadelphia restaurant with a group of distinguished European and American academics. The time to order wine came and the French and Swiss delegates decided to try the house red. The waiter brought an unmarked carafe over, the F&S whiffed, sniffed, and tasted it, giving a glowing assessment. The waiters proceeded to fill all our glasses. As the waiter filled mine I whispered "What wine is it." "Gallo red." he replied.

aggy

This study is annoying, because it tells me more about people's subjectivity than about wine.

Horrible wine can be bought cheaply or expensively. However, there is a superabundance of horrible cheap wine. There is not a superabundance of spectacularly good cheap wine (in the USA).

Jon

Expensive wines taste better. Hum. Sounds like a stupid, fiction-based rule meant primarily to enrich the shareholders and CEO's at the expense of the consumer.

cyndi

wow, capri. way to generalize and stereotype texans!! you sound like one of those snobs we were referring to. i suppose you think eating snails is classier than pigs ears which are a delicacy now being served in upscale "gastropubs" in nyc.

david newman

Wine tasting is like anything else. With experience comes expertise

ChefJune

On some levels you are absolutely right, BUT some expensive wines DO taste better.

There is no absolute.

Beverly Crandall

I'm with Doc, #16. To me as a worker on a budget, it makes sense to save up for a bottle of the Beaulieu deLatour Cabernet (usually 90+ W.S. points) for an occasional happy splurge with a great (home-cooked) meal. But meanwhile I get terrific pleasure out of my Seven Zins from Costco for approximately $10--budget in tact.

KrisS

For the most part, I'm not looking for "transcendent" in my wine. I just want a pleasant addition to my meal, or something enjoyable to sip after a long day at work.

I realize this renders my palette pretty plebian. I'm ok with that. I spend the money I save on wine on great cheeses.

plutofinnigan

I drink $13/15 red bordeaux because it gives a pleasant high and no hangover (except the Graves which I avoid) and it is not too sweet.

At that price level there will be some "funny" taste to it but I don't mind. How would I rate the price in a blind taste competition? I dunno because, as I said, it would usually have some funny taste to it - that's why it isn't $50. And what kind of drinking are we talking about - one of those sip and spit contests? Not for me. A good bottle of wine will improve and vary as you progress towards the dregs. A sip is meaningless.

Australian wines also leave no hangover but they are somewhat bland in comparison to the Bordeaux. They will not have any bad taste to them but they will lack personality in this price category.

Paul

@Capri, post #14. When you can't spell "think" correctly it speaks volumes.

Wine is no different from high end fashion. You really think that a $5,000 handbag wasn't made by the same child laborers in the far east as a wal-mart special? It's the joy of showing how much you can spend on wine, thus reinforcing your own sophistication that most people likely enjoy. Just like having a $5,000 hand bag. "I force you to notice my economic superiority; or at least my attempt to display such."

Bill

Finally, validation of my theory of wine buying: There are only critical questions to ask:

1. Is the label pretty?

2. Is it on sale?

Josie

This is kind of old news. The most important thing is to know what you like, whether it's a $10 or $100 bottle of wine. There's lots of decent wines at low price points, and some great ones if you want to pay more. If you don't drink wine much, there's almost certainly something in the lower prices ranges you'll find for those times you have guests over, or just want a bottle of wine with a meal. If you drink wine a lot, you'll probably try a lot of different wines, and find some you like in both less and more expensive categories. If you only buy expensive wine, either because you equate wine price with quality, are a collector, a wine snob, or for any other reason, it's probably because you have the money to do so.

chuck

when i was in the wine business i used to taste about 2000 different wines a year, now only less than half that much. what ive observed over the years is that there is a correlation between price and quality level. however, it is not a perfect correlation.

i have never liked the idea of blind tasting wines. not because im afraid of being wrong, that happens with some frequency, but because its done in a laboratory like atmosphere most of the time. thats not how wine is best appreciated - that would be at table with some nice food.

KVR

The genetics defines which wine tastes good for whom. Simply some one says this one is a better wine does not mean it is better for you. The attraciveness of labels are similar to high price you pay for designer's clothes or some other consumer products. They deserve high price because it involves designer's ability to attract consumers to pay higher price for the same contenets.

Steve

The thing that's missing here is the concept of diminishing returns. Like most things, the very cheap are bad and the very expensive are overrated. But then there's everything in between and there are real differences. Unfortunately the diminishing returns are qualitative, and difficult for statistic-based fields like economics to deal with.

The reality is that anyone with a a real interest and knowledge of wine can tell the difference between cheap factory plonk and a well crafted wine. Just as anyone interested in fashion can tell the difference between a cheap suit and a well made garment.

If you don't care about these things, no problem. Wear your polyester chinos and drink grape soda. More power to you!

Jack

Ignorance is bliss.

Russell

Clearly written by someone who never tasted Grange or Romani Conti or Vegas Sicilia or Petrus. I wish those tastes could be had for $3 a bottle!

Polly

Price has a negative impact on my taste buds.
I assume all wine people tout as special will taste bad, and usually decline any offered that way.

Sebastian Interlandi

I can completely accept this.

However, the best wine I can ever remember tasting was an Italian Barolo. I didn't pay for it, but later found it was about $35 a bottle. Now perhaps the enjoyment of the company that evening played a role in my perception, who knows...

But that wine was was balanced, complex and delicious. I don't know if you'd find such a creature for less than $8, but you sure don't need to spend $100 for it!

I usually buy boxes of wine and I'm completely satisfied by both the taste and price.

As for RicoWoot... perhaps you're drinking a little too much of the grape if you're getting hangovers!