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.


cove37

If you describe wines as Cabernet, Merlot, Shiraz, etc., stick to the cheap stuff.

Craig

Life is too short to drink bad wine, and also too short to drink too little of it. I like wine too much to spend much on it. There are plenty of good wines in my "sweet spot" of $7-10, most of them Australian or Chilean.

Harry Herbert

I have read about a tasting years ago where so called world experts were blind tasting alot of wines from the very costly to 2 dollars a bottle. They were put to shame at how wrong they were. If you really had a HONEST blind tasting, not the paid for by sponsers or under the table stuff that I have seen over the last 40 years, alot of so called experts would out of their expert jobs. There was also a panel of world experts looking at art from a new group of artists.They raved about how great the new artists were. The new artists were actually small children. You are the most important "expert". Trial and error over the years will reward you very nicely.

Laurent Hodges

Most people can 't tell a good wine from a poor wine. a good souffle from a poor souffle, a good book from a bad book, etc. Give most Americans a blind tasting of fresh pineapple juice and canned pineapple juice, and they will choose the latter. Give them a choice of listening to Elina Garanca or Beyonce, and they will choose Beyonce. Give them a choice of a Hershey's chocolate bar and a fine Belgium or Dutch or French chocolate, and they choose the former. Those who choose sensibly may know the difference or they may just be looking for a Luxury Buying Experience. you can't be sure Having said that, I find plenty of excellent $8 to $12 wines from France, Chile, Argentina etc., so I don't buy the expensive Bordeaux wines.

If you want a good example of people paying way too much for a inferior product, think of those who will buy a Mont Blanc Diplomat in preference to the far superior Sheaffer Legacy fountain pen.

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Sean Fulop

I love wine, and I am very knowledgeable about it. Clearly, our perception can be influenced or even tricked by price. But I also know the difference between a wine "connoisseur" and a wine "snob". The connoisseur may say they dislike a wine, but only after tasting it first. The snob is prepared to turn up his nose after seeing the price or the label. I hate a lot of wines, and they are all cheap. On the other hand, I once bought a $2 bottle from a good wine store that I trusted, and I was so amazed by it I rushed back to buy more. They were sold out, because of course, all the people who know good wine when they taste it had done the same.

I would suggest that the average person who hasn't cultivated their palate together with a knowledge of wine doesn't have the skills needed to overcome the perceptual tricks.

Ben

Q: What's the difference between an economists and a banker.
A: Their budget for wine
A: The way they make themselves feel better about their budget for wine
A: The amount of time they have to spend thinking about their budget for wine
A: Nothing, they are both drunk and disorderly - the economist only does it with cheaper wine

Happy holidays!

JP

The British comedy series Black Books has a hilarious scene discussing this very subject.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QLCLo6-SI9E

tom

Conversely, there would be no such confusion in blinded study comparing marijuana specimens (medicinal or otherwise). That doesn't mean potheads are particularly discerning, but they know what they like and why.

Noreen

Discerning the quality of wine is similar to discerning the "quality" of any art or even craft. Just like I wouldn't ask a english teacher to tell me which painting to buy or a train conductor which house to buy, I'm not going to ask an economist which wine to drink. The journalists working at wine publications have spent years becoming experts in wine and therefore I respect their judgements.

Red Nose

Yes, but I want to know if more expensive wine (say $13) is better for you than the cheap stuff ((three-buck Chuck).

My question arises from the received wisdom that expensive whiskey is better for you than "rot-gut".

Charlie

It seems appropriate to point out that the vast majority of tastings done by Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate, etc. are done blind. So the critics don't know the prices of the wines they're scoring (with a few exceptions, I'm sure). Yes, price and quality definitely make a scatterplot, but the correlation is still there.

John

I would have appreciated some specific examples, as I've had excellent $10 wine and terrible $50 wine. The Robin Goldstein paper gives no reference to any of the specific wines that were part of the 6,000 blind tastings, so it's hard to really know if the results were surprising or not.

Mainly though, it seems to me that the premise of the Goldstein study may be faulty. Namely, it is wrong to assume that if two bottles are priced differently, the higher-priced one SHOULD taste better at a specific time. Using the reserve and non-reserve example, a reserve bottling will generally require more cellaring than a non-reserve, so if you pick 2 recent bottles of wine that are identical other than the reserve designation, the lesser-priced, non-reserve wine SHOULD taste better, as the reserve is not intended to be drank now.

The same is true of good vs. bad vintages. Often a good vintage just means more ageworthy, not better tasting right out of the bottle, and that is what determines the price. So, a lesser vintage may taste better than a better vintage today, but in 10-20 years, the better vintage will be in its prime and the lesser one long since faded.

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Patrick

Expensive wines often (not always) taste better than cheaper ones, but a law of diminishing returns quickly sets in: A $100 bottle is very rarely 10 times better than a $10 bottle.

monica

i think there is a lot of drinkable inexpensive (<$10) wine, much of which lacks any complexity. BUT there are plenty of wines to enjoy in the 10-20 dollar range that go beyond the mass-marked cheapies. If it doesn't matter to you why spend more. It's fun to roam the aisles to pick new wines, especially from regions that are not so popular, and are usually less expensive.

Julia

I think once you enter the above $10-$15 category, and the wine has been properly stored, most of it is pretty good, but not all matches my taste preferences. I think I can tell the difference between something tasting bad and something tasting fine independently of whether I like it.
There's also lots of drinkable stuff under $10, but you have to either do your research or be lucky.
When I bring a bottle of wine to someone's house or serve it to my guests, it's much less likely to be bad if I spend about $10 or more. And to me that's worth it for reducing the risk of an unpleasant surprise.

douglas SF

These authors are missing one of the simplest points of wine in that some wines are meant to be cellared, not "popped and poured" as in all of the supposed tests.

Even in the earliest blind test at Harvard, the same wine from a decanter will taste different than the same wine from a bottle because the difference letting a wine "breathe" (or open up).

The article mostly just illustrates how little the authors know about wine - and that a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing (and lead to incorrect results).

There is nothing wrong with inexpensive wines - but there is a difference.

Carl

It would be interesting to see if all the people who are apparently quick to judge wine critiques as a grand hoax have the same feelings about art or music critiques. There, too, everyone should be free to listen to whatever they like. But I suspect most of us would agree that there is good music and bad music, and that writing about those distinctions is not a dishonorable task. The same people might even object to saying that the Jonas Brothers are far superior to Miles Davis....

J

makes me think of all those $500 plus handbags.....

Robert K. Selander

In the human species, the ability to judge the quality of wine may be just about about equivalent to the variance in ability to judge the quality of music. Those who are fully satisfied with a $2.50 bottle of wine may be just those individuals who actually prefer Maria Carey to Maria Callas. It takes all kinds - apparently.

Rob

About fifteen years ago a housemate of mine acquired a red that a well-known Virginia winery sold for $80-90. Despite the winery's "Virginia" verbiage, the wine was mostly made of bulk California juice. One evening I walked in the house and he said "taste this." I pulled an under-three-dollar bottle of Bulgarian red off the shelf, said "taste this," and the cheap stuff won hands down; it was not even remotely a close contest. That cheapo bottle had no doubt been abused in transit, but it still was drinkable, which was far more than could be said for the local triumph-of-marketing swill. Just sayin'