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04.17.2008

Does Expensive Wine Taste Better Than Cheap Wine?

Regardless of your level of wine knowledge, and independent of the price you normally pay for a bottle of wine, I'm willing to bet that you'll agree with the following statement:

On average (which is to say, not ALWAYS) a bottle of wine that costs $150 will taste better than a bottle that costs $2.

That's what I would assume, at least. And built into that assumption is another assumption -- that many people (though certainly not all) would be able to tell the difference between the two.

According to a recent paper from the delightful folks at the Journal for Wine Economics, I couldn't be more wrong.

Not only can a random sample of people presented with several glasses of wine (and no information about the wines) not tell the difference between a $2 bottle of wine and a $150 bottle of wine, they tend to think that the cheaper wines taste better (without knowing anything about the prices).

Gulp.

Which means, of course, that for most people, the right amount to spend on a bottle of wine is as little as possible.

I can hear Fred Franzia rubbing his meaty hands together in glee.

But don't despair, wine lovers, there is hope for the masses. While this paper's results, which seem to be extremely rigorous and well arrived at, might call into question the value of many things in the wine world (not the least of which are wine critics), it seems that there exists a significant difference between the preferences of the average person and those who know a thing or two about wine.

Yes, a little education goes a long way, apparently. The economists learned that those who actually knew some things about wine, because they had taken classes, or were just passionate consumers of wine, reported that the more expensive wines tasted better to them.

So you don't have to go smash all those expensive bottles you own in despair. You simply have to learn more about wine so that you can enjoy them properly. Which, in the end, is true about so many of the finer things in life: music, film, food, and even sex.

Read the full paper.


Thanks to Arthur for tipping me off to the study.


Comments (102)

Alfonso wrote:
04.18.08 at 5:02 AM

I'm a sucker for algebraic formulas and footnotes. That's it, I'm sending my Monfortino to the Goodwill.

Steve wrote:
04.18.08 at 8:38 AM

That's why junk food appeals more to the masses than nice
wholesome home cooking. For most kids, it's a no brainer
to go for the McDonald's dollar menu.
Just like wine, the more educated palate can better appreciate
good food.

will wrote:
04.18.08 at 9:24 AM

maybe this just suggests that the "educated" wine lovers have been taught to like a certain, high-priced, style. we would like that high-priced style if the wine books and other wine lovers haven't already deemed it good? maybem a blank slate--the human tongue and nose--prefers the cheap stuff, and all of us here have been trained, correctly or not, to think otherwise.

Arthur wrote:
04.18.08 at 10:11 AM

...then there is this: http://thepour.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/04/11/you-can-please-all-the-peopleor-you-can-make-great-wine/

It's not that those more informed about wine have been 'trained' to like a psecific style. Rather, they look for more than immedaite approachability and a "yum factor". It just so happens that those things that make a wine appeal to the neophyte tend to be antithesis of what makes wine 'fine'.

Jack wrote:
04.18.08 at 1:51 PM

Look, Alder, you're going to have to get with the PROGRAM here. Higher priced wine tastes better. Higher rated wine tastes even better. Being told the score by a winery PR-person while you're tasting the wine - The Pinnacle of Winedom.

Brian wrote:
04.19.08 at 11:59 AM

I think I agree with Steve. I would also perhaps add that in a world of subsidized corn syrup production, people tend to go for the "sweet" first.

Where I might agree is that a lot of the upper end cult wines today in Napa (and other places) are so manipulated, so over the top, that they don't really taste very good, either. So...I'm not very interested in Franzia, not am I very interested in Kobalt or Screamikng Eagle, either (even if I could afford it).

Arthur wrote:
04.19.08 at 1:09 PM

Brian makes a very valid point:

Traditionally, “expensive” wines were finer and of better overall quality (based on traditional, time tested standards of quality). As wine became ‘democratized’ (spelling?), the spectrum of its character began to change. Jump ahead a decade or (almost) three and you now see cult wines priced at $75 a bottle or more. They are expensive, yes. Are they good? Are they fine? Are they of high quality? Or are they just over-the-top, overhyped plonk? They may face great demand and sell for a hefty price but there is nothing about them, or their structures, that even remotely resembles the character of those wines traditionally held up as gold standards. Yet they are “expensive” – one of the ‘variables’ being tested in the book and presumably the research paper.

Assuming that: 1. some of the “expensive” wines were these over the top, monster wines, and 2. both expert and neophyte tasters did not rate these expensive, over the top wines highly, is it not possible that the difference in styles (and quality) among both expensive and inexpensive wines is enough to confound the results of both the research paper and the book? Is this why there is no clear overwhelming statistical correlation between price and quality – in both neophyte and expert groups?

tom merle wrote:
04.19.08 at 1:24 PM

The explanation strikes me as wrong. It's not the education that accounts for increasing one's enjoyment of more sophisticated wines, but exposure. And this means frequent sipping and drinking with meals.

The same holds for all sensuous experiences. I don't know about the structure of a sonata or a quartet, but I nonetheless enjoy the hearing of these compositions. It is the difference between appreciation and education.

The study didn't control for this since with more interest in fine wines usually comes greater knowledge; but knowledge is only a correlation not a cause.

Arthur wrote:
04.19.08 at 1:27 PM

Which explanation, Tom?

tom merle wrote:
04.19.08 at 1:51 PM

This explanation: that "experts" enjoy more expensive wines because of their training. Conversely, that novices tend toward simpler, inexpensive wines because they lack such training. This is based on a classic logical fallcy ie:

Robert enjoys expensive wines
Robert has training
Therefore expensive wines require training

Yuji wrote:
04.19.08 at 4:00 PM

What a great article you linked to. It's interesting to see that the results were as shown even with the test subjects skewed towards people in the food/wine industry.

I also love the 2008 fMRI study on participants given two identical glasses of wine but presented with a different price tags. The one with the higher price produced both reports of a more pleasant experience /and/ corresponding positive fMRI data as well.

Tom, the cited journal ends with: "is the difference between the ratings of experts and non-experts due to an acquired taste? Or is it due to an innate ability, which is correlated with self-selection into wine training?7" For a further discussion, see Chapter 4 of Goldstein (2008).

So it doesn't claim "education" is the issue. Perhaps education + exposure go hand in hand?

Alder wrote:
04.19.08 at 5:10 PM

Tom,

To my mind, the majority of an informed wine lover's education comes not in the classroom but simply through repeated tasting. While I'm in favor of classroom learning for those who are interested, by far the best way to "educate" your palate is to taste, taste, taste, taste. You might call this appreciation, but I prefer the word education. You're building skills to differentiate between wines, in ways that you could not before -- learning to make judgements that you had no ability to before.

sctoad wrote:
04.19.08 at 5:17 PM

To me the more interesting question is some where in the middle. Do perceptions match cost in discussing $15 and $75 bottles of wine? There are significant diminishing quality factors (including labeling – i.e. the term burgundy for Cal. Wines) at the extreme lowest ends of the spectrum.
I do think it is somewhat circular to argue that knowledgeable/ experienced wine drinkers correlate to the appreciation of expensive wines as both of these are driven by the same factors – marketing. More expensive wines are not necessarily more expensive to make (there is a cure on this that includes demand and desire for exclusivity). That caters to the crowd “in the know” and in fact educated by the very industry that is rating/ making/ pricing the wines.

Alder wrote:
04.19.08 at 5:20 PM

Arthur,

Thanks for your comments. While I follow your hypothesis, I'd be willing to bet that expensive wines in a given category (e.g. "red") share more characteristics than not, even including the variance in styles. Some of those characteristics include texture, complexity, strength and depth of aromas and flavors, the existence of tannins, etc.

Likewise, cheaper wines tend to cluster around certain qualities like lack of tannins, lack of body, simple flavors, etc.

There are of course, many exceptions.

With regards to a large number of expensive wines being "overhyped plonk" -- if you truly believe this you have to believe either:

a) None of the critics or major wine connoissuers know what the heck they're talking about, and really prefer plonk to quality wine.

or

b) Economics is a sham.

Because if there are a lot of wines out there now selling for $75 a bottle, then it means that there are a lot of people who want to buy them.

Arthur wrote:
04.19.08 at 5:21 PM

Alder and Tom. In medical school training I spend two years learning the theory and science of medicine and another two years in clinical rotations, putting all the memorized information to practice as well as learning to do examinations, perform procedures, etc.

Both theoretical and academic knowledge and practical experience are essential.

tom merle wrote:
04.19.08 at 5:37 PM

While I agree with your view (I wasn't thinking of book learnin'), I don't think it bears upon the study under question, as I understand your comment. The testers, if memory serves, were seeking information about strictly sensuous responses not capacity to differentiate among types of wines (if this is what you mean by differentiation), which can certainly add to one's pleasure. But perhaps you should elaborate on what you mean by ~skills~. Our disagreement may only be semantic.

Arthur wrote:
04.19.08 at 5:44 PM

Alder,

I think that many (not necessarily all) 'expensive' wines do share power and size but not necessarily complexity or nuance or subtlety of truly fine wines. This ties into your economics point - in order to appeal to a large number of folks, wines cannot be esoteric. They have to have mass appeal. I submit as examples for your consideration: Pamela Anderson, Brittney Spears and McDonalds. All popular. All have a degree of hedonic appeal. None of them are classic, or truly qulaity in their own categories.

I do believe that, in fact, a lot of high priced wines (particularly Califonia wines) made today are overhyped. The major critics DO rate these big, soft and clunky wines precisely because their tasting methodology inherently carries a high amount of contrast error. Then there is the notion of the critic having a duty to speak to/for the preferences of the masses. There is no denying that Critics for the large publications know that in order for them to keep their job and reputation, their preferences have to be in line with those of the mainstream.

So we come back to your issue with economics. These wines get hyped and enjoy demand because the majority of the wine buying public (this excludes you, me and probably all of the people who post to your blog) prefer over the top wines - big, soft, over-extracted, over-ripe, over-oaked wines.

As I said in my initial comment: my hypothesis is based on an assumption. It would be nice to see the whole list of the wines and the ratings they received, the rating scale and other supporting raw data.

Alder wrote:
04.19.08 at 5:55 PM

Arthur,

But if that really were true about expensive wines, then don't the results of this study invalidate that? I.e. this study seems to suggest that "the masses" distinctly did NOT prefer the wines that you are claiming are designed for "mass appeal."

Arthur wrote:
04.19.08 at 5:58 PM

Yuji

The fMRI study from Caltech you mention actually gives a partial answer to the last question from the Goldstein paper.

In that paper, the authors explicitly state that the areas responsible for processing the raw or basic sensory data in the brain were not affected by suggested price. The area that was affected is associated with a MULTITUDE of things, not just perceived pleasure or "pleasantness". The fMRI study authors said that there is a top-down, conscious modulation of the final 'judgment' about the wine and this one area of the brain may be involved in that process. (There is no single area of the brain responsible for any single function, its all about circuits and many regions working in concert of committee fashion).

So the answer to you r question might be – education (theoretical and practical) + the ability to separate personal opinions (including enjoyment and prejudices) from the final judgement?

Alder wrote:
04.19.08 at 6:04 PM

Tom,

I think being able to differentiate between wines is only one of the "skills" that people learn. I guess the easiest way to respond to you is that I believe that "appreciation" of any complex, nuanced sensory experience (i.e. wine, music, art, etc.) is actually a skill. It's a skill to be able to pay attention to the components of a wines flavor (this is how people like my wife go from saying a Cabernet Franc smells like "red grapes and alcohol" to being able to pick out aromas like "burnt marshmallow"). Any wine education, whether formal or informal, helps people with these abilities, which I am suggesting is the reason that the subjects in this study who were "educated" gravitated towards the more expensive wines -- they had the skils to appreciate their qualities.

Arthur wrote:
04.19.08 at 6:08 PM

Alder,

The study states that there was no correlation, at least no positive one - and possibly a slightly negative one – between price and rating/enjoyment.

What that means is that the rankings were all over the place for both low, high and mid price points and you could not find a trend when you try to graph and/or average the data of price -vs -rating.

Thus my hypothesis that at least some (if not about half) of the "high priced" wines poured may be from that overwrought, over the top category.

This is a mathematical/statistical point: there was no consistent mathematical or statistical trend.

Alder wrote:
04.19.08 at 6:21 PM

Arthur,

From the body of the study: "Our main finding is that, on average, individuals who are unaware of the price do not derive more enjoyment from more expensive wine. In fact, they enjoy more expensive wines slightly less."

That sounds like a trend to me. Perhaps not a HUGE one, but a trend nonetheless. But even if there is no trend, doesn't that still invalidate the supposition that these big wines you describe actually appeal to the masses? If these (high priced, mass-appeal) wines were included in the tasting which we have to assume they were, wouldn't we see a positive correlation between higher price and enjoyment from the uneducated group of subjects?

Arthur wrote:
04.19.08 at 6:27 PM

Alder,

Average and correlation are two completly different statistical dimentions.

will wrote:
04.19.08 at 7:07 PM

those who say its relevant that educated wine drinkers were excluded, are making the assumption that uneducated wine drinkers are unable to accurately state what they think "tastes better." thats what the study measured. it didn't measure which had more nuanced taste, or more quote "complexity." i think its somewhat arrogant for us wine drinkers to assume that uneducated wine drinkers can't accurately say what tastes better. my point, above, was highlighting this point. you are educated to discern "burnt marshmallows" or "complexity" and to appreciately earthiness, whatever that is. then, via that education, you call that good, and winemakers try to fulfill that. there is certainly some truth to that, i think.

will wrote:
04.19.08 at 7:10 PM

and to continue, that is precisely why in my all too often drinking of expensive wines, i don't sit there and try to discern tastes. i prefer a more visceral emotional experience, and don't want to ruin it, but following the strange lead of the "taste of others." (not that i don't respect and see the value and enjoyment that discern taste, etc. can bring. on the contrary, i think its fascinating).

Brian wrote:
04.22.08 at 10:24 PM

Alder: without knowing exactly what wines were tasted, it's hard to respond to your questions. I might suggest that many of the Cali Monsters, being very high in alcohol, may not be showing very well to the novice/average tasters, either.

Otherwise, the expensive wines "of quality" (dammit, I'm going to say that Arthur is right and there are recognizable standards of great wines (LOL)) do have flavors and characteristics that might not appeal to said casual drinkers.

I can see the evolution in my friends. I'm the obsessive, but friends that drink with me now are coming around to MY way of tasting. Bow to ME! (LOL). So...experience, and taste taste taste.

Saying that we, too are merley slaves of "the industry" is imho, somewhat unfair. That denies a history, a tradition. of wine making-and drinking. Can we say there is no reason other than advertising for a great Burgundy to be considered special, versus a "California" label bottle of plonk that tastes like cherry lifesavers?

The bottom line, of course, is drink what you want. I will never be able to afford a Screaming Eagle and would never choose to drink a Kobalt or a Coupe de Foudre or the like, but that is me.

Arthur wrote:
04.22.08 at 10:29 PM

Brian:

"dammit, I'm going to say that Arthur is right and there are recognizable standards of great wines"

GASP!!!!!!

Arthur wrote:
04.22.08 at 10:33 PM

Also,

Asimov has put up a third post about this study today.

I'm obsessive too and bugged the statistitian where I work to look at the study and we arrived at not neccessarily 'debunking' this study, but we came up with some conserns about how this study was run and much of it has to do in large part the fact that high price does not mean a very specific style of wine.

A hundred bucks will buy you very different wines stlistically speaking.

MonkuWino wrote:
04.23.08 at 1:58 PM

Well maybe ignorance is bliss. People who didn't know a lot about wine found the cheaper ones tasted better. So the less knowledgable are better off financially, then! Perhaps we should de-educate ourselves. The question I have is that as we learn more about wines, are we gravitating towards qualities that are not naturally pleasing to the human sense of smell/taste?

Brian wrote:
04.23.08 at 9:32 PM

Monkiwino: Perhaps. Yet...I cannot de-educate myself. I like my black pepper, my "earth," my piercing acidity, my tobacco and leather. Alcoholic grape juice? Meh!

Chris Robinson wrote:
04.27.08 at 10:30 PM

The biggest problem with this study is the magnitudes of the measures used in the study to indicate perception of wine quality. A 5 or 6 point scale just ain't going to cut it and is basically wrong and makes the whole study dubious. Like audio equipment, with wine the difference between a 90 rating and a 95 rating is not 5 points. Audiophiles are absolutely convinced they can assess the difference and are ready to pay the price for it- so are wine drinkers. If the study had used a 100 point ratings system I can bet the sensitivity would have lead to experienced tasters getting the relationship between price and wine very correct with a strong positive correlation, but only part of the scale would have produced this effect - probably that 85-100 range, which our friend Parker has so effectively and correctly identified as viable a long time ago. Asking neophytes to assess that 15% difference is exactly what the study missed - and that is exactly where the differentiation skills are found amongst skilled tasters. This is so obvious I am amazed the study missed this critical point - no one uses a complete scale to evaluate wine!! Anyone who has judged wine professionally will not be surprised to find that usually the top judges scores are in a very narrow band, confirming this skill bias. And yeap i am a statistian!

Kate wrote:
05.12.08 at 6:51 PM

I think any inexpensive bottle of wine can be made instantly tastier by serving it in an interesting or fancy wine glass...conversely, a good wine can be ruined by being served in a sub par glass!

Wineguru wrote:
06.08.08 at 5:06 PM

1. The study is right on! I have done a number of double blind tastings with dozens of friends and guests. Dineros mean nothing!
"The Prisoner" - a Zinfandel Blend @ $40 dollars blew the doors off of '90 Chataeu Petrus and '75 Haut Brion! It was not even close! People rated what tasted good to them... not based on price or what other's have rated. So it might be missing tobacco and bacon undertones...who cares? Do you think I want to taste those in my wine? Also there is a big difference when you taste the wines back to back instead one one day and the other another day! I recently opened a great bottle of Dead Arm Shiraz @ $60. It was the bomb! I almost ordered a few cases to store. Then I decided to go out with a few friends and see how it does against another one of my favorites. Well guess what? We all liked my old favorite better. So instead of buying two cases ... I am buying 6 bottles to add to my collection. Make a big difference whne you taste them back to back. I bet you if Robert Parker tasted 10-20 wines back to back and all the wines were covered. His ratings would be all over the place.
2. Chris the Stastician's remarks are nonsense. 99% of people don't have the sensitivity to rate a wine 95 versus 97. Yes the experts do but most of their opinions are biased, flawed or learned. I let my guests rate the wines A-F. This makes more sense to them cause that's what they are used to in school. Yes they also specify - and +
3. The comparison made by Steve of McDonalds Junk food versus Home cooking is also deeply flawed. The cheaper wines are not Junk! You can find $20 wines that use quality vines/grapes, quality wine making processes, and quality winemakers. A better comparison is paying for a Prime Choice Steak at a Maestro's in Beverly Hills or marinating and cooking the same steak at home.
It's good to do it for fun every now and then or if you want to impress ...otherwise don't waste your money. The same holds for wine.
4. Challenge - Every penny of my tastings/fundraisers go to charity. I fund/host the parties and the dollars raised from selling tickets all go to the charity. So if there is a bottle of wine that you want to get reviewed...I will be more than happy to include it in the next tasting and report to you the results! Just send me a bottle or tell me what it is and I will try to include it next time around.

snaapz wrote:
08.07.10 at 1:34 PM

they tend to think that the cheaper wines taste better

"Gulp"

LOL

bananabender wrote:
10.28.10 at 8:37 PM

I have worked for over 20 years as a food scientist. The reality is that the vast majority of people are simply unable to differentiate between any two similar products when conducted under rigorous testing conditions. For example very few people can identify, or even detect the differences between Coke and Pepsi in a truly blind test. Note that even at wine competitions tasting is never performed using scientifically rigorous methods. It is simply the opinion of the judges who have been conditioned by long experience to prefer certain attributes in a wine. In reality the only thing that wine tasting can accurately do is detect serious problems such as severe spoilage.

Becoming wine or food connoisseur is nothing more than learning to like certain foods or drink over a long period. That is why some people like hotdogs and others like sheeps's eyes, fried grasshoppers or boiled blubber. It has nothing to do with becoming more refined or knowledgeable.The wine connoisseur is simply learning to prefer the flavours associated with expensive wines by experience. There is simply no measurable and objective quality difference between a $10 wine and a $200 wine. In other words wine appreciation it is nothing but blatant snobbery. Warren Buffett has has absolutely no need to show off his wealth or 'refinement' so he is perfectly happy to eat the foods he really likes - cheeseburgers and Coke.

In the past lobsters and oysters were both considered as junk food fit only for the poor. In fact servants often demanded employment contracts stating that they would be fed lobster no more than twice a week. Caviar was even provided free in New York bars 150 years ago to encourage thirst. Only when these foods became rare and ,therefore, expensive were they considered desirable. One of my fellow food scientist once summed it up as "a delicacy is something that is rare, expensive and tastes like sh*t."

Alder Yarrow wrote:
10.28.10 at 8:55 PM

Thanks for your comments. You were doing fine until you got to the "blatant snobbery part." Presumably you also think that there's also no objective difference between the drawings that my two year old does and a Picasso or Jackson Pollack painting, and that art criticism and appreciation is just parroting the things that others have said.

As a scientist you must certainly recognize the flaw in your logic when you claim that simply because lobsters and oysters used to be eaten by the poor that somehow "haute cuisine" is a sham.

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