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04.13.2011

Cheap Wine vs. Expensive Wine: No Contest

Why do journalists continue to consider it a revelation that the "average" consumer can't tell a $8 wine from a $45 wine? This ground has been covered so many times, yet trials of this sort (in this case roughly 600 consumers at the Edinburgh Science Fair) continue to be conducted.

I certainly don't begrudge those who have the curiosity to test this hypothesis themselves, rather than relying on the tests that have already been done. And I actually appreciate the extent to which such tests and their inevitable results help ordinary wine consumers feel good about their enjoyment of wines on the lower end of the price scale (as opposed to the common self-critical assumptions that they are incapable of appreciating the expensive stuff).

I guess what amazes me is that anyone would think that somehow uneducated, inexperienced consumers would ever be able to pick out the more expensive wine just by taste alone. Hell, a lot of wine journalists and winemakers couldn't do that consistently, let alone a population of random people who may or may not drink wine.

Of course, even leaving aside the tasting abilities and expertise of the test subjects, such tests are fraught with difficulty, starting with the most basic of presumptions that somehow there is a correlation between the organoleptic qualities of the wine and its price. Expensive wine is not by definition better, no matter what the marketing says. Is there a positive correlation between quality and price? Well some would say no quite vociferously. But I believe there is, if only because of the fundamental principles of economics operate in wine as they do most everywhere else in the world.

And then there's the fact that many expensive wines aren't necessarily designed to taste great right now, and would never be able to compete with a plush young wine on all but the most studied palates.

But leaving those and many other problems with such testing aside, the fundamental reality remains: most people pay very little attention to what they put in their mouths, and have very little language (and the experience that produces such language) to differentiate amongst the flavors and sensations on their palate. To say this is not to make any value judgement about the situation, merely to state the facts. Sort of like saying a lot of kids don't know much about and can't really appreciate classical music.

So, can we stop running these tests already, and focus on just encouraging everyone to simply drink more wine, no matter at what price point?

Read the full story.

Comments (28)

Robbie C. wrote:
04.14.11 at 3:04 AM

Yesterday, I was in a wine shop (here in China). I overheard the shop assistant tell a customer that the inexpensive wines were meant for "beginners". I had a good chuckle over that.

clive wrote:
04.14.11 at 4:52 AM

"encouraging everyone to simply drink more wine,"

anymore encouragement and one will need to start thinking about aa haha

as always, with gratitude for great site

Jason Cohen wrote:
04.14.11 at 6:49 AM

I totally agree about expensive wines not always being better, having recently gained a greater understanding of this phenomenon when a friend and I tasted Carmin de Peumo, Concha y Toro's flagship Carmenere, at $120 a bottle.

Was it better than Terrunyo, their next Carmenere down (which costs $40)? Yeah. Was it 3x better? No.

I guess my point is that even when there IS a general correlation between price and quality, it's important to realize that deliciousness and dollars don't necessarily scale upward at the same rate.

1WineDude wrote:
04.14.11 at 10:29 AM

Feels similar to the "experts cannot tell one variety from another when blindfolded" test. Experience is subjective; we get it already! ;-)

Having said that - I think it is important to reference these studies in educating new wine consumers: "if you don't like a pricey wine, it doesn't mean that you're wrong" is a message that still needs to be heard. Cheers!

04.14.11 at 11:14 AM

Thanks for expressing the exasperation that I'm sure most wine enthusiasts feel.

Approaching the topic from a different tack, what can we learn from the emphasis placed on the quality-price relationship by journalists and lay-people?

Unlike more familiar aesthetic domains (music, food, films) the notion of preference as separate from quality is swept under the rug. Possibly due to the conflation of preference with aesthetic taste and cultural refinement. It's old news that price doesn't correlate with enjoyment. However the implied corollary: that price doesn't correlate with quality, is misleading. The reason price doesn't correlate with enjoyment is that each depends on a number of different factors.

Price:
brand image, faddiness, scarcity of supply, historical quality, critics' scores, number of middle-men, vintage reputation, winery reputation, regional reputation, wine quality, et al.

Enjoyment:
wine quality, personal preference for the style, mood, serving context, food pairing, Who you're drinking it with, appropriateness of the wine glass, bottle variation, et al.

Yes, quality is a common factor, but it's one of many.

Perhaps these studies are a sign that the wine community isn't doing enough to get people to form their own preferences so they focus on drinking wine that they enjoy, not higher-quality wine.

Josef Wagner wrote:
04.15.11 at 11:21 AM

If I read Mr Alder's statement, I believe he's stating that because most people are not educated in how to drink and understand wines, that we don't understand and appreciate expensive wines. I always thought that you drink a wine because you like the taste and flavor, not because it's cheap or expensive.
I guess I must be wrong.

Bill Ellis wrote:
04.15.11 at 1:58 PM

Rajiv - good analysis of the subject! My question about the study - why was the result exactly 50%, suggesting random guesses. Of the 578 members of the public, wouldn't one expect a small number of perceptive wine-lovers, to skew the results away from 50%? Edinburgh is a town of more-than-average intelligence, and I am sure many of those students and professors are serious wine-lovers. If perceptive palates are as rare as the results suggest, I cannot help but wonder about "the Emperor's new clothes." Wine quality must be invisible, or at least so subjective a variable that consulting experts is folly.

Oswald wrote:
04.15.11 at 5:09 PM

I can't remember where, but there was a good article some years back about what level of money about, say 10 or 15 dollars actually means anything in the wine production process. After about 10-20 dollars, anything else in the price is either scarcity (because it is a cult wine and/or very old wine and/or a small production wine) and marketing.

Alder Yarrow wrote:
04.15.11 at 9:58 PM

Josef,

If that's the way it came across, then I'm not making myself entirely clear. Some expensive wines don't taste very good when they are first released. That's because they're meant to be aged for at least a decade before they are to be enjoyed. If you don't know this, as many people don't, you'd think the wine tasted harsh and you wouldn't like it. Likewise, there are certain wines that have very odd flavor profiles that, perhaps not dissimilar to single malt scotch, are frankly acquired tastes. A certain amount of experience and education about why they taste that way, tends to help people move from the "jeez, this tastes weird" to enjoying them.

Finally, most people pay very little attention to wine as they drink it. That's perfectly fine. But some people (myself included) have enjoyed the process of learning how to taste wine in a detailed fashion that affords an appreciation of its flavors, textures, and aromatic components. This sort of appreciation is only a product of a certain kind of scrutiny, and the ability (and perhaps the inclination) to do that comes from experience and education of some sort or another (formal or experiential).

Of course, all of the above does not mean that someone with no understanding of wine can't appreciate a $100 bottle of wine, or even that some can't tell the difference between that bottle and a $5 bottle of wine, despite whatever findings these kinds of studies show.

Bill Ellis wrote:
04.16.11 at 6:45 AM

The skill to taste a young wine and know that it will be great at a later time does requires a fair amount of experience, and taster focus.

Bill Ellis wrote:
04.16.11 at 6:48 AM

Oswald: There is a quite similar article on page 40 in the current Wine Spectator (April 30, 2011) by Matt Kramer.

Mel Knox wrote:
04.17.11 at 10:17 AM

The definition of 'good' 'average' and 'excellent' wine is subjective. The UC Davis scoring sheet of the 70s emphasized an absence of faults...NO VA, no H2S, etc. Yet we see that people love VA, some love H2S and many love brett.

What annoys many amateurs and cynical journalists is that 'experts' differ. What Parker love Jancis may hate.

What David Schildknecht loves Tanzer may find boring, etc.

Imagine if we changed the subject to music. 74 out of 100 attendees at the San Benito county fair preferred the Beegees to Mahler. 98 per cent of the visitors preferred Grand Funk Railroad to Stockhausen (and who can blame them?)

Or art? 92% of the visitors to the Monterey county fair preferred Norman Rockwell to Jackson Pollock.

Christopher Robinson wrote:
04.18.11 at 12:07 AM

Mel, the art metaphor is perfect. Keith Haring may have been a better choice than Normal Rockwell whose prices are now very high, but point well made. And really why discourage the myth. With so many new wine drinkers entering the market in Asia let them drink value wines and leave some of the higher priced but very good stuff for us.

Mike Sterling wrote:
04.18.11 at 10:43 AM

To answer your question: "So, can we stop running these tests already, and focus on just encouraging everyone to simply drink more wine, no matter at what price point?" I would say, no.

Dan D wrote:
04.18.11 at 1:12 PM

I'm always skeptical about comments made of a young wine that does not taste good when young that requires time to become a great wine. I have yet to come across an ugly young girl who grows up to be a beauty queen.

Ji wrote:
04.19.11 at 8:11 PM

Flawed wines are rarely offered these days (as were detected in the UC Davis scale). The qualitative differences fall much more into personal preferences -- oak, acidity, brett, as well as availability and prestige. Pricing is a function of what the market prefers and/or will bear.

Cyril Penn wrote:
04.21.11 at 1:18 PM

I like the comparison to music in the comment from Mel Knox - it's like the Bee Gees vs. Mahler - it reminds me that the masses are ...

Mark wrote:
04.22.11 at 9:31 AM

Good points Alder! I think the current research also shows, that as people drink more wine they gain a greater appreciation for it. Telling everyone consistently that your palate isn't sophisticated enough to tell the difference between wines, frankly doesn't make much sense

Carmen wrote:
04.26.11 at 3:46 AM

I think that there are cheap wines that we can love...for example i drunk a cheap red wine that was so good...the quality was very very good; the grape is cannonau, the red wine's name is 'i fiori- cannonau 2009'...many times when a wine become so popular the price go up but the quality go down...unfortunately! So you have to pay attention to the price but also to the quality...and you have to try try and try wines to know more...bye

Eric Nelson wrote:
05.04.11 at 7:34 AM

I think for most wine drinkers, the very subtle hidden notes that make an expensive wine so special, go unnoticed. like the article says, sometimes even the most experienced palates couldn't pick them up.

but i believe what makes it so valuable is the price tag. we value things worth more.

Alex wrote:
03.09.12 at 1:22 AM

Coming from Australia there seems to be a very decent range of 'cheap' wine that is truly fantastic - 10 dollar bottles of 'good' wine certainly are common. However, after living in France for a year I noticed this is not the case - you either buy cheap 'vin de table' or an expensive 'bordeaux' with nothing in between!? From that perspective 'good' wines can be very cultural also

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