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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?

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.