Sunday, July 20, 2008

Sunday dollars + sense: Wine experts are on to something

What's the difference between a good and a bad wine? Shopping in the supermarket it's hard to tell. So most of us choose on the basis of its price.

If the price is high (but not too expensive to buy) we figure it's good.

If the price is low we keep it away from our guests.

We couldn't be more wrong.

A new analysis of more than 6,000 individual wine tastings has settled the question beyond reasonable doubt, and made those of us who buy expensive wines look pretty stupid...

Entitled “Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better?” it has just been published in the Journal of Wine Economics. (Yes, there really is such a journal)...

The key finding: “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”.

The finding bears repeating: On average, people unaware of the price enjoy expensive wines slightly less than cheap ones. The implication is that price is a good guide if you use it to buy cheap.

But there was one group of taste testers that behaved differently. These people could spot the expensive wines (although still not that much more often than by chance) and they actually seemed to prefer them. They were wine critics – the sort of people that make a living advising people like you and me on what's good.

To quote the study again, “experts, unlike non-experts, on average assign as high – or higher – ratings to more expensive wines”.

The findings suggest that if one wine costs ten times as much as another, non-experts will on average rate it 4 points lower on a 100 point scale whereas experts will rate it 7 points higher.

The experts are expert at something. But it appears not to be at predicting what you and I will like.

In fact the study suggests we will be more likely to find what we like if we use their recommendations as a guide for what to steer clear of.

The researchers say this might be because the experts have developed acquired tastes. But they are acquired tastes that aren't much use as a guide to the rest of us.

Of course in the real world away from blind taste tests, reviews and prices do matter. Your guests might be offended if you plonked cask wine or a $2.50 cleanskin on the table.

My advice is to buy it and pour it into an expensive well-reviewed bottle.


Robin Goldstein, Johan Almenberg, Anna Dreber, John W. Emerson, Alexis Herschkowitsch, and Jacob Katz,
Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better? Evidence from a Large Sample of Blind Tastings, The Journal of Wine Economics, Vol 3, No 1, May 2008.

Roger Dooley, Why Expensive Wine Tastes Better, Neuromarketing, January 16, 2008

Roger Dooley, Clever Wine Marketing, Neuromarketing, July 23, 2008

Roger Dooley, Please Your Guests by Fooling Them, Neuromarketing, July 28, 2008

Steven D Levitt, Cheap Wine, Freakonomics blog, July 16, 2008

Steven D Levitt, Keep the Cheap Wine Flowing, Freakonomics blog, July 24, 2008