When you set out to buy good wine, how do you determine what’s “good?”
Hopefully, you aren’t relying on the price tag.
As most of us know, expensive wine isn’t necessarily better than wine at lower price points (and even if it was, we probably wouldn’t be able to tell).
In fact, a professional sommelier recently outlined the characteristics that make a wine high-quality, and “price tag” wasn’t one of them.
Numerous studies have indicated that price, quality, and enjoyment of wine are essentially unrelated. Note that for the purposes of the studies highlighted below, “expensive” generally ranged from $US30-$90.
While there are other experiments out there, here’s a taste — no pun intended — of what researchers have learned about wine.
We’re overly reliant on what we see in the glass.
In a wine tasting experiment conducted by Frederic Brochet and Denis Dubourdieu in 2001, 54 tasters described a white wine tinted red by an “odorless dye” as red wine. “Hence, because of the visual information, the tasters discounted the olfactory information,” the study’s authors wrote.
Without the price tag, we have no idea whether a wine is cheap.
In a blind taste test conducted by Hertfordshire University psychologist Richard Wiseman in Scotland, it was found that identifying a wine as cheap or expensive has about the same odds as flipping a coin: 50/50.
But when we know a wine is expensive, we like it more.
A 2007 study by Hilke Plassmann and John O’Doherty of the California Institute of Technology, along with Baba Shiv and Antonio Rangel of the Stanford Graduate School of Business, found by scanning wine tasters with an MRI that wine believed to be expensive was more enjoyable.
Surprisingly, disclosing a lower price doesn’t make us like it any less.
Another study found that we don’t begrudge wine at a low price point: “Our results suggest that hosts offering wine to guest can safely reveal the price: Much is gained if the wine is expensive, and little is lost if cheap,” write Johan Almenberg and Anna Dreber of the Stockhom School of Economics in their 2009 study’s abstract.
Also from the researchers, a twist on the conclusions drawn by the Plassmann study above: “Disclosing the high price before tasting the wine produces considerably higher ratings, although only from women.”
You could argue that enormously expensive wines aren’t even for the average drinker.
In a 2008 experiment consisting of blind tastings, researchers Almenberg and Dreber from the low price study, along with three more colleagues, found that “both the prices of wines and wine recommendations by experts may be poor guides for non-expert wine consumers.” That’s because professionals who have training in wine (like sommeliers) enjoy expensive wines more when unaware of the price, while untrained drinkers enjoy it less.
The non-monetary value of wine probably varies depending, frankly, on how much you care about it. For instance, experienced wine writer Steve Heimoff published a defence of buying expensive wine in which he cites “mouthfeel” and “the absence of flaws” as testaments to expensive wine, and discounts studies like those cited above as “a few isolated occurrences.”
Also remember that “expensive” is somewhat relative. So take these studies with a grain of salt — if you like the wine, and you can comfortably afford it without a twinge of budget-guilt, that’s all that really matters.