Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better?

This post is the direct result of a referral from my youngest son, Dave, who is a dedicated teacher, husband,  father of 2 strapping sons and (our grandsons!) and lives in Portland, OR. Notwithstanding his many responsibilities, he appreciates good wine and food and knowing that his old man does, he alerted me to a Podcast available free at the Itunes Store by Freakonomics  dated 12/15/10 and entitled as above. The host, Stephen Dubner, put together a most interesting program to those of us who enjoy purchasing and consuming wine. Dubner is an economist by training and as such deals with facts and what can be concluded from serious investigation. I encourage you to listen to the full 26 min podcast to get the full story for yourselves, but suffice it to say, he presents two credible experts who discuss their various analyzes and conclusions in answer to this question. As you might have guessed by now, the answer in many blind tastings including those attended by sommeliers, winemakers, and wine retailers, etc. is no! In fact participants actually liked cheaper wines slightly more! The emphasis here is on blind, since, as soon as prices are introduced, participants will favor more expensive wines. Ratings and prices are closely correlated and ratings drive most informed consumers’ behavior. The problem is the experts, for the most part, are conflicted since they sell advertising  to producers whose wine they also rate!

One of the Podcast guests, Robin Goldstein, who has written several books: Wine Trials and Beer Trials, has been a member of The American Association of Wine Economists (http://www.wine-economics.org/board/) and presented the results of a “sting” operation he organized against the Wine Spectator (WS) in 2008. The below excerpt is an amazing piece of creative imagination:

What does it take to get a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence?

Friday, August 15th, 2008

“My name is Robin Goldstein, and I’m the author of a new book called The Wine Trials (book here; website here). Lately, I’ve become curious about how Wine Spectator magazine determines its Awards of Excellence for the world’s best wine restaurants.

As part of the research for an academic paper I’m currently working on about standards for wine awards, I submitted an application for a Wine Spectator Award of Excellence. I named the restaurant “Osteria L’Intrepido” (a play on the name of a restaurant guide series that I founded, Fearless Critic). I submitted the fee ($250), a cover letter, a copy of the restaurant’s menu (a fun amalgamation of somewhat bumbling nouvelle-Italian recipes), and a wine list.

In order to make the application appear genuine, I also obtained a Milan phone/fax number, as required by the application, and established a small online presence. Aside from creating the menu and wine list, all of this took less than three hours.

Osteria L’Intrepido won the Award of Excellence, as published in print in the August 2008 issue of Wine Spectator.

Since then, the Osteria’s listing has, not surprisingly, been removed from Wine Spectator‘s website. After the story broke, one of Wine Spectator‘s main claims (aside from calling me names) was that its staff had “called the restaurant multiple times.” However, the only message that was ever left on the restaurant’s voice mailbox (before this story broke) was on May 22, 2008, after Osteria L’Intrepido had already won the Award of Excellence. The message was from the magazine’s ad sales department, asking me if I’d like to buy an advertisement for Osteria L’Intrepido to appear in the August issue along with my listing.”

The most important insight I took away from these presentations is “consumers have performance anxiety” due to the layers of “experts” between us and the wine we buy so we don’t want to make a mistake. The reality is we should be buying wine that gives us pleasure individually whether by transporting us to a different place,  improving our food enjoyment, or just to explore. Visit Goldstein’s website at http://blindtaste.com/category/wine. For Robin’s extensive value wine list recommendations go to http://www.fearlesscritic.com/wine/. Happy hunting!

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