Is expensive wine a waste of money?

Several studies have been released recently that calls into question a basic premise of wine buying. Most wine drinkers assume that the more expensive a bottle it, the better it tastes. This is a myth long been questioned by several wine academics, including our own Keith Wallace.

“Pricing is divorced from the quality of taste in the wine industry, ” says Keith. “Wine prices are  determined  by production costs, scarcity and branding, just like any other retail product. There is a difference between a great wine and an expensive tasting one, and that’s an important distinction.”

One study  published a few years ago in the  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that one’s enjoyment of wine is affected directly by it’s price tag. A group of  casual wine drinkers were given several wines to try and rate them according to how delicious they were. The more expensive the bottle, the better rating it received. That is what one would  expect. However, their is a catch: the wines were exactly the same; the only difference was the quoted price  of the wine. Participants ranked a $45 Cabernet Sauvignon  higher than the same wine priced at $5.

During the wine tasting,  the subjects where hooked up to  FMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) machines. The resulting scans showed more activity in the  medial orbitofrontal cortex, the brain’s pleasure center for taste.  It wasn’t that they just rated expensive wines higher: they actually enjoyed those wines much more.

Let’s hope that FRMI machines don’t become standard equipment at  wine tastings.

 

To add insult to injury, a study published in the  Journal of Wine Economics  shows that most wine enthusiasts prefer the taste of less expensive wine.  From the study’s conclusion:

In this paper we have explored the bottom-up effects by looking at how participants in blind tastings rate wines. We find that, unless they are experts, individuals who are unaware of the price enjoy more expensive wines slightly less.

To top that off, there seems to be a huge disconnect between what wine experts — sommeliers and wine critics–   enjoy about wine, and what the average wine drinker prefers.

Our results indicate another reason for why the average wine drinker may not benefit from expert wine ratings: he or she simply doesn’t like the same types of wines as experts. This is consistent with Weil (2001, 2005), who finds that even among the subset of tasters who can distinguish between good and bad vintages, or reserve or regular bottlings, they are as likely to prefer the “better” one as the “worse” one. These findings raise an interesting question: is the difference between the ratings of experts and non-experts due to an acquired taste? Or is it due to an innate ability, which is correlated with self-selection into wine training? Investigating this further would be a fruitful avenue for future research.

 

In sum, in a large sample of blind tastings, we fi nd that the correlation between price and overall rating is small and negative. Unless they are experts, individuals on average enjoy more expensive wines slightly less. Our results suggest that non-expert wine consumers should not anticipate greater enjoyment of the intrinsic qualities of a wine simply because it is expensive or is appreciated by experts.

Journal of Wine Economics, Volume 3, Number 1, Spring 2008, Pages 1–9 (pdf)

So,  wine drinkers prefer less expensive wines that are rated less…. unless they know the wines are more expensive. Then they enjoy them more? That seems to be the current scientific theory.  Does this mean you should just drink cheap wine? Probably not, says Keith.

“If you like to drink wine and have a good time, then spending  no more than ten bucks a bottle makes sense,” says Keith. “However, if you love wine, and are really into  how it tastes and how it changes over time, and all the cool stuff. Well, then these studies  should be a wake up call. Instead of just drinking, you should start learning about wine. Go to classes, read books, whatever. The more you know, the more exposure you have, the more you will enjoy wine.”

The more you drink, the more you learn. The more you know, the more you love it. That’s the kind of advice I like to hear.

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