The Big Money Wine Myth

Posted by Keith Wallace

Is Expensive Wine a Waste of Money?

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

Wine expenses represented by bottle and dollar signs.

Pricing is divorced from the quality of taste in the wine industry. 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 its price tag. A group of casual wine drinkers were given several wines to try and rate them according to how delicious they were.

Higher the Price, Higher the Rating

The more expensive the bottle, the better rating it received. That is what one would expect. However, there 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 were 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.

Colorful artwork depicting expensive wine with dollar symbols.

People Prefer Lower-Cost Wines

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.

Wine Experts vs. Wine Drinkers

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 find 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.

The Psychology Behind Wine Pricing

The psychology behind wine pricing plays a significant role in consumer perception. Studies in behavioral economics reveal that higher prices often lead to higher expectations, influencing how people experience and rate wine. This phenomenon, known as the “price placebo effect,” suggests that the perceived value can alter sensory experiences, making more expensive wines seem more enjoyable.

Get Educated

If you like to drink wine and have a good time, then spending no more than ten bucks a bottle makes sense. However, if you love wine, and are really into how it tastes and how it changes over time, 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. One of the bedrock truths of wine is that people with sommelier certifications tend to enjoy wine more than others.

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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