Recent blind wine tasting results & statistics make expensive wine look, um… a little sketchy. Is it?


The absolute best moment after 5 years of pulling corks professionally for people never changes:

When we first serve a “prestigious” CHF 65.00 wine without telling them.

Eyes pop out of heads, right? Sure of course, the table is suddenly full of eyeballs. “That’s soooo good, I need more!” Fistfights over the bottle. Pockets emptied in a rush to afford just one. Nope. I hate to break the truth.

It’s the exact opposite.

That’s what makes it my favorite. Floop, it flies over nearly everyone’s head. Unremarkable at first schluck. Thus the bad reputation of pricey wine — especially for special occasions when you shell out triple in a restaurant.

It’s true: a 2008 study in the Journal of Wine Economics made waves when most of 6,000 people in blind tastings actually preferred cheaper wine. Later in 2013 a Californian winemaking statistician’s experiments with inconsistent wine tasting judges inspired a slew of headlines happily proclaiming, “Wine Tasting Is Bulls**t” (or bollocks, your choice of crude English).

Hm yes. I agree sort of. But as a statistics-trained chemical engineer — and moreover a “normal”, not-naturally-talented longtime wine drinker — I reckon they missed the small print. And the point. Wine gets a bad rap. I claim it’s no different than other pastimes, especially with “luxury” products involved.

Statistics Don’t Lie. Do Wine Judges?

There’s no contesting the 2013 California study which simply shows that reproducibly assigning “objective” points scores to three wildly variable natural inputs — 1. an open bottle or glass of wine, 2. your nose and 3. your tongue from hour-to-hour, much less day-to-day — proves extraordinarily difficult even for experts. As a former analytical scientist-turned-wine-guy, it strengthens my belief that science remains far from capturing the nuances of nature. Simply put, don’t blindly believe wine scores.

Details within the more interesting 2008 study show that normal drinkers prefer less expensive wines but that “trained”, i.e., frequent or hobbyist, wine drinkers prefer the more expensive options. Is that drastically different than huge fans of Formula One, Grandmaster chess, sailboats or (Swiss example only) actuarial tables? You’ve spent time learning to appreciate something which I just don’t sense (or care about). So like with wine.

Wine Snob Radar Revealed

So what turns on wine aficionados exactly? Whereas lower-priced good quality wines exhibit easy-to-enjoy fruitiness (something like an apple or apricot or raspberry or whatever) and/or oak flavors (like toasted bread, vanilla or caramel, show me a fool who doesn’t like that stuff!), higher-priced wines often exhibit additional “acquired tastes” (like mushrooms, tobacco or the infamous cat pee) and should (but don’t always) exhibit harder-to-describe, more subtle attributes. Sounds dumb maybe… like what?

Anybody receiving a little competent instruction can perceive extra dimensions in wine (or food, by the way) like complexity, balance, and length, essentially expanded perceptions of 1. how “interesting” something tastes, 2. how the whole drinkable package fits together and 3. how long the sensory enjoyment lasts. A lower-priced wine which includes these attributes is called a great value (hey!); a higher-priced wine lacking these attributes is called a rip-off (sorry).

After we down that first schluck of CHF 65.00 bottle together, I reveal the price. Then we spend 10 minutes comparing it with a CHF 20.00 bottle of similar type. Afterwards pretty much everyone “gets it”: we’re paying 3 times as much for additional complexity, balance and length. But opinions always split on whether that’s worth the markup.

The Conclusion

The conclusion is clear: anybody without a reasonable explanation or demonstration of expensive wines’ extra dimensions will find almost all higher-priced wines to be rip-offs. Even if you do know, it still might not be your thing. And certainly problems compound when some critic assigns it a highly variable rating (“94 Parker points!”).

Is that outcome really so newsworthy? I’d say nobody really needs statistics or science to prove it, just a bit of tasting practice.

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