A Fine Whine
A headline yesterday on the Huffington Post crowed, “Blind Tasters Can’t Tell Cheap from Expensive Wines.” If you clicked through, you were taken to a Guardian story in which it was reported that in a blind tasting conducted by University of Hertfordshire psychologist Richard Wiseman, people were able to distinguish pricier wines from plonk only around 50 percent of the time. I know—shocking. Although these kinds of studies have been done for years, and almost always with the same results, the press has an apparently insatiable appetite for them. It isn’t hard to figure out why: implicitly or explicitly, such stories suggest that wine connoisseurship is a put-on. It doesn’t matter that the subjects in these tastings are generally people with little if any wine knowledge; their inability to identify costlier wines or—better yet—their preference for swill is supposed to be taken as evidence that wine geeks are full of it. As Wiseman told the Guardian, “The real surprise is that the more expensive wines were double or three times the price of the cheaper ones. Normally, when a product is that much more expensive, you would expect to be able to tell the difference.”
Is there any other product/hobby that inspires as much reverse-snobbery as wine? Funny, I don’t see academics investigating whether Cuban cigars are worth the premium, or whether Tod’s really feel better on your feet, or whether USDA Prime beef tastes superior to the average diner, or whether the Sagami 0.02 deserves to be the world’s costliest condom (they say it is the Pétrus of prophylactics). Wine, almost uniquely, seems to attract this kind of scrutiny, and I find it baffling. Some wines are better than others, the better ones generally command higher prices, but in order to discern those qualitative differences, it helps to have a little knowledge and experience—is there anything controversial or offensive about that statement? What’s particularly strange is that these studies, and the headlines they generate, keep popping up despite the fact that millions of people are now oenophiles. Twenty years ago, when wine was still seen as something alien and intimidating, the debunking stories undoubtedly had some appeal. But I find it hard to imagine that they yield much emotional satisfaction these days.
I’m curious to hear what you think. Do you find these stories as irritating as I do, and what do you believe accounts for the steady diet of them?