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A Fine Whine

2011 April 19
by Mike

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?

11 Responses leave one →
  1. Andy Demsky permalink
    May 4, 2011

    I think stories like this have an enduring appeal because, unfortunately, a lot of people have been annoyed at a Chrismas dinner by a family jackass posing as the resident wine expert. Studies like this give a little “up yours” catharsis.

  2. Justin permalink
    May 3, 2011

    Last Christmas I did a blind tasting of California Zinfandel with some family members who don’t drink wine much and only drink cheap supermarket wine when they do. We had a boxed Zin, a $12 bottle of mass-produced wine, and a $40 bottle of Valenti Vineyard Woodenhead Zinfandel from Mendocino County (couple hundred cases made). My wife and I, who sometimes drink well-crafted small production wine, liked the pricier bottle. Everyone else liked the boxed wine best.

  3. April 27, 2011

    Great article! The same argument is often made about art. Inane comments like, “my child could have painted that, so it can’t be any good!” Great wine like great art is about appreciation, which for the most part comes from education and experience.

    Having said that, I’m sometimes baffled by the point scores that critics use to rate wines. eg. how a $30 bottle and a $300 bottle can both score 96 points. I know you’re not comparing ‘apples’ to ‘apples’ but I think sometimes consumers are confused because the score is not qualified.

  4. April 20, 2011

    John, be sure to report back to us about the Sagami condoms!

    Thanks, all, for the comments; much appreciated. As I said, I find the continued appeal of these stories mystifying. I seriously doubt wine arouses much populist ire any more, yet the press just can’t seem to retire this tiresome theme (damn journalists!). Every presidential election, the pundits trot out the beer track vs. wine track nonsense. I’m hoping that in 2012, they’ll at least change it to the tea track vs. wine track. And I’m really hoping that one day, we’ll hear pundits asking, “Which candidate would you rather have a glass of Morgon with?” One can dream.

  5. John permalink
    April 20, 2011

    Agree – I found the article annoying and ridiculous, and the study poorly executed. It panders to the people who both embrace and feel shame for their ignorance of wine. People do this about any number of other areas in which its possible to develop discerning expertise – food, books, fine arts, cinema, exercise, the law, medicine, and on and on. This phenomenon is nothing new.

    While this study has gotten a lot of play around the blogs this week (Alder Yarrow, Steve Heimoff, etc.) NONE of those blogs mentioned the Sagami condoms. I was previously unaware and have now bought a box – thank you for the educational and colorful analogies!

    Enjoying the blog.

  6. Michael in SF permalink
    April 20, 2011

    The people who take satisfaction in the notion that wine professionals might be charlatans are exhibiting the same mind-set that Republicans have manipulated so skillfully. Look at all the people who, against all reason, think Sarah Palin is as qualified to be president as Barak Obama; that the political class is full of phonies….

  7. April 20, 2011

    Other plausible absurd headlines:
    “Costal elite’s prefer Geo Metro to Dodge Hemi”
    “Average medical marijuana user prefers skunky weed to BC Bud”
    “College students unable to describe differences between Gap khakis and Brooks Bothers trousers”
    What’s idiotic is lazy journalist rehashing a tired story of some peoples insistance to recreate studies showing that certain samples confirm your bias. Of course if you have no experience with a given topic, you’re unlikely to make informed evaluations about them. Context is everything. Educated and experienced wine drinkers are just an easy target, like the French, or Muslims – if you don’t understand something, you fear it, then you attack it.

  8. mauss permalink
    April 19, 2011

    I forgot to mention a key point : it should be obvious for everyone that more you go up in the reputation and classification of a wine, more $$ are in direct relation with the label only, not the quality of the content. But we all accept this fact, linked to “show-off”, reputation, rarity, sociality.

    After all, a bag from Vuitton has the same use than a bag from Tati or any low brand.

    About cigars : here again, the connoisseurs do the differences : many magazines on this subject have regular blind tastings too.

  9. mauss permalink
    April 19, 2011

    After 15 years of regular blind tastings at Grand Jury Européen (GJE) with professionals tasters of very high caliber from 10 countries and including various approaches to the wine world (sommeliers, producers, negociants, journalists) as well as some top amateurs invited at various tasting sessions, and considering the fact that most of the time I put inside the sessions some “ringers”, We may consider 2 main points :

    a : definitively, in order to taste properly, you need some strong experience and education. If I take the example of Burgundy, our results show clearly that usually the “grands crus” arrives in top position, then the “premiers crus”, then the villages, with the classic exception, due to the very high level of the producers : a Denis Mortet “village” may easily be superior to some “grands crus” done by so-so producers. These results are clearly in relation with the knowledge of the tasters.
    If we take Bordeaux, after averaging the results of 7 vintages tasted over 10 years, the N° 1 are Ausone and Pavie. I repeat : in the blind mode. So, clearly, good tasters find valuable results.

    b : it must also be clear for every one that a sensible part of the valuation of a wine, non blind, is directly linked to the reputation, history, classification of the label. When you have in front of you a Petrus, a Lafite, a Haut-Brion, immediatly, unconsciousless, you give to the wine some points just for that. It is human, and nothing wrong with that since, obviously, the pleasure coming with this non-blind tasting is a real pleasure.

    We all know that the most difficult point in blind tasting is the capacity of the taster to estimate properly the potential, the future of the wine. But some tasters are very good at that. Kevin Shin, Kelly Walker, both GJE Members with Wilfred van Gorp can tell you a lot about that.

    Examples : at the Bellagio in Las Vegas, in 2001, we did taste the very best from Bordeaux, vintage 82. The results were not stupid. At our very first session in Paris, in 1996, we did taste top Bordeaux and similar from Europe in the vintage 83, 85 and 90. In 1985, the n° 1 was Sassicaia : everyone knows it is the best vintage of this property. For 1990, it was Pichon Comtesse, followed by Sociando-Mallet, a “ringer” who did largely deserve this ranking.

    So, if these people organizing such blind tastings with wines ranking from $ 1000 to $ 10 ask us to do it again what they have done, I am very confident that inside GJE, we will come with comprehensive and fair results.

    Again, education and experience are the 2 key words in this matter.

    Now, if you put a tentalazing beaujolais, ready to be drunk with a Clos de Vougeot of an average producer and too young at the tasting date, nobody has to be surprised that the beaujolais may win. Especially if the tasters put in front the pleasure factor prior all other considerations.

    Sorry to be so long,

    best

  10. Matt in Chicago permalink
    April 19, 2011

    Mike,

    A little annoyed, but mostly amused.

    Consider your angle using specifics: “Man off street can’t determine difference between Utrillo and Cezanne. Yet Cezanne costs 3 times as much!” First the man off the street might not have the background to determine the qualitative difference between Utrillo and Cezanne. Second, the man might be Albert Barnes, who knew both really well, but had a predilection for Utrillo AND Cezanne.

    Or lets deconstruct the proposal a little: “The real surprise is that the more expensive wines were double or three times the price of the cheaper ones.”

    So that could mean a bottle of Yellow Tail Merlot compared to a bottle of, say, Toasted Head Merlot. Frankly 50/50 sounds about right, in that instance.

    Our shared interest in fine wine will always, always be the target of unthinking populists, so I am moving more to “amused” in my original formulation.

  11. April 19, 2011

    Similarly annoyed.

    Maybe it has to do with the fact that cheap wine, like cheap beer, is designed to be enjoyed by the majority of consumers. I’m sure these companies have done enough research to know the flavour profile that most people enjoy (sweeter textures, jammy fruit, low-acid), and are able to construct wines which fit that profile. These studies probably speak more to the success of these companies than anything else.

    And then of course you have the reverse snobbery crowd effect. They’re the worst, like the stupid hipsters of wine.

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