Jeff Duntemann's Contrapositive Diary Rotating Header Image

March 17th, 2008:

The Secret to Making Good Wine

Basically, charge more for it. That's all it takes, and I roared when I read the account on the Boston Globe site. Take that, ye wannabe wine snobs! In summary, when people have not learned the subtleties of wine flavors, they fall back on the assumption that good wine is more expensive than so-so wine, so when told how much a bottle of wine costs without being told what it is, they overwhelmingly declare that the more expensive wine is the better wine—even when all the wines in the tasting are exactly the same wine.


Perceiving the subtleties of wine is like playing the piano, or most any other musical instrument: It takes years of practice, and (though we may mightily deny it) many or even most people have no talent for the skill and cannot learn it. Add that to the fact that human taste perception varies wildly from individual to individual and cannot be quantified, and, well, it cooks down to this: Buy what you can afford and learn to like it, as the odds are that you cannot tell the difference between good and ordinary wine anyway. From the article:

After the researchers finished their brain imaging, they asked the subjects to taste the five different wines again, only this time the scientists didn't provide any price information. Although the subjects had just listed the $90 wine as the most pleasant, they now completely reversed their preferences. When the tasting was truly blind, when the subjects were no longer biased by their expectations, the cheapest wine got the highest ratings. It wasn't fancy, but it tasted the best.

The larger issue, that expectations color what we consider “objective” perception, is worth close study, as it applies to a lot more than just wine. People say that house brands are inferior to name brand only when they're told which is which. Our sense of taste is not as good as we think, nor are our skills of perception. I don't buy brand name Rice Chex anymore, nor real Diet Mountain Dew. (And we buy Joe's Os when we're somewhere that they're sold; they beat Cheerios all hollow.) I save money, and I'm just as happy as I was going with name brands. Objective quality is perceptible (and thus definable) for some things, less so for other things, and not at all for a great many (perhaps most) things. Being able to tell which is which is an important skill. Don't assume that you know more than you do, nor that you can discern more than you can.

A recent phone conversation with Michael Abrash triggered some insights in this area. More on it when I find the time. And thanks to several people who sent me the Boston Globe link; I believe Rich Rostrom was the first.