The Frontal Cortex

Cheap Wine

Steven Levitt writes about the difficulty of judging wine:

On Tuesday afternoons we had wine tastings. I asked if I could be allowed the opportunity to conduct one of these wine tastings “blind” to see what we could learn from sampling wines without first knowing what we were drinking. Everyone thought this was a great idea. So with the help of the wine steward I selected two expensive bottles from the wine cellar and then I went down the street to the liquor store and bought the cheapest bottle of wine they had made from the same type of grape.

I thus had two different expensive wines and one cheap one. I tried to make things more interesting by splitting one of the expensive bottles into two different decanters. Thus, in total the wine tasters had four wines to taste, although in reality there were only three different wines, with one sampled twice by each taster. I gave them a rating sheet and each person rated each of the four wines.

The results could not have been better for me. There was no significant difference in the rating across the four wines; the cheap wine did just as well as the expensive ones. Even more remarkable, for a given drinker, there was more variation in the rankings they gave to the two samples drawn from the same bottle than there was between any other two samples. Not only did they like the cheap wine as much as the expensive one, they were not even internally consistent in their assessments.

I’ve written a lot about the tastiness of cheap wine and the subjectivity of wine critics. Of course, the fallibility of amateur wine tasters really shouldn’t be too surprising, given everything we know about the role of expectations in shaping perception. (Cheap wine served in an expensive bottle tastes expensive for the same reason that generic aspirin is less effective at relieving pain than brand name aspirin.) We are gullible creatures; the brain wasn’t built for objectivity. For more, check out this new economics paper.


  1. #1 6EQUJ5
    July 16, 2008

    The finest wine I’ve ever had came in Mason jars. The wine? Pear. The winemaker? Grandpa Jack.

    He lived in an old suburb where people had planted fruit trees generations back and now they all had more fruit than they could consume or give away. Grandpa would tour the neighborhood looking for fallen fruit and offer to buy the fruit from the owners. They would insist he take it all — for free. He would repay them with a quart jar of wine from their own fruit. And thereafter whenever their fruit ripen they would give him a call.

  2. #2 Patrick
    July 16, 2008

    At a place I used to work, we used to do Cheap Wine Tasting after hours – everyone would bring a bottle, we’d sample them, do all the pretentious talk, clear are palates with crackers, etc., and then look at the price tag and the cheapest wine won.

  3. #3 Anibal
    July 17, 2008

    Is something to be related with the cognitive modulation of taste processing as it happens with olfactory perception, if we believe both senses share “some” properties.
    Here is a good paper demostrating how semantic information changes our perceptions in olfaction and probably could do with taste perception.

  4. #4 Dunc
    July 17, 2008

    While I don’t disagree with your findings, I do wonder about the thinking behind them – the whole point of drinking wine is to enjoy a subjective experience. It’s not like medicine, where you’re trying to create an objectively measurable effect.

    Plus, the linked paper indicates that some people can taste the difference, if they’re sufficiently sensitised. Now, while I don’t want to get into bashing the American palate and American wineries, I do have to wonder if the results would be the same in, say, France.

  5. #5 Anibal
    July 17, 2008

    Those results reported in the paper are not my findings (ill like it!)but findindgs of a well-stablished group of research in computational neuroscience based at Oxford University and led by the eminent neuroscientist E. T. Rolls.

    Though we are talking in Jonahs blog, and Jonah is so eager to denounce that science alone does not capture evrything, and that we have to be able to merge the arts and the sciences to do so, without an attempt to objectivize subjectivity well never understand our subjective realm.

    Here are the words about it of Prof. Zeki.

    And of course sensitization influence our responses and perhaps there will be differences among french “connoisseurs” and others “connoisseurs”.

  6. #6 Ian
    July 17, 2008

    This just goes to show how idiosyncratic things like wine, music, and art appreciation are, along with movie criticism (especially of movies ostensibly aimed at teaching scientists how to communicate better!).

    “I can’t define good art/movies/music/wine but I know it when I don’t see it”!

  7. #7 Dunc
    July 17, 2008

    Here are the words about it of Prof. Zeki.

    Fascinating. Thank you.

    And of course sensitization influence our responses and perhaps there will be differences among french “connoisseurs” and others “connoisseurs”.

    I wasn’t so much meaning that – I was more speculating that the level of sensitisation that makes you a “connoisseur” (in wine, anyway) in the US might not be at all unusual in other cultures. Or that the taste preferences which lead the “naive” American palate to prefer cheaper wines might not exist in other cultures. In short, if you’re brought up on foie gras and Bordeaux rather than McDonalds and coke, then the whole baseline of taste preference is liable to be completely different. Many Europeans find many typical American foodstuffs (like bread, for example) horribly over-sweetened, and a sweet tooth rarely correlates with a taste for fine wines in my (admittedly limited) experience.

  8. #8 Bebe
    July 18, 2008

    I am a neuropsychologist and am married to a professional sommelier, and have myself become very interested in wine, so this post caught my attention. I just wanted to comment, of course, take my opinion for whatever it’s worth.

    ‘Cheap wine’ may taste as good as expensive wine to some people, but I would argue that this is simply because some people lack the palate to appreciate the difference. And I would argue that sometimes too, what some people think is ‘expensive’ wine, is indeed, not.

    Honestly, it’s not a snobbery issue either. Like many consumer goods, there is a continuum of quality in the end-product. And to varying degrees, the perception of the level of quality is dependent upon the level of expertise of the consumer.

    Expensive wines are *typically* better, not always, but usually. They are made by experienced winemakers and with the best of everything — soil, climate, vines, barrels, etc. — and the price is reflective of that. Wine makers are not scam artists; they aren’t secretly laughing at people who spend $100 on a bottle that tastes just as good as a $10 bottle. BUT, to some people, cheaper wines subjectively taste ok and that is ok! Wine IS about what tastes good to you. The cost of the wine is not a reflection on how good the wine is supposed to taste to everyone; moreso, it is a reflection of the workmanship. There is a subtle difference. I am just as happy with a Bic pen as one of those super-expensive pens that come in fancy wooden boxes and are, say, handmade by monks in a remote Romanian village (he he he). Indeed, I wouldn’t spend a hundred bucks on a pen in a million years, but I can’t deny that it must be expensive for a reason.

    However, I would challenge your challenge… give me or anyone who knows how to assess the various aspects of a wine… your wine tasting-test you did above, and I say (statistically significant, of course:-)) we would tell the difference between cheap and expensive wine.

    Think of it like this… if you’re in neuroscience then at some point, you have probably come across the various studies that have compared expert musicians (pianists, etc.) with nonmusicians. Almost without fail, musicians can detect minor mistakes in pitch, key, rhythm, etc. in a piece of music that a nonmusician cannot. One could say he/she can detect quality. It does not make the music any less enjoyable! (perhaps a little to the musician). It only means that a certain level of knowledge and experience is required to tease apart the nuances of the factors that go into the creation of the whole composition.

    I can enjoy a cheap bottle of wine as much as a nice vintage that I would consider ‘special occasion’ wine. That has not changed. But I can tell you that as my abilities have been refined and my experience has increased, I am amazed at what I have learned that I can now talk about a wine as I taste it in ways that I once completely lacked.

    Thanks for the post, nice blogs!

    Sorry this was so long…

  9. #9 Dunc
    July 18, 2008

    Almost without fail, musicians can detect minor mistakes in pitch, key, rhythm, etc. in a piece of music that a nonmusician cannot. One could say he/she can detect quality. It does not make the music any less enjoyable! (perhaps a little to the musician).

    Funny story about that… My cousin’s ex-wife was a professional violinist with perfect pitch. She once complained to me that it drove her up the wall, because she couldn’t help noticing things like the engine note of a passing car being 10 cents flat of D.

    And I would argue that sometimes too, what some people think is ‘expensive’ wine, is indeed, not.

    Indeed. I did notice that while the main set of tests in the linked paper were over a price range of $1.65 to $150, they also did a regression using a restricted sample omitting the top and bottom deciles (to exclude variations driven by the “extreme” ends of the distribution). When you exclude those, the price range is $6 to $15 – and $15 is hardly an expensive bottle of wine (to my mind, anyway). This seems to imply that they didn’t have a very large sample at the upper end of the distribution, which is somewhat worrying (to me, anyway) as the cross-over point where experts and non-experts gave the same ratings was at $27.50. If 90% of the wines tasted cost less than $15, I’m not sure that you can make any definitive statements about expensive wines.

    However, I must note that I do not have anything like the expertise needed to properly criticise the statistical methods used.

    (For reference, I personally consider any wine at less than GBP £5 a bottle “cheap plonk”, and anything over GBP £25 “expensive”. If I’m buying wine, it’ll usually be in the GBP £10-20 range – although these days I mainly make my own. Direct comparisons of prices between the UK and US are complicated by differing levels of taxation, of course.)

  10. #10 Bebe
    July 19, 2008

    Dunc — Thanks for the story about your violinist (ex?) relative. That’s a great example of what I’m talking about; I would never even know what the flip ’10 cents past D’ means!

    I don’t know how one could think of a $15 bottle as ‘expensive’, not in the US or in the UK. In that range, $6-$15, it doesn’t surprise me that a purported expert couldn’t differentiate between bottles easily or at all.

    I believe that statistical trimming is a phenomenon called regression to the mean. I would need to look over the paper, but if they are eliminating not just random outliers, but entire ranges of wines in price ranges that lie too far below or above the standard deviation of the distribution, then that would muddy the waters a bit. I would hardly call wines in the 6-15 dollar range a representative sample.

    It’s interesting you make your own wine. Are you in the UK? What part? I was recently in the southwest of England(Devon) and learned there are a few winemakers there, growing various varietals.

    I didn’t notice what the taxes were in the UK, but wine prices seemed quite reasonable, at least, normal. I happen to be living in Sweden at the moment, and let me just say it is the most ridiculous system for selling and buying wine, all alcohol even. All ‘plonk’ can only be bought through government-run liquor stores (with very strange opening hours as well) and the taxes are sky-high! People actually line up outside some days! I imagine it’s like being back behind the Iron Curtain, circa 1979.

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