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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Do Expensive Wines Really Taste Better?

Some years ago I read about a study conducted at an apartment complex that asked residents to take part in a month-long beer tasting experiment.  Residents could choose between three different types of beer: one costing, say $2.00/six pack, another costing $4.00/six pack and another costing $6.00/six pack (in today's dollars, they'd probably cost $4.00, $8.00 and $12.00 per six pack respectively). At the end of the month, they were asked to rate the three types of beer in terms of taste. Not surprisingly, the most expensive beer was judged to be the best tasting, the middle-priced beer, the next best, and the lowest-priced beer, the least best. The catch, of course, is that there was no difference between the beers. All three were the same. What mattered, in other words, was the price, not the taste.

It turns out that price appear to matter more than taste when it comes to wine as well.  For example, a study by the economist Robin Goldstein that involved more than 6,000 blind tastings found that “individuals who are unaware of the price do not derive more enjoyment from more expensive wine,” and this finding applied to amateur wine tasters as well as the so-called experts. Another study by wine broker Brian DiMarco turned up similar findings. While many of us believe that our palates can distinguish good from bad wine, it appears that for most of us, whether we are amateurs or experts, "price is often a far-too-powerful signal to our taste buds."

In a related study, Goldstein was able to win an Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator magazine for his fictitious restaurant, Osteria L’Intrepido, supposedly located in Milan, Italy. Goldstein's created a website for the restaurant and put together a wine list based on wines that Wine Spectator had previously rated as "terrible." Evidently, all that mattered when it came to winning the award was whether Goldstein paid the requisite $250 fee to be considered for the award. So much for Wine Spectator's objectivity.

All of this is summarized in a recent "Freakanomics" podcast, which you can download from iTunes or listen on-line at: "Freakonomics Radio: Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better?" A brief summary of the podcast and the related studies can be found at the same website.

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