Let me just pre-face this post with some strong words.
The high end liquor and wine industry is a big old ocean of bullshit. Wine tasting. Wine rating. Wine descriptions. Wine reviews. The bullshit is strong with this one.
The entire industry is build around branding and marketing, and has very little to do with the actual product being sold. There is such a tiny difference between a $10 bottle of wine and a $1000 bottle of wine, I would be willing to bet that 97% of people couldn’t tell the difference. There just isn’t that much of difference. Let’s get into the details.
Now there have been studies where people supposedly could not tell the difference between red and white in a tasting, and I have a hard time believing that.
As well, I think that there is a pretty marked difference in taste between crappy wine and lower-middle end. Crappy wine tastes, well pretty crappy.
The difference as you move up even a couple dollars is very big. However, the marginal increase in wine quality vs cost drops off exponentially quickly.
This is a curve that describes the wine taste vs. cost continuum.
Just by having wine, you have a large amount of utility (tastiness). As the cost of your wine goes up, the marginal utility (tastiness per additional $ spent) drops off. Spending on the middle to right hand side of the graph is just wasteful, that is unless you just want to throw away your money.
In which case, just donate to my blog.
The reasons why:
There are a few reasons why this phenomenon exists. Mostly it is behavior economics in play. If people were logical, rational human beings this would be an issue. Be we all suck, so it is.
There is a pretty well know fallacy that describes how when someone pays more for something, they are automatically more satisfied with it.
Example: These shoes must be good, look at how expensive they are.
In most people’s minds, increasing cost equates to increased quality. This may have been true many years ago when the prices of things were more directly related to the costs of the materials used and the time and skills of a craftsman.
So yes, 70 years ago, when you bought a pair of leather shoes, expensive meant higher quality leather, stitched not glued soles, etc. Now it might mean that you are purchasing the Nike brand name vs. the New Balance brand name. Same materials, same cost to the manufacturer, same technical specs, same same. You are essentially paying for the Nike brand.
But it feels so good. We humans have this interesting carry-over where things that are more expensive, we are more satisfied with. So it goes with wine.
Power of Suggestion
For goods where there is no strong distinction, the bulk of how to evaluate a good is what you are told about it before you consume it. Ever been on a wine or beer tasting?
You are told that this one has a more “aggressive finish” or a more “polished nose”. You may not even know what this means, but damn if you don’t agree. We do this subconsciously and what we have been told that we will experience tends to be exactly what we perceive to be true.
The words might not even make sense. You might be told that a wine is “exciting”, “sexy”, or “refined”. These words have strong emotional anchors that make us experience the emotions that the producer wants. Conjure up the right emotions through marketing, sales, and consumer conditioning and you can jack up the price, put a fancy label on it, and make people willing to pay more.
Penn & Teller did an excellent example of this during an early episode where the used these principles on bottled water. Also covered in this video, Feng Shui.
Skip to 16min mark for water only.
God-damn we can be some stupid animals sometimes.
Even so called wine experts suck at their profession. In blind taste tests they have a huge variance in what they will evaluate wines at. Wine expert Robert Hodgson analyzed a series of competitions in California after he was stumped how his wine could be awesome in one contest, yet suck terribly in the next. So he set up wine judges with blindfolds to taste the same wine three times in a row. The best they could do was ± 4 points out of a 100 point scale. That is pretty brutal.
A wine rated 91 on one tasting would often be rated an 87 or 95 on the next. Some of the judges did much worse, and only about one in 10 regularly rated the same wine within a range of ±2 points.
Mr. Hodgson also found that the judges whose ratings were most consistent in any given year landed in the middle of the pack in other years, suggesting that their consistent performance that year had simply been due to chance.
And these were no bumpkins. They were certified wine tasting professionals. Think you can rate the quality of wine with any consistency? No. You can’t. If you think you can, you are really just lying to yourself.
Even wine critics know that they are spouting shit.
From Joe Power, editor of Another Wine Blog:
There is no hard science involved in reviewing wine, no real way to quantify results, no test cases, and certainly no verifiable set of standards that everyone adheres to. Everyone makes up their own processes for reviewing from Wine Spectator to us and all of the way down to the most recent person who just discovered how easy it is to set up a blog of their own.
…wine ratings are influenced by uncontrolled factors such as the time of day, the number of hours since the taster last ate and the other wines in the lineup. He also says critics taste too many wines in too short a time. As a result, he says, “I would expect a taster’s rating of the same wine to vary by at least three, four, five points from tasting to tasting.”
So there you go. Wine tasting is bullshit. Next time (or if you ever) are at a wine tasting, I would recommend throwing out some completely in-appropriate phrasing like “gregarious”, “docile”, or maybe “nefarious”. Beg the other tasters to call you on your bullshit. But I bet they won’t since they will be up to their eyes in it.
So save your money, save your sanity, buy reasonably priced wines that you can enjoy without blowing your personal budget, and enjoy the hell out of them.
Bonus points: Try “chopping” your wine, also known as “Beating the shit out of it”.
It will make a significant difference. This comes from life-hacker extraordinaire Tim Ferriss. I have tried this with my immersion blender and can tell you it works pretty darn well. Honestly do this to a $10 bottle of wine and your house party guests will never be the wiser.