A collection of studies and experiments proves expensive wine probably doesn’t taste any better than cheap wine. Any difference at all is probably a placebo effect.
The video below from the Vox Observatory features three red wines. The wines were all created from the same grape but sold at different prices. The cheap wine in the experiment is a cabernet sauvignon that sells for $8 a bottle. Next up is a cab sav for $14 a bottle. The most expensive bottle of cab sav in the test sells for $43.
The priciest bottle for $43 is a 2011 Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon. Wine Spectator magazine gives it outstanding marks with a score of 93 out of a possible 100 points. They called the wine, “Extremely well done for the vintage, style and panache.” The bottle sells for five times more than the cheap wine in the video. But does it taste five times better?
The video subjected 19 Vox staffers to a blind taste test of the three wines. Almost half of the study’s participants were able to identify the most expensive wine. That didn’t mean they liked it more.
Says one staffer of the most expensive wine, “Very nuanced, complex, didn’t enjoy it.”
The average ratings the participants gave to the cheap wine and expensive wine were 4.8 out of 10. In other words, identical.
As one staffer rejoices, “I’m glad I have cheap tastes. This is going to make my life pretty easy.”
One could argue that 19 Vox staffers aren’t representative of the world of wine drinkers at large. However, the results jibe well with a 2008 study that compiled results from 6,000 blind taste tests in the U.S.
In the study, unless people had undergone actual wine tasting training, they didn’t enjoy the taste of the more expensive wines. They described the expensive wines as sour or acidic. In fact, most liked cheap wine less than expensive wine.
Wine can make us feel a little lost. This may be one reason a single movie can affect the entire wine industry. After the release of the movie Sideways, which heavily featured Pinot Noir, sales of Pinot Noir skyrocketed.
The movie also famously shows Paul Giovanni’s character shouting, “I am NOT drinking any ****ing merlot!” Sales of merlot dropped after the movie’s release.
So who’s in charge of deciding whether a wine is good or bad? Professional judges at wine competitions might be one authority on good vs bad wine. However, the decisions of those judges tend to be widely inconsistent. A statistician demonstrated that most of the highest scoring wines in one wine competition received the lowest scores in at least one other. In fact, the researcher demonstrated that the distribution of gold medals vs low marks across all wine competitions would be arrived at just as easily by random chance.
It’s not surprising that highly trained professional wine judges disagree with one another. What might be a little harder to get down is the fact that the judges also frequently disagree with themselves. When judges at the California State Wine Competition were secretly given the same wine three times, only one in ten of the judges gave it the same medal each time.
Wine ratings in magazines can also vary widely. In 2004, two top critics described a single wine as both, “A brilliant effort” and “completely unappetizing.”
Other descriptors from the disagreeing critics include, “sublime richness,” “overripe aromas,” “remarkable freshness and definition” and “more reminiscent of a late harvest zinfandel than a red bordeaux.”
One problem with wine magazines is that not all of them demand that their tasters be blind to a wine’s brand or price. That makes a difference because people have a hard time separating price from quality. A 2009 experiment in Australia demonstrated that most people rated a wine higher if it’s price was $53 instead of $6 or $16.
To make matters worse, the people in charge of the experiment had actually made the expensive wine worse by adding a quantity of tartaric acid to the wine. The extra yuck factor had no effect on the wine’s ratings. The power of the wine’s price tag over the participants’ taste buds reigned supreme. The cheap wine failed no matter what.
In a separate study, scientists performed brain scans on people as they tasted wines they were told cost either $10 or $90. The wine was actually the same in either case. However, when the subjects were told they were drinking cheap wine, the regions of their brains associated with experiencing pleasant smells and tastes showed less activity.
This last study of course means that expensive wines may taste better after all. That is, as long as the taster has been told the wine is expensive.
For the same idea without the science but a lot more humor, watch the video below on cheap wine vs expensive wine.