Last night, as I was sipping a red blend from Beaulieu Vineyards that always intrigues me, (and while Kate was enjoying a fantastic 2005 Chimney Rock Cabernet four states away) I came across an interesting article on the Wine and Food Economics blog by Dr. Elliott Morss. He explores price/taste relationships by noting the findings of a 6,000 person blind taste study, concluding that individuals do not derive more enjoyment from more expensive wine. In fact the study found a small negative correlation between price and rating; that is, people tended to prefer the less-expensive wines.
This topic really interests me, because I’ve introduced quality, sometimes expensive wine to wine drinkers who tend to reach for whatever comes in a 1.5 liter bottle for under $10, a buying habit I can’t fault them for. It doesn’t always go well, however. Not that the tasting is a complete failure. After gulping down the contents of the glass, I get a response of, “Hmmm…that’s pretty good.” Meanwhile, I’m savoring every drop in my glass wondering if this might indeed be the best wine I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. The response doesn’t bother me in the least – I want someone to be up front and honest. Heck, spit it out if it’s just not your thing. But I suspect that in most cases, the taster will return to that comfort zone where opening the bottle carries with it little risk of surprise, or more importantly, a letdown.
Let’s read a little into the study’s data and make an educated assumption of human behavior. The sample in the study was composed of non-experts. The vast majority of non-expert wine drinkers tend to drink inexpensive wines, and have developed a certain affinity for the taste; therefore I am not surprised that those wine drinkers tended to prefer the wines that were more familiar to them. This is particularly true if the alternative is something quite different and exotic. To an average wine drinker, a bottle of Yellow Tail Cabernet ($6) is like an old familiar blanket when sipped next to a bottle of 10-year old Harlan Estate Cabernet (~$500). The former will be relatively one-dimensional (don’t read that as “flawed” or “bad”), with a lot of juicy fruit and some spicy oak. The latter will offer layers of complexity, with herbs, mocha, currant, blackberry, and olives. All that complexity can be a real turn-off to someone who is used to a more approachable, what I call user-friendly, wine. What I don’t want is for anyone to see the results of the study and say, “See…more-expensive wine isn’t as good as the cheaper stuff.” They’re just different.
Some people who know my affinity for wine assume that I am a wine snob who dismisses inexpensive wine as fodder for the less-educated or less-worthy. Nothing could be further from the truth, as my budget and general preference consistently put me in the $15 to $25 bracket. That’s why I have fun suggesting wines to friends that I think pack a lot of quality and value. I can’t remember a time that a Bogle Zinfandel (~$10) with pizza or spaghetti let me down. And the 2007 Beaulieu Vineyards Rutherford Cabernet ($25), the first vintage by new head winemaker Jeff Stambor and with a finish that sails from sip to sip, will leave you wondering if you will ever pay more than $25 for a bottle of Cabernet again.
I’ll leave you with this parting thought. While a more expensive bottle does not guarantee better wine in your glass, many do offer, let’s say a “different,” experience. If you derive pleasure from that experience, you may find your dollars are well-spent trying some of the more-expensive stuff. If you simply enjoy a less-expensive, user-friendly wine, more power to you. Now you’re doing it with your eyes, and taste buds, wide open.