I am fascinated by any scientific study in the field of wine tasting. So often the results challenge conventional thinking in the wine world and provide much food for thought. Here I shall describe just one piece of research that I think deserves greater recognition. It is published in The Wine Trials book, and an academic paper that you can download for free. Do take a look at the paper, but I am not sure I would advise buying the book. I have the 2008 edition, and most of it is devoted to “100 wine recommendations under $15”. I enjoyed some of the commentary in the earlier chapters, but I’m a sucker for that sort of thing and even I am not convinced it justifies the purchase price.
The study involved 17 blind tasting events in the USA, held in 2006 and 2007. There were 506 participants, and 523 wines. In total 6,175 samples were tasted and rated. For analysis purposes the participants were classified as expert or non-expert tasters. Experts were defined as those having had some formal wine training.
The main result is that while the experts’ ratings correlated with price, the non-experts actually preferred cheaper wines.
To give a feel for the magnitude of the effect, the authors give an example of the predictions of one of the models they fitted to the data. Using the 100 point scale, if there were 2 wines, one costing 10 times as much as the other, experts would rate the expensive bottle seven points higher than the cheaper one, but non-experts would rate it 4 points lower. The book contains a paragraph of specific results, which I think are useful to put this into perspective: “On the whole, tasters preferred a nine-dollar Beringer Founders’ Estate Cabernet Sauvignon to a £120 wine from the same grape and the same producer: Beringer Private Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. They preferred a six-dollar Vinho Verde from Portugal to a £40 Cakebread Chardonnay and a £50 Chassagne-Montrachet 1er Cru from Louis Latour. And when we concealed the labels and prices of 27 sparkling wines and asked people to rate them, the Dom Pérignon finished 17th – behind 14 sparkling wines that cost less than $15, eight of which cost less than $10.”
There is one very practical lesson to be drawn from this study: if you consider yourself a non-expert you would probably do best ignoring recommendations from experts!
But what is really going on here? There is probably no single explanation. A few possibilities spring to mind, but I think the main reason is that the wine trade, from producers to critics, is too inward-looking. The trade decides amongst themselves what defines a good wine, prices wines accordingly, and then seeks to educate neophytes in the mysteries of the art. Meanwhile, everyone else feels too intimidated by the whole thing to question the clothes of the emperor. It seems to me that the negative correlation between ratings and prices indicates that the wine market is organised very strangely.
Does it matter? Well, yes, it has some very important consequences if sellers of wine are hoping that their punters are readily going to part with more money to get a more enjoyable product. From my reading of the situation it seems that most drinkers are only likely to trade up if they get so interested in wine that they attend a wine course, or if they decide they need to impress by serving a wine with a prestigious label.
Perhaps that is just the way of the world, but I would be really interested in exploring what non-experts tend to enjoy as a group. Do they really just prefer sugary pap to Proper Wines? Or is there a new wine aesthetic waiting to be discovered? Something that future wine makers could aim for with the resources that potential higher prices will yield?