The Aresan Clan is published four times a week (Tue, Wed, Fri, Sun). You can see what's been written so far collected here. All posts will be posted under the Aresan Clan label. For summaries of the events so far, visit here. See my previous serial Vampire Wares collected here.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Wine Tasting Contest

A recent study has shown that people can't really tell the difference between good wine and cheap wine. This shouldn't come as particularly shocking. There has been correlative research that has shown that people's expectation can really influence their perception. For example, if you give someone a cheap wine and tell them it's expensive they'll enjoy it more, and vice versa if you give them expensive wine in cheap bottles. Penn & Teller had an amusing example of this in their TV show Bullshit, where they took two gourmands and presented them with some cheaply made food craftily dressed up. The food was served at a fine restaurant, included elegant presentation and was prefaced with a sumptuous description by the waiter. The effect was that this cheap food tasted amazing. We, as humans, are hugely influenced by expectation.

This experiment, though, wasn't testing expectation, but just simply whether people like expensive or cheap wine better. They were just doing completely blind taste tests. People weren't told which wines were cheap or expensive. They were just tasting wines and evaluating them. It turns out there isn't really a significant difference between people's preference of one over the other. On average, cheap wines taste as good as expensive wines. In short, the appeal of expensive wines, at least for most people, really is entirely in expectation.

I can relate a personal experience of wine-tasting, which perhaps illustrates this point. When my parents were living in Houston, my mother was working for a small oil company. One of the holidays when I visited, my parents brought me along to a company party. The party included a wine-tasting contest. The contest comprised drinking six wines and ranking them. The closer your ranking came to the rankings given by Wine Spectator, the higher your score. The person who ranked the closest to Wine Spectator would win $100 dollars, for which reason I decided to give it a try. At the time I was 22 years old and hadn't been drinking for very long. I'd be lying if I said I didn't drink until I was 21, but I definitely was not a heavy drinker, and had rather limited experience. I certainly had limited experience with wine.

In the end, I won. I couldn't help feeling a vindication of my superior palette, thinking that, despite my relative inexperience, I'd bested these more experienced adults, despite their year of experience. But the more probable reason is that it was just pure luck. There's no doubt that the wines tasted differently and some slightly better, but there was an undoubted level of just random guessing in my ranking.

My experience perhaps raises the possibility of another avenue of study. Instead of comparing expensive wines to cheap wines, compare highly ranked wines to lower ranked wines. I'm sure you could find a number of different rankings for a selection of, say, 30 or so wines, and aggregate those rankings and then compare them to the blind rankings of average drinkers. Do average drinkers agree with the wine experts? How much do wine experts agree? Are the wine experts influenced by price in their rankings? If you tell people that a wine is ranked highly by wine experts, do they tend to enjoy it more? Maybe I can write a grant and get some money to do an experiment looking at some of these questions.

1 comment:

  1. Modern Art, which is a practical joke at the expense of art snobs, works the very same way. The greater the number of enfluential people who claim to like it, the more popular it becomes among the wanna bees. The truth is, that most poeple who claim to love Modern Art (including art snobs) wouldn't recognize genuine art if it jumped up and hit them in the ass.