How To Be Fooled By Expensive Wine

If you expect wine A to taste better than wine B, it will.

It's easy to fool wine experts and wine-buying consumers. Your perception of taste is so incredibly subjective that you can easily be persuaded to believe one wine is superior to another. Someone just has to manipulate a few external cues without telling you. And once your expectations have been manipulated, you will be too.

Even world-class wine experts can be fooled by their own expectations (for a particularly embarrassing example, read about the notorious Judgment of Paris wine tasting contest), so it should be no surprise that consumers--even sophisticated consumers--can be even more easily fooled.

What's the easiest way to mess with your expectations? Just put a much, much higher price tag on wine A. Any wine drinker with half an ego will automatically "believe" it to be superior.

And in David McRaney's exceptional book You Are Not So Smart, there's a hilarious example of this exact trick. A group of wine judges were asked to taste two red wines. They were told that one was expensive and the other was cheap.

But the experimenter tricked the tasters by pouring the same cheap wine into both bottles. Want to take a guess which of the two identical wines they preferred?

"The subjects went on and on about the cheap wine in the expensive bottle. They called it 'complex' and 'rounded.' They called the same wine in the cheap bottle 'weak' and 'flat.'"

So, if it's this easy to fake out experienced tasters, does this mean that wine tasting is a total joke? Does this mean we should stick to boxed wine and forget paying up for the good stuff? Are we all just products of our own manipulated expectations?

Of course not. The point isn't that you can't buy good wine. Buy whatever wine you like. Just remember that there are outside forces trying to influence what you like.

More importantly, this influencing occurs with all consumer buying decisions, not just wine. All the product labels, branding, pricing decisions and other psychological techniques companies use to sell things to us are just more ninja mind tricks designed to mess with our heads--so we'll spend more than we otherwise would.

The point is this: Make sure you're the one setting your own expectations.

I'd like to thank Stuart at Addicted to Canning as well as David McRaney and his book You Are Not So Smart for providing some of the ideas in this post.

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Stuart Carter said...

thank you for the name check :)

chacha1 said...

Speaking from personal experience as a devoted wino, our favorite "champagne" style wine for regular drinking is Domaine St. Michelle from Oregon. It retails for an average of $11 and we like it much, much better than most "true" champagnes we've tried at up to 10x that price.

That said, the *best* champagne-style wine we've ever had was Perrier-Jouet Fleur. BUT. We are well aware that the "best" characterization applies to the entire drinking experience. We had that special bottle on a very special occasion, and its perceived-and-remembered quality is therefore inextricably linked to the rest of the experience.

A cheap bottle of wine can be utterly delicious in the right circumstances. An Opus can be vile in the wrong ones.

Lauren said...

An art teacher of mine said the same was true of "great" art, and I still find that an obvious example of taste vs peer pressure. If my kid produced a Jackson Pollock I'd put it on the fridge, but I sure wouldn't pay for one! There is the argument of education - I can appreciate modern jazz more now that I know more about it - but that won't totally replace personal taste.

chacha1 said...

Hi Dan, just came across this today and it's a nice reinforcement of your piece. :-)

cono_sur said...

This was a fascinating study!

It's always important to separate the marketing from the wine itself.

Nice post.

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