The Wine Industry Is Mostly Bullshit

October 19, 2009 By: erik Category: Complaining, France, Wine 3,881 views

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One thing I learned on my trip to the Bordeaux wine-making region of France is that the vast, vast, vast majority of things said about wine are complete bullshit. The upper end of the wine industry is almost entirely about marketing and branding, and has very little to do with the product. In a blind taste test, I bet that 97% of wine drinking adults can tell the difference between a 1€ bottle of wine and a 15€ bottle of wine. But once you get up to a 15€ bottle of wine (the threshold price might actually be closer to 7€), I bet less than 1% of wine drinking adults can tell the difference between that 15€ bottle and a 50€ or 100€ or 1000€ bottle of wine. There’s just not that much difference!

The Power of Suggestion

The most significant factor in how much you will enjoy a glass of wine is how good you are told it is before you drink it. During our wine tour in Saint Émilion, we were given several wines to try. On some, tour guide told us, “This wine is not yet ready. It will be ready to drink in five years. But if you wanted to really drink it now, you would have to decant it for an hour before drinking.” We took a sip. “See how it’s too aggressive up front? And then the taste disappears so quickly?” the guide continued. And sure enough, we all totally agreed. Then, he gave us a similar wine from ten years ago that “was ready for drinking now.” He added, “See how the bouquet is evenly balanced and the aggressiveness comes at the end, lingers, and then fades very slowly.” What do you know? That’s exactly what I experienced! The ten year old glass of Saint Émilion wine I had during the tasting was some of the best wine I’ve ever drunk. But it’s not worth 50€ for a bottle.

I recall an early episode of Penn & Teller’s Bullshit where they debunked the entire bottled water industry. They set up a fancy California restaurant with a special Menu d’Eau with various exotic waters from all over the world. One was named, exotically, Agua de Culo, which is Spanish for “Butt Water”. Meanwhile, out back, they were filling up the bottles of water with the garden hose. The waiter presented each bottle to the customers, describing each one using words like crisp, fresh, alpine, glacial, pure, etc. And the customers, after drinking the water from the garden hose, completely agreed with the waiter about the description of the water. It was some of the best water they’d ever drunk. The human senses of taste and smell are extremely vulnerable to suggestion.

Blind Taste Tests

Just like the only scientific way to run a clinical trial is with a double-blind trial, the only way to scientifically evaluate taste is with a blind taste test. Someone recently suggested to me that most people couldn’t even tell the difference, when blindfolded, between red and white wine, but I find that hard to believe. However, the results of blind taste tests are often surprising.

One of the wine tasting guides we had in Bordeaux told us that there was recently a scandal when they had a blind taste test amongst the owners of the Chateaus that make the most expensive wines in the Bordeaux region. The results weren’t surprising to me. Apparently a cheap 20€ table wine came in second place amongst ten multi-thousand-euro bottles that were competing. It was the owners that were doing the tasting, too! They couldn’t tell their 2000€ bottle from a 20€ bottle of regular wine! It just goes to show the arrogance that comes from feeding clients so much bullshit that you actually start to believe it yourself. I’m sure that there are many Chateau owners that understand that the wine business is all about marketing and subliminal suggestion, and they would never compete in a scientific test like that.

Conclusion

My point is that drinking wine is a hugely subjective experience, and that for 99.99999% of us, a 10€ bottle of wine is no different from a 500€ bottle. So unless you are looking for a way to get rid of excess money (see Donate link at top of this blog!), there’s never a reason to pay more for the wine than for the meal it accompanies.

 
  • See also the judgement of Paris in this context, which challenged received ideas about good wine.

    On the other hand I’ve had some truly spectacular wines in top restaurants which most definitely were not the same as an average “good”, reasonably priced wine. But these were wines that had been selected by a sommelier to match particular dishes, and they didn’t try to persuade me how good they were in order to get me to buy more of them.

    • I would counter that just being in the fancy restaurant and knowing size of the dent you’ve accepted to your wallet is enough to make the wine “truly spectacular”. The same wine served in a not-as-clean-as-it-should-be pizzeria wouldn’t taste the same. And a decent table wine from said pizzeria would be outstanding if “selected by a sommelier”.

      Of course this issue is just anecdote against anecdote unless we actually do a blind taste test. Now that I think about it, that might be a fun weekend project…

      • I don’t know… At Jimmy V’s I was around a lot of Expensive wine and a lot of cheap(er) wine. There were a few bottles of the expensive stuff that we got to try on occassion and boy oh boy they were good. Really good. Your argument may be spot on, but I’d bet in a blind taste test that I could pick out a Stag’s Leap Cask 23. 🙂

      • Leaving aside the fact that most pizzerias don’t have sommeliers, I would counter that visiting a fancy restaurant and knowing that it’s expensive doesn’t somehow neuter my critical faculties. If anything, I’m likely to be more critical if something’s expensive, as I want to get my money’s worth. I don’t just swallow and think “That must be nice, considering how expensive it is”.

        As regards the fact that you were at a vineyard rather than in a restaurant, I’d say that people who go on wine-tasting tours tend to be, by definition, more interested in and/or experienced with wine, and are more likely to be interested in a bottle for 50 euros (and to know whether or not it’s worth it) than one that costs 5.

        Two final points. 1) I don’t think the wine industry is much more bullshitty than any other industry. I know nothing about tailoring, so I can’t tell the difference between a 50Euro suit and a 500Euro one, but that doesn’t mean that people who spend more than me are suckers. Similarly I would never buy a car that cost more than my house, but there are people who do and I’m sure they have a good reason to do so.
        2) What is “good” wine, anyway? If you see (or taste) no difference and are perfectly happy drinking the moderately priced stuff, good for you, but why resent the fact that some people do perceive a difference and are willing to pay for it?

        • I don\’t just swallow and think “That must be nice, considering how expensive it is”.

          Of course you don’t. And neither was I when I was at the wine tasting. What I’m talking/conjecturing about is subconscious suggestion. It can only be measured by blind experimentation like the water experiment I mentioned in the post.

          I don\’t think the wine industry is much more bullshitty than any other industry.

          I love this sentence. I like your tailoring reference, too. I agree that in all luxury item industries there is a point where the price keeps going up but the quality values flatten out and you get rich people buying expensive items for the brand or prestige only, at which point they are off into the bullshit realm. A bullshit threshold, if you will.

          I just think that wine hits that threshold much faster than clothes, or televisions, or stereo systems, or cars.

          I guess what annoys me about the wine industry is that I understand enough about psychology to doubt just how much difference people are perceiving. I realize that it sounds condescending to tell someone they are wrong about their own perceptions, but sometimes human perception is really terrible.

          You’re right that I should stop resenting the people who I think are spending too much and the industry that I think is duping them. Everyone should have the right to dupe and be duped.

          • Caveat emptor, you could say.
            I also wanted to congratulate you on your superbly trolly post title. I look forward to your next post “French people are mostly stupid” 😉

          • No, silly, that’s British people.

            Thanks. This has been pretty trolltastic.

  • I think it may be useful to distinguish between two phenomena: “paying 2x more for 5% more” and “sucker birth rate >= 1/1min”. For the former, I’m talking about how when you double your spending on dining out (say, by going from McDonald’s to T.G.I. Tuesday’s Garden), you probably do come close to doubling the quality of your meal. Double it again, and you’re probably close to doubling quality again.

    But now you’re spending $25 per person, and when you go to $50 per person, you’re probably not coming close to doubling quality. Instead, you’re getting a little more of the chef’s attention, a somewhat more thoughtful menu featuring more interesting ingredients and maybe the pleasure of eating at a place where people don’t usually bring their young. Improvements all, but double? When you get to $100 per person, you’re paying for the pleasure of eating from the menu of a local/regional celebrity chef. But it’s not going to be twice as good as the $50/person meal by any objective standard.

    That’s not to say it isn’t worth paying for. Just that your cash burn rate as you move up the scale increases geometrically.

    For wine, I’m really hard pressed to identify qualitative differences beyond the $20-25/bottle range, so I don’t spend more than that. For what it’s worth, I would expect a 20€ bottle of wine to be pretty good. Isn’t that about $30? I’ve never spent any time in Spain, but I was surprised elsewhere in the Mediterranean (albeit in 1997) that I could get some really decent wine for what amounted to about $7/bottle. Back home, it’s advisable to not go below $10/bottle unless you know what you’re getting into (or unless you’re in college).

    This seems odd: “there\’s never a reason to pay more for the wine than for the meal it accompanies.” Rather, it seems like a rule of thumb where none is really needed. I don’t see any particularly good reason to link the price of the plate and the price of the bottle.

    • I agree completely with your first three paragraphs. They are more or less rephrasing what I was trying to get across in this post. Thank you for stating it more clearly than I did.

      As for the prices I quoted in this post, they got a bit confusing because of how damn expensive the wine in France seemed to be. Plus there’s the “buying in the store/winery vs. at a restaurant” price gap also confusing things.

      I found it odd that the cheapest non-“table” wine in a restaurant in Bordeaux was 25€, since, in Spain you can get a good Rioja Crianza with your meal for 18€, and a not-the-cheapest wine for 12€. In the shops here, I usually pay 3.50€ – 4.50€ for what I consider to be a very nice Rioja red wine. Or just under 1.50€ for a cheap “weekday” wine.

      Which is why the 50€ bottles direct from the Chateau that made them seemed like such price gouging.

      You’re also right to call me on my rule-of-thumb. It, like the wine industry, was mostly bullshit. But it sounded good. 🙂

  • michael

    while i agree that wine pricing has problems, it isn’t because the range of quality can’t support a 1€-100€ price range. the problem is that wine prices are only weakly correlated with quality.

    the experts can clearly rate wine consistently. wine spectator periodically runs double blind reassessments, even. it is my opinion that most people can learn to appreciate wine and vastly expand their range mostly by slowing down and using their noses.

    but prices are out of whack. my advice for wine buyers is always the same: go to your wine shop’s highly rated section. look down. find the cheapest wine that the big magazines have rated in the 90’s. this will almost always be in the 7€-15€ range. purchase. enjoy. repeat. you get a nice variety of different styles without breaking the bank.

    • Good, I was hoping that our resident wine expert would chime in on this post. Your statement…

      Wine prices are only weakly correlated with quality.

      …is a perfect 8-word summary of this post.

      When writing this post, I couldn’t find a place to put my sentence about how I do truly believe that, as with the other three senses, there are people that have a heightened olfactory and gustatory systems that can consistently determine minute variations in smell and taste of wine, and that it can be learned, but that these people make up a very tiny percentage of the wine-drinking population.

      I had never considered the now-obvious idea that there would be regular publications about wines with opinions from these experts. I’ll have to check into what they have to say about the wines I see in my local supermarket. Thanks.

      • michael

        there’s an app for that

        • A $4.95 app sure beats a $75 subscription to Wine Specatator, even if the app is a little USD-centric. I recognize a few Spanish wines on the list. I’ll have to do some reconnaissance at the local bodegas to see if I can find some with ratings.

          Surely there’s an iWineCellar app or two out there too for keeping track of posh iPhone users’ wine collections, with alerts for when certain vintages should be drunk. If not, we should write one.

        • I tried something similar for BlackBerry once. Once. Sitting in the restaurant, looking up scores for the available wines, I felt like someone I would definitely make fun of. For me, the lure of finding the best available bargain didn’t outweigh the self-respect cost. But that would probably change if I were spending more per bottle than I usually do.

      • Josh

        No real need to buy either a subscription to a magazine or an app for your phone. Go to you local bodega, and get a free class from the owner/most competent employee. Since it behooves the shop to produce educated consumers, and since most wine shops, like most bicycle shops and a few other niche market places, tend to be staffed by fervent devotees, you’ll likely get a fairly honest introduction to your own palate and how it best interacts with your wallet. The other benefit is that you’ll get recommendations for stuff you can actually get a hold of. In any event, we’re in one of the world’s great (and rationally priced) wine markets. You really can’t go wrong with much of the market offer in the €5-15 range. You might, in particular, want to check out anything made with the Mencí­a grape from Ribeira Sacra or some of the unsung wonders from the Empordí  D.O.

  • Uncle Neil

    You might like the movie ‘Bottle Shock’. It is based on the true history of the first time California wines were in a French blind taste competition. It is pretty well done with nice music. I have seen it a couple of times already. If you haven’t seen it I think you might like it.

  • humpity

    The rich need something to do.