Dear Food Doc: Although I am by no means a wine expert, I sometimes splurge and buy a bottle in the $40-50 price range. A friend insists it’s all marketing and psychology — that there is little difference between my $50 bottle and his $10 bottle. Is he right?
Let’s face it, consumers generally equate price with quality. From clothing to cars, the lower the price, the less the average consumer expects from that product. Remember the Yugo? It sold for less than $4,000, which was dirt cheap, even by 1980s prices.
In contrast, attaching a hefty price tag to a consumer product generally elevates consumers’ expectations. Knowing that a 2021 Mercedes S-Class Coupe sells for $130,000 is bound to improve the ride.
Thus, for many products, quality is easily assessed. Even blindfolded, no one would mistake a Yugo for a Mercedes.
But wine appreciation is a very subjective experience, and assessing value depends on the individual.
I will defer to the LJS wine columnist about the actual sensory differences between wines of varying prices. But if you read this column, you know that I rely on the published literature. Indeed, plenty of economics, psychology, and behavior researchers have studied this very phenomenon.
Exhibit A. In a famous 2008 study, more than 6,000 tastings were conducted with wines ranging from $2 to $150. Tasters did not know the price of the wine. In general, nonexperts (that’s most of us) actually preferred the less expensive wine. The wine experts preferred the expensive wines.
The take home message? Neither price nor expert recommendations matter much for nonexpert wine consumers.
Exhibit B. A 2011 paper employed some trickery to test the hypothesis that higher-priced wines will get better scores. In this experiment, tasters were told ahead that the wine was either cheap or expensive. Then they tasted and scored. Of course, it was the same wine.
No matter, as you probably guessed, the more expensive wines got higher scores.
Exhibit C. A paper published just last month in the journal, Food Quality and Preference, assessed consumer preferences among different Italian wines. One was inexpensive and considered low quality by an expert taster. Another was high priced and considered to be outstanding quality. But if the price of the lower quality wine was raised, it’s rating among regular wine drinkers increased. It even scored better than the expensive wine.
Exhibit D. The ultimate example of price versus quality distortion was a widely reported snafu that occurred in a high-end New York restaurant. Evidently, a group of Wall Street big spenders ordered a $2,000 Mouton Rothschild Bordeaux. Seated not far away was a young couple who ordered the least expensive wine — a pedestrian Pinot Noir for $18.
You can probably see where this is going. An accidental mix-up during the decanting step led to the old switcheroo. Wouldn’t you know it, the big spenders unknowingly gushed over the $18 wine and the frugal couple laughed about how much they enjoyed their not-so-cheap Pinot.
Think about that the next time you ask the sommelier for a recommendation!
Bob Hutkins is the Food Doc. He is a professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where he teaches and conducts research in food science and food microbiology. Send your questions on any topic related to food, food safety, food ingredients and food processing to the Food Doc at email@example.com.