Do more expensive wines taste better?

The answer to the question ‘Do more expensive wines taste better?’ is ‘Yes’, when people know the price, and ‘No’, when they don’t.

Ok, so this paper is a couple of years old and not really about whisky… but I’m going to post it anyway because it’s interesting and the implications about the influence of price on the perceived value of spirits are incredibly relevant to this category.

The paper’s authors looked at over 6,000 blind tastings and found that both the prices of wines and wine recommendations by experts may be poor guides for non-expert wine consumers. Or in other words, people (including experts) can’t actually tell the difference between expensive and cheap wines. Not only that – when the price is unknown, people slightly prefer cheaper wines.

This will not come as a shock to behavioural economists, who have been presenting proof of our irrational actions and attitudes for the last few years (there are some great experiments in the books Nudge, Freakonomics and Predictably Irrational).

However irrational people’s preferences are, they are still preferences. And if they enjoy wine because it’s expensive then I suppose there’s nothing wrong with that. But you’re probably wasting a lot of money on these kind of quality assuptions.

When buying a bottle of wine as a gift, or to bring to a dinner party, I think most people’s decisions are price sensitive – rather than being purely about taste. Part of the reason is that you know the recipient will judge your generosity and the quality of the wine on the estimated cost of it (which, if they don’t know the wine, will be based on the label and its general appearance). So it’s complicated.

As Ben Goldacre concludes in Bad Science that the placebo effect in medicine is incredibly powerful and should not simply be dismissed. If it works, use it. Next time you’re having a dinner party, tell your guests that the wine you’re serving is worth over £200 a bottle and was a gift from your great uncle who’s had it in his cellar in France for years. They are sure to love the taste.

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