The topic of price vs. quality in wine keeps coming up, and not just among savvy wine drinkers looking for the most bang for their buck when they buy a bottle. Last week, Steven D. Levitt, an economics professor, made a pretty bold assertion in his Freakanomics blog for the New York Times. He basically said that it's better not to learn too much about wine, because then you just wind up paying more.
Levitt, who confesses he doesn't particularly like wine, recalled a tasting he organized during his time in the Society of Fellows at Harvard, to get his club to charge him lower dues. He didn't want to pay for the expensive wines they served, but he didn't want to drink. He asked members to taste them blind alongside an inexpensive wine. They couldn't tell the difference.
Oh my, not that again.
We have heard a lot of "emperor's new clothes" theories about wine, that there's no reason to pay a lot of money for a bottle because only experts can tell the difference when you can't see the label. There are a lot of reasons this happens.
Here are two:
1. It's not news that a $10 wine can taste better than a $50 wine.
There's only a general correlation between price and quality. All you have to do is look at any set of reviews in Wine Spectator. At any given price, the ratings run across a wide range, from bad to excellent. At any given rating, prices also run across a wide range. If you blind taste a $10 wine that scored 90 points against a $50 wine that scored 85 points, guess which one will win? That's the idea behind our Smart Buys and Best Values. Those are the wines that score best within the price ranges.
2. Simple wines please more people than complex wines do.
What makes a wine outstanding is complexity of flavors. Wines that have a lot of distinctive flavors get the big reputations, and they can demand the highest prices. Paradoxically, however, the more flavor a wine has, the more likely some of those characteristics will offend a particular wine drinker. That's why mass market wines are almost always simple and direct; they're not offensive to anyone, so more people like them.
Those of us who value complexity willingly pay a premium for wines that have flavors we like. On the other hand, it's pretty stupid to pay a lot for wines that get some of their complexity from, say, some level of brettanomyces if you hate gamy flavors.
And that's the down side of buying on price, or even on reputation. If you're going to drink it, as opposed to investing in a wine to flip it for a profit, it's best to taste it before plunking down the cash. Or at least read our tasting notes for a few hints.
Sandy Fitzgerald — Centennial, CO — July 22, 2008 4:56pm ET
Jim Mcclure — DFW, Texas — July 22, 2008 5:49pm ET
John Nelson — Dallas, Texas — July 22, 2008 7:11pm ET
Gary Hyatt — Huntington Beach, CA — July 22, 2008 7:27pm ET
Katherine Brown — North Carolina — July 23, 2008 7:25am ET
Katherine Brown — North Carolina — July 23, 2008 7:50am ET
Serge Laporte — Canada — July 23, 2008 12:10pm ET
Bill Robinson — Calgary — July 23, 2008 12:28pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — July 23, 2008 7:18pm ET
Loren Lingerfelter — Danville, CA — July 23, 2008 8:13pm ET
Don Rauba — Schaumburg, IL — July 30, 2008 3:45pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — July 30, 2008 7:23pm ET
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