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Drinking Out Loud

Are You Risk Averse?

Is it price? Fear of the unknown? Even laziness?
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer asks what holds readers back when it comes to trying a new wine.

Matt Kramer
Posted: August 4, 2015

All of us have been haunted in our youth by some seemingly perfect fellow student who our parents held up as a paragon to be emulated.

“Why can't you be more like Ira?” went the refrain. “He’s such a good student. And he plays the French horn. His teachers love him. He’ll get into Harvard.”

Of course, we all privately knew Ira to be a jerk, a little grade-grubbing robot with the personality of a lima bean. But there was no escaping his aura of model-student perfection.

Wine has this same annoying overachievement syndrome. We read about some guy or woman who is impossibly open-minded, unquenchably curious and insanely studious. He or she is always tasting this and studying for that and is forever going on about some obscure discovery. They have no apparent risk aversion.

This, I believe, is a lie. I have yet to meet a wine lover—and I don’t care how wine-curious they claim to be—who is not risk averse. It’s the dirty little secret of wine loving. Most of us, for one or another reason, don’t want to take a chance.

Now, just why this is so varies considerably, not only from person to person, but also with the situation we find ourselves in.

For example, all wine lovers have found themselves called upon to choose the wine at a restaurant. You’ve got a table populated by friends or relations who are either wine-ignorant, wine-prejudiced or who just don’t care. Now, are you risk averse in such a situation? You sure are. You’d be crazy to be anything else. You’ll choose the safest, this-will-please-everybody wine you can find on the list.

But our private risk aversions are something else again. I would posit that they are attributable to just a handful of likely sources:

Price. This is the biggie. Surely, no factor is more likely to contribute to wine risk aversion than price. I don’t mind saying that it’s price that stays my hand. If a wine costs more than 20 bucks, I’m going to think long and hard before reaching for it. High prices, like cold weather, reduce one’s ardor.

Oddly, sometimes it’s a low price that creates the aversion. This is the “how good can it be if it’s so cheap?” syndrome. I know plenty of people (who have fat wallets, you may be sure) who would rather spend more on a wine than take the presumed risk of spending less. They see a high price as an insurance policy premium.

Never Heard of It. I’m guessing that after the hurdle of high price, unfamiliarity is the second-biggest factor in wine risk aversion. The very fact that you’ve never heard of a wine is enough to make you say, “I don’t want it. I’m not taking any chances.” Combine that with a perceived high price—which may not be all that high, by the way—and you’ve got an irresistible whirlpool of wine aversion.

At first glance, this business of “never heard of it” is both obvious and understandable. To reach for the unknown and unfamiliar is so fundamentally fear-inducing as to be atavistic. Probably we’re wired for it, a wine version of the fight-or-flight syndrome.

What’s odd, though, is how even a low price isn’t enough to budge many buyers. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve practically had to plead with friends to try this or that wine, even though the price was just 10 bucks or so. “I’ve never heard of that grape,” they say. “That’s a new producer for me,” was another response.

The lure of the known and the familiar (as well as the much-loved) is powerful. A deep-pocketed, Burgundy-loving friend e-mailed me recently with this: “What I really want is a California Chardonnay that says ‘Leroy’ on the label.”

Lousy Labels. This may surprise you, but my experience suggests that wine labels are significant factors in triggering wine risk aversion. One look at a label is either a powerful turn-on or an equally potent turn-off.

Buyers can be moved by a label’s design. Some will buy a wine because its label is reassuringly old-fashioned (think Bodegas López de Heredia Viña Tondonia) while others seek a confident statement of bold modernism (the stark black and white geometry of Gaja).

I remember when Napa Valley’s Far Niente Winery first appeared on the market in the early 1980s. Their elaborate, swirling Art Nouveau-ish label was rumored to be the most expensive in California and maybe in the world. It also provoked a certain amount of sniggering among some self-imagined wine aesthetes for its perceived excess. Boy, were they ever wrong. The wine-buying public loved (and surely still does) Far Niente’s label: “This is what an expensive wine looks like.” They clamored for Far Niente, happily paying a high price.

Myself, I don’t care about the front label so much as I do what I can read on the back label. I want to be sold. I want to be persuaded that this wine, which I’ve never heard of and which is asking more money than I’d care to spend, is worth buying. Old vines. Low yields. Whatever. Something. Most back labels, alas, are piffle. And I usually put the wine back on the shelf.

Are you wine risk averse? Is it money? Unfamiliarity? The look of the label? Or is it something else yet? The wine risk aversion hotline is open.

Eric Pottmeyer
Portland, OR USA —  August 4, 2015 11:33am ET
Great article, Matt!
The point about some wine-lovers being risk-averse due to a wine being INEXPENSIVE is very true as I've often heard the same “How good can it be if it’s so cheap?” argument when recommending inexpensive wine. Well, I guess we all have our wine hang-ups...
Tom Blair
Little Silver, NJ —  August 4, 2015 11:53am ET
quasi=adventurously risk averse. I like to try new things, but usually won't unless I have an idea about them; but then, sometimes, I just roll the dice. Money enters the picture more than anything else.

Now, for the real reason I write: regarding your curse of the palate article . . . what you describe is horrible and elitest!!! and in that situation, I usually either drink beer or a cocktail. And this is not limited to backyards in summer - it seems to be the vast majority of casual dining establishments that serve cr@p for wine by the glass and often insult it by serving it horribly. They might give you those cr@ppy little wine glasses filled to an inch of the rim, they might serve you a white that was left over from last night in the fridge where they put the fruit & other refrigerated items or, most likely of all, they will serve you a red that has been sitting at the bar at 70+ degrees. If drinking by the glass - I order beer. Almost every restaurant now has at least some good craft beers. A good craft beer will cost less than the cheapest glass of plonk and will be MUCH more rewarding. I wish restaurants could put some thought and care into a reasonably priced wine by the glass program, but most of them stick the cheapest stuff there and, if they have something nicer, it's $16/glass or more (often for a wine that retails for less than that per bottle). bah on that. There are SO MANY good glasses of wine where the retail price is $10-13/bottle that that not having it means they just do not care or they are pushing the more expensive option. I do not support that. I drink the beer. Disclaimer: Yes, there are restaurants that get it right, but far more do not and you cannot always pick the restaurant by its wine program.
David Crowther
Tuscaloosa, AL USA —  August 5, 2015 1:01am ET
I am wine risk averse on just about every category you mentioned at one time or another.
Here is one example. My wife and I are planning on dining at Victoria and Albert's for our 20th wedding anniversary this year. When I looked at the wine pairings for the Queen Victoria Room menu I was surprised to see rather pedestrian looking wines and shockingly Ridge Three Vallys (instead of Geyserville or Lytton Springs) was one of them. I immediately became prejudiced toward their pairings.
At first.
Then I decided to chill and repeated the mantra "price is no guarantee of quality". In pairings as well as bottles.
So it is possible to overcome your risk aversions. Sometimes.
Jeff Lake
MI —  August 5, 2015 1:18pm ET
It's interesting... I don't find myself very risk-averse in terms of trying things "off the beaten path" -- hence, the cellar right now has wines from Slovenia, Georgia (the country), Armenia, Greece, as well as poorly known French grapes and appellations (chatus from Ardeche, etc.), as well as many more classical regions. What I have found is that once I think I "know" a region and dislike it, I am averse to trying and biased against other wines from that area. For me, that is particularly true of wines from California, especially pinot noir and chardonnay. I love what Burgundy does with these grapes, and have a real distaste for the overly oaked, buttery, sweet craziness that California often produces. But then, I find every so often a bottling I really love. But my bias here is actually against something I "think I know", not against the complete unknown. I suspect I miss many bottles that I would genuinely enjoy simply because of this bias that years of tasting has built in me -- but I simply figure my odds are far better if I buy in regions I have some sense of, or no sense at all of.
Matt Kramer
Portland, Oregon —  August 5, 2015 2:45pm ET
Mr. Lake: You write: "What I have found is that once I think I "know" a region and dislike it, I am averse to trying and biased against other wines from that area."

I believe that you have touched upon something both subtle and yet powerfully present in many wine drinkers' lives, present company absolutely included. I, too, have found myself having to resist this undertow of what might be called the "prejudice of prior experience".

What's so interesting about this phenomenon--as you note yourself--is how what we have all experienced two or five years ago may no longer be true today. Indeed, it is extremely likely to no longer be true (or at least an outdated impression) in rapidly evolving wine regions such as California, Oregon, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Hungary, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and elsewhere.

This is a critical (in every sense) feature of modern wine life. And it's essential that all of us keep it uppermost in our minds, as otherwise we will be doing ambitious producers a disservice and ghettoizing our wine lives in the process.

Thank you for so astutely pointing this out. As the Italians would say: complimenti!
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  August 5, 2015 5:06pm ET
I'm very fond of looking at the back label to see if I can at least get some intel on the varietal composition. When the label goes beyond that and gives me harvest info, brix, Ph, etc., then I get all excited. If the winery cared this much to get this label through the ATF brigade, then they must have put their heart into the bottle too. Maybe it's not a good heart, but it was the best they could do. I think that's worth taking a risk on, don't you?
Greg Hutch
Regina, SK, Canada —  August 8, 2015 7:47pm ET
Great column and comments! I found myself being less adventurous than I wanted to be and found a few techniques (that worked for me) to keep experimenting and learning. The first was asking my favourite sommeliers and chefs to do pairings. They have responded even better than I hoped when my wife and I started asking them to serve food and wine that they are most proud of. As we try their pairings and give them feedback they almost take it as a challenge to come up with something new and interesting. The second technique was joining wine clubs. This has generated a steady stream of wines I would not have found otherwise. The third technique (pretty obvious) was following critics that I trust (thanks Matt!) and trying their recommendations. Finally I have taken the Wine Century list and tried to check off as many varietals as possible.

On balance, I've learned a lot. I've found a number of new "wine friends" since everyone seems to appreciate it when they are asked to provide advice. The good surprises have vastly outnumbered the unfortunate surprises.

In summary I've got some help with the adventure (perhaps de-risking it?), thoroughly enjoyed the process, found some great wine and found some great people to drink it with!
Hugh L Sutherland Jr-m
owens cross road,al 35763 —  August 9, 2015 2:46pm ET
This is a good article. I must admit that I am a true American preferring west coast wines. I have tried the New York wines but still go back to the west coast. Price is a real concern for me just as it is in other items. Being retired, money is a concern.
I would like to add one other of my concerns, fancy names and "catch your attention" labels. I feel that if a winery has to do this to sell their wines, then it probably is not very good.
John Rider
Mission Viejo CA —  August 10, 2015 11:17pm ET
Great article, I have been helping a small winery called Laguna Canyon with repair on their equipment. after getting to know the winemakers they asked me to come pour wine at their monthly wine tasting party. what I learned is that you need to keep an open mind when it comes to wine. every month I would go though the wines and sample them so I could advise people. over the years I have stopped picking favorites just because each wine would change though the years so much that one I didn't like one year became great the next. I took that same approach to all wine and have revisited many wines and regions with great results. wine is alive, go see how it taste this year, if you're like me you have a lot of tasting to do. Enjoy.

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