We blind-tasted three cabernet sauvignon wines, one of which (the most expensive) was described by Wine Spectator as "extremely well done ... with style and panache." Our response was somewhat different.
In any given grocery store, you might find a couple dozen types of beer. But glance over to the wine section, and you'll see maybe a hundred different bottles with prices ranging from a couple bucks to a small fortune.
How does this make sense? Americans drink seven times more beer than wine. And most of us can't tell so-called "good wines" from bad ones. The ambiguity of wine is presumably what gives rise to the sizable industry around wine competitions, sommeliers, ratings, and commentary that often sounds more like poetry than a beverage review. ("Yellowing and leesy in character, with a deep, brooding style.")
In a 2007 essay, Princeton economist Richard Quandt discussed "the two principal sources of bullshit" in life:
First, there are some subjects that tend to induce an unusually large amount of bullshit ... Equally importantly, there are some people who engage in bullshit with greater frequency than the average; they have a special propensity to bullshit, perhaps habitually or compulsively or just for the fun of it ... In some instances, there is an unhappy marriage between a subject that especially lends itself to bullshit and bullshit artists who are impelled to comment on it. I fear that wine is one of those instances where this unholy union is in effect."
Therein lies the problem with wine: you have the science of turning a great fruit into a great drink. Then you have what are seemingly objective quality variables like balance and complexity. But layered onto that is a mountain of subjective opinions, people trying to prove their sophistication, and a whole lot of marketing. The nature of wine makes it really hard to tell the difference between expertise, nonsense, and personal preference.
Take wine comments, for example. There's no doubt that people can learn through training how to identify different grapes and regions, and develop the vocabulary to distinguish and describe subtle flavors and aromas. But at the same time, people are always vulnerable to the influence of their expectations. And time and again, researchers have been able to trick even expert wine tasters.
By dyeing a white wine red, researchers at the University of Bordeaux showed how easily visual cues can dominate wine students' sense of smell. When they thought the white wine was a red one, they described it using words commonly applied to red wines (incidentally, those words are typically dark objects like red berries or wood).
Another powerful cue is price. We can't help but associate price with quality, and most of the time it's probably a good assumption that you're paying more for a reason. But does that association hold up for wine? I bought three red wines at different prices to see if my coworkers could tell the difference.
Would they be able to tell which wine was the most expensive? Would they enjoy that wine more than the others? Check out the video above to see our results.