Plonk and circumstance

Lifehacker has a story entitled “Why It May Make Sense To Reach for the Cheaper Wine.” It references a BBC report based on blind taste tests among 587 people at the Edinburgh Science Festival, tests indicating that people were only about 50% successful in deciding which of two wines was more expensive, based only on the taste.

The BBC report has a misleading title–“Cheap wine ‘good as pricier bottles’ – blind taste test”–and a highly questionable concluding paragraph:

Lead researcher psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman said: “These are remarkable results. People were unable to tell expensive from inexpensive wines, and so in these times of financial hardship the message is clear – the inexpensive wines we tested tasted the same as their expensive counterparts.”

Without seeing the full study and what wines were involved, it’s impossible to provide a full critique, but right off the bat a couple of things should be obvious:

  • As stated, the test was not whether people could tell a difference in the taste of two wines. It was whether they could accurately say which one cost more. Those are entirely different things.
  • On the other hand, this paragraph is almost certainly correct–but also almost certainly blindingly obvious: “University of Hertfordshire researchers say their findings indicate many people may just be paying for a label.” Wow! Some people buy more expensive X because of the label, not the quality (or think that because X2 costs more than X1, it must be better). I can think of dozens, probably hundreds of values for X where that’s true; that it might be true of wine as well should come as no surprise.

There’s another related story at StackExchange, and I link to it not so much for the text as for the comments, which are relatively few and in some cases fairly interesting (even if the first one is flatly wrong–some of France’s most expensive and best-known wines are blends, as a fast response points out).  Come to think of it, the third and fourth comments on the Lifehacker story–as I write this–are also worthwhile, if somewhat less formal. (Also the fifth and sixth if you expand the comments.)

I labeled the story and study “silly” in a Friendfeed thread. I did so because, at least as reported, the study doesn’t really lead anywhere.

Why? Because we should know this, and it’s true not only of wines but of many, perhaps most, products that engage subjective evaluation. It boils down to this:

Different people have different tastes and different sensitivity levels–and for many people, subjective response is based on more than a narrow objective reality.

I believe that’s exactly as it should be. I’m occasionally offended by reviews where I believe the reviewer is overstating objective differences because of subjective preferences that may have nothing to do with actual performance–thus, my occasional My Back Pages comments on some high-end stereo reviews.

Which is to say: There’s nothing wrong at all with a wealthy person paying $25,000 for an amplifier with badly substandard frequency response and low wattage because they like the way it looks, or they love the warm glow of tubes, or they like the maker, or they just like having a rare amplifier. I’m mildly offended by reviewers asserting that the $25,000 amplifier is Clearly Superior to a $500 amplifier, and worth every cent, when it appears from the article that they’re as much influenced by their friendship with the manufacturer as by the actual sound. Understanding that blind testing of audio products, as with many other products, is inherently flawed, I’ve always wondered what a “Radio Shack test” would yield–that is, a testing regimen in which the reviewer can take as much time as he or she wants, but the device being tested is encased in a cabinet that makes it indistinguishable from the cheapest device sold by Radio Shack.

The general case: Sensitivity and acuity

On one hand, it should be obvious that most of us aren’t terribly sensitive to differences in most areas of daily life, and that’s probably as it should be.

Would most beer drinkers–or, even worse, most non-beer drinkers–properly guess which was more expensive (or which was “better”) if served Brew 102 (if it still exists) or Fisher and, alongside, the most expensive beer of similar style in the world?

I suspect most people who don’t drink high-end Scotch wouldn’t be better than random chance at determining whether a $10 Scotch or a $250 Scotch was “better” or “more expensive” or even different–I don’t think I would be able to make those distinctions, and if I did, I might well prefer the simpler character of the cheap Scotch. (This may not be a fair comparison–it appears that the price differentials in the wine test were as small as 2:1, not 10:1…or in the case of sparkling wine, only 1.7:1. I suspect I couldn’t reliably tell you which of two sparkling wines, one costing $29 and one costing $46, the dollar equivalent of the stated pounds prices, was the more expensive–that’s a price range in which I’d expect the wines to both be excellent with subtle differences. Given that our favorite sparkling wine, Schramsberg Blanc de Blanc, is in the $24-$27 range, I can comfortably state that I wouldn’t expect to reliably tell whether a $46 blanc de blanc was better or more expensive.)

It’s not just drink. Can you really tell me that most people could tell whether a pair of shoes cost $75 or $150 based on how comfortable or well-constructed they are? (Or, let’s say, a good pair of Rockports vs. a pair of designer shoes costing four times as much.) That most people could tell whether a painting is worth $10 or $200 based on nothing more than the image? That most people hearing a stereo costing $2,000 and one costing $1,000 can tell which is which or which costs more? (Especially if the only difference between the two is in either a digital frontend or the amplification…tell me that the average listener can tell which of a $12,000 CD player or a $200 CD player is more expensive, given only audible clues!)

The specific case: Price in wine is a complex proposition

That’s true in many other fields as well. If you think there’s a direct ratio between cost and either quality or “driving experience” in automobiles, I’d beg to differ. A VW Golf is a 50% better car than a Honda Fit? A BMW 750LI will give you three times the driving pleasure of an Acura TSX and 4.5 times the pleasure of a Hyundai Sonata? Really?

With wine–as with many other products–the price involves a whole bunch of things, all of which can affect worth for some consumers: Rarity (size of producer, size of production), complexity, time spent in production, deliberate marketing decisions…

There are lots of California red wines priced at $75/bottle and up because the tiny little wineries that make them have based their business plans on such high prices. I’m not likely to try any of them, and not worry about what I’m missing. In many cases, those pricey wines are also very high alcohol because that’s what Robert Parker and some other wine critics seem to like; if I was to taste one of these 14.5-15% $75 wines vs. a decently-made $12 wine with 13.5% alcohol, I’d probably prefer the “cheap” wine–and might even assume it was more expensive.

There’s a reason Two Buck Chuck is so popular. It’s not terrible wine. It’s simple wine without lots of pretension. That makes it preferable to more expensive wines for many buyers. I don’t buy it these days, but I don’t disdain it.

I do buy $4 Chardonnays at Trader Joe’s, and $5 Chardonnays and $6 Chardonnays. In general, I find them to be better values and better wines than quite a few $8-$12 name-brand Chardonnays, partly because they’re usually 12.5%-13% alcohol, partly because they’re well-made with no marketing budget. But we also picked up a $26 Chardonnay at a Livermore winery; it’s probably worth the money–but I’d rarely want to drink a bottle that expensive. I’ve certainly had $12 and $15 wines that simply didn’t taste as good as $4 wines–and I’ve tasted $30 and $40 wines that I wouldn’t serve on a bet.

There’s no accounting for tastes–and there’s very little accounting for taste sensitivity. That makes most studies of these sorts not terribly useful, except for those who want to convince themselves that there really aren’t any differences between different products. Sometimes, even that’s true–but not generally.

You love your high-end Cognac? Good for you. I simply wouldn’t appreciate the difference between it and E&J. I might or might not be able to tell the difference but I wouldn’t appreciate it. So, for me, it’s not worth the substantial extra cost. That’s partly because cognac and brandy don’t interest me (same with most booze, actually). It’s also partly because it’s not a sensitivity I’ve chosen to cultivate, and might not have even if I did so. Doesn’t mean there are no differences.

Oh, and as to cars? There’s a reason I’ve never owned anything but Honda Civics, and if that changes, it would change toward a Fit, not a Mercedes or Lamborghini…even if I won SuperLotto.





One Response to “Plonk and circumstance”

  1. Martyn Hare says:

    Quality and price have very little correlation once someone has come close to the “mid-range” of any given product, in my experience. Rarely is it that more expensive, commonly consumed/purchased items are of superior quality than their less expensive variants.

    Examples of this can be seen all over the technology world as well as the real world. Many richer people purchase “high-end” Sony or Apple products, with very little regard for the fact that these products have artificially inflated prices based on branding and inferior-design proprietary bundleware certified to provide features such as DNLA-compliance (wow, a uPnP media server on my laptop!?) or “home media centre” (wow, an alternative graphical shell for accessing music!?).

    The richer and more affluent people in this world pay more for everyday common items than the less well-off and will try to pay as little as possible for rare/uncommon items (such as one-off works of art). The willingness to pay higher prices for common items isn’t due to any inherent quality benefit in the product itself, but perceived value in the form of services and support provided for the product.

    I tend to ask true enthusiasts about quality and durability of products prior to purchasing anything (if i’m not the enthusiast, that is). It’s amazing what one finds out this way…