When Ignorance is Bliss

17 Jul

Can your taste buds really detect the difference between a $10 bottle of wine and a $100 or a $1,000 bottle of wine? I’ve had this conversation endless times with family and friends. Most people agree that there’s some difference between the cheapest bottle of wine on a menu and something a little better, but when you start getting into the stratospheric levels, it’s really not worth it, they say.

My take is that you can tell the difference. Good wine is silkier, less rough on the tongue, has more body, more complexity.

Turns out we’re both right. According to the publication “Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better?” from the American Association of Wine Economists published in the Journal of Wine Economics, Vol. 3, No. 1, it depends on who is doing the tasting. Regular folks can’t tell the difference between expensive and cheap wines. It’s really not worth it for them to blow $400 on a bottle of wine when a $40 or a $15 bottle would have done.

But the wine snobs, oh, they can tell. It’s both a blessing and a curse. Obviously it’s nice to be able to know that your tongue distinguishes between the best of the best and the cheap Two Buck Chuck.

Then again, you make for an expensive date.

I love this little essay in the Freakonomics blog on the New York Times about how Steven Levitt was always miffed that he was offered expensive wines when at Harvard’s Society of Fellows when just the cash would have sufficed. His advice:

No matter what, do not let yourself become a wine expert who can tell the difference between cheap and expensive wines. When it comes to your pocketbook and wine, ignorance is bliss.

The one thing Levitt missed is that neuroeconomics studies have found that people drinking expensive wine actually physiologically enjoy the pricey wine better (when they know the price, of course). In other words, your brain is actually tricked into thinking the expensive stuff is tastier and you can see it in the reward centers. So it’s not of much use if you’re doing a blind tasting, but if you’re treating yourself to a nice bottle of wine, you’ll at least enjoy it more, even if your pocketbook doesn’t.

1 Comment

Posted by on July 17, 2008 in Uncategorized


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One response to “When Ignorance is Bliss

  1. Neuromarketing

    July 19, 2008 at 9:18 am

    Good post. I’ve written about the same experiment. Another interesting test found that the supposed source of the wine – California vs. North Dakota – affected diners’ perception of the food. Even though it was all Two Buck Chuck, those served the “California” wine ate more and made more return reservations. (See Wine and the Spillover Effect.) Wine is really great fodder for behavioral scientists!



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