Chow Town

Study asking people to rate wines based on perceived price is a waste

Maybe I Just Should Turn Off the Radio.

I should know better than to get riled up by a short wine piece on NPR. But on Valentine’s Day, listeners were encouraged to see through the thicket of wine arcana by buying wines strictly on the label, not that they need such encouragement.

The vast majority of buyers already select wines based upon the flashy color, cute animal, rad typography, or tony chateau on the label — indeed, there is rarely pertinent information on the label beyond the image.

To support this bland advice, the producer trotted out some recent data by a well-meaning — but clueless — social scientist.

In a blind tasting experiment, tasters were given an opportunity to rate wines by their quality, after being told that certain of those wines were expensive and certain wines were cheap. Imagine the scientist’s surprise when the tasters preferred the expensive wines over the cheap ones.

It’s enough to turn me into one of those bashers of government research. Did we really need a study to know that people want to drink expensive wine more than they want to drink cheap wine, or that we expect expensive wine to taste better than cheap wine?

We’d all like to try expensive things, be they wines, food, cars, jewelry, whatever. And few of us are versed enough in those toys to inherently know the great from the imitator at first glance.

In a blind tasting format, most amateurs will choose their wine based upon the strongest data available: the price.

It truly amazes me that social scientists can’t grasp what any salesperson practices: tell someone a product is expensive and that product is instantly elevated in the customer’s mind. And if a given product is being closed out or deeply discounted on sale, customers instantly assume that something is wrong with it. Do we need academic evidence for that?

The disquieting thing is the veritable glee that the scientist and the NPR producers took in asserting that no one can tell expensive wine from cheap wine. Of course people can sort those things out, if you give them the time to do so.

But great wine unfolds, it doesn’t blare out its excellence in one loud honk. And telling people upfront that one wine is cheap and the other expensive only creates a self-fulfilling prophesy.

Wine has little to do with the results. What is revealed isn’t some larger truth about wine and price as much as the authors’ own lack of knowledge and their insecurity.

But forgive me for expecting NPR to educate. On Valentine’s Day, they merely sought to entertain.

Doug Frost is a Kansas City-based wine and spirits writer and consultant who for decades has happily educated the public about all things drink. He is one of only three people in the world to have earned the coveted titles of master sommelier and master of wine. He contributes a monthly wine column for The Star’s Food section.