Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better?

Last year we noted the fascinating Freakonomics Radio podcast “Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better?” One of the takeaways is that tasters evaluating the wines in a blind tasting are just as likely to prefer the much-cheaper wines.

Now there is an hour-long special. That writeup references the Robin Goldstein et al paper:

Abstract. Individuals who are unaware of the price do not derive more enjoyment from more expensive wine. In a sample of more than 6,000 blind tastings, we find that the correlation between price and overall rating is small and negative, suggesting that individuals on average enjoy more expensive wines slightly less. For individuals with wine training, however, we find indications of a positive relationship between price and enjoyment. Our results are robust to the inclusion of individual fixed effects, and are not driven by outliers: when omitting the top and bottom deciles of the price distribution, our qualitative results are strengthened, and the statistical significance is improved further. Our results indicate that both the prices of wines and wine recommendations by experts may be poor guides for non-expert wine consumers.

In 2011 we enjoyed ten weeks in the wine country of France, Italy and Spain where we experienced this phenomenon first hand. Part of the explanation may be that skillful winemakers can blend to make young wines more palatable. I.e., a wine that in 20 years may mature to a sublime taste is often hard going when it is two or three years out of the vineyard (which is what we can buy in stores).

The Goldstein paper found that experts and average wine drinkers are likely to have different preferences. Excerpt:

Our results indicate another reason for why the average wine drinker may not benefit from expert wine ratings: he or she simply doesn’t like the same types of wines as experts. This is consistent with Weil (2001, 2005), who finds that even among the subset of tasters who can distinguish between good and bad vintages, or reserve or regular bottlings, they are as likely to prefer the “better” one as the “worse” one.

These findings raise an interesting question: is the difference between the ratings of experts and non-experts due to an acquired taste? Or is it due to an innate ability, which is correlated with self-selection into wine training? Investigating this further would be a fruitful avenue for future research.

In sum, in a large sample of blind tastings, we find that the correlation between price and overall rating is small and negative. Unless they are experts, individuals on average enjoy more expensive wines slightly less. Our results suggest that both price tags and expert recommendations may be poor guides for non-expert wine consumers who care about the intrinsic qualities of the wine.