There’s a remarkable scene in the 2013 documentary Somm, in which Ian Cauble, one of the film’s four primary subjects, is doing a practice run of an exam he’s spent years preparing for. He must identify the vintage of six glasses of wine—three whites, three reds. He smells and sips the first glass, then lets his verdict take shape: “This one is from the New World, with a warm climate, due to the medium acid and the high alcohol. Very glossy, very extracted, lots of glycerol,” he says with increasing certainty. Employing practiced anaphora, Cauble concludes, “This wine is from the United States. This wine is from California. This wine is from Sonoma County. This wine is from the Russian River Valley.”
The wine was actually from Burgundy. He was only about 5,700 miles off.
If Cauble—who spent the better part of his days and nights with his wine flashcards—couldn’t get it right, what justification does the drinking public have for spending more than, say, $20 for a bottle with a prestigious provenance? It's of course necessary to draw a floor of quality that rules out the likes of Franzia, but most people can't tell the difference between any two bottles that meet that standard. There's no argument—aside from supporting local or environmentally sustainable vintners—for spending any decent amount of money on a fine wine.
Well, except for one: Study after study has shown that people enjoy a wine more the more the pay for it. If someone believes a wine to be of high quality—if they view its producer as truly high-end—it ends up tasting better to them. “Marketers cannot assume,” the authors of one 2008 study in the Journal of Wine Economics wrote, “that intrinsic product attributes, even when experienced, will be weighted and interpreted accurately by consumers.” Since price is a strong predictor of enjoyment, one could make the argument that the wine industry is actually set up according to a certain logic: People pay more to buy the products they end up enjoying more.
A drinker's preconceptions, as those wine economists noted, shape his or her experience. In a 2001 study that is so outrageous as to appear apocryphal, all 54 tasters—some of them professed experts—were fooled into thinking that a white wine was actually red. All it took to dupe them was a few drops of red food-coloring, which were used to make one of the two glasses of the same white wine take on a different tint. (That finding is not as dispiriting as one wine journal's 2009 paper that found that one in four subjects preferred dog food to some pâtés—but it’s close.)
To be clear, not all wine expertise is necessarily bunk. There may well be people who are freakishly good at pinpointing a wine’s origins and meaningfully rating its quality. But even if those unparalleled tasters had a perfect record, only 220 people have ever received the highest distinction in the wine-tasting world, Master Sommelier, in the 46 years it has existed. (Though, as proved by Ian Cauble, who went on to become a Master Sommelier, anyone can be fooled.) Since the drinking public is not nearly as in touch with their palates as this elite group, it can confidently be said that the vast majority of wine buyers couldn't tell the difference between what was declared a high-quality wine and one of a supposedly lesser pedigree.
A study published last month illustrates this neatly. In it, Robert H. Ashton, a professor at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, tried to determine whether people could tell the difference between the wines of Napa Valley, a prestigious wine-producing region, and New Jersey, a less-respected one.
In a blind taste test, Duke M.B.A. students in a wine-appreciation club and then four experts—who had 54 years of industry experience between them—rated the wines as equally enjoyable. When the wine-club members were told, in a follow-up experiment, that two of the six wines were from New Jersey (they weren't told which two), that information dictated their satisfaction. After each tasting, they were asked to guess where a wine was from and then to rate it. All the wines that were guessed (either correctly or incorrectly) to be from New Jersey received an average rating of 4.22 out of 10, while the wines guessed to be from California were on average given a 5.75. The superiority of prestige, it seems, was mostly psychological.
Ashton didn’t enlist any Master Sommeliers for his experiments, and if he had, some might have been able to distinguish between West Coast and East Coast grapes. But his second group of experimental subjects, while small, included people who presumably know a lot about wine, too: a wine buyer at a gourmet market, an owner of a wine shop, a former assistant sommelier, and a wine importer. If these people couldn’t tell Jersey from Napa, the lay drinker must be truly hopeless.
So what might dissolve the wine world’s biases against New Jersey (or, for that matter, affordability)? There was a time—for most of the 20th century, actually—when California’s vineyards were viewed as inferior to Europe’s. But that changed in 1976. That year, a group of respected oenophiles convened for what came to be known as the "Judgment of Paris," in which a Californian wine beat out famed French wines in a blind taste test. The old guard’s unbiased blessing to some degree allowed Northern California to become the viticultural mainstay it is now.
In 2012, the American Association of Wine Economists, attempting to manufacture another watershed moment, arranged a group of tasters to weigh New Jersey wines against French ones. They christened it the "Judgment of Princeton.” The results didn’t bolster New Jersey’s underdog status quite like 1976’s stunt did for California, but the event did vindicate the state’s wine producers. Today, though, they still lack the cachet of Californian or French vintners.
This all leaves the well-educated consumer in a tricky place. Should one buy “bargain” wines and try to convince oneself that they taste better than their prices suggest? Or should one splurge with the knowledge that splurging enhances enjoyment? In The New Yorker a couple years ago, Jonah Lehrer lightheartedly suggested a workaround: Buy cheap wine and stick a nice label on it when guests come over. Me? I’ll stick to the relatively cheap stuff—I prefer its smoky, fruity bouquet of rationality and savings. That means more money, after all, to spend on fancy beer.