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.