Friday, April 15, 2011

Grape Expectations

I haven't consumed alcohol in a very long time, but my wife will have an occasional glass of wine.  She's not very picky about it, usually settling for a not-so-expensive bottle at home or a glass of house wine when we're at a restaurant.  On the other hand, we have friends who consider themselves real wine connoisseurs.  They go to wine tastings, bring back exotic wines from their travels, and go through the whole routine of sniffing, swirling, and scrutinizing.  When we're out to dinner with them, they'll spend ten minutes reviewing the wine list, carefully considering all the options, before making their decision. 

They never choose the cheapest option.  I'm sure that, in their minds, an inexpensive bottle can't possibly be any good, or it would cost more.  I wouldn't be surprised to discover that restaurants keep very few bottles of their cheapest vintage in stock, knowing that wine drinkers believe price is in direct proportion to quality and don't want to come off as ignorant about which wines are best.

I can't wait to show them the results of some research done by Professor Richard Wiseman of the University of Hertfordshire, which shows that most people can't tell the difference between a cheap supermarket brand and a more expensive "quality" wine.  In a blind taste test, they only guessed right 50% of the time, the same as if they'd done it by chance. 

Our friends, the wine connoisseurs, will no doubt argue that they have a more sophisticated palate and can certainly tell the difference in quality.  They'll go on spending the extra cash to get a wine they consider better, though I'll bet the price always influences their decisions -- which is what the industry is counting on.  I'm not saying that when they go to wine tastings they should just drink out of the slop bucket a la Paul Giamatti in "Sideways," but they should be more aware of the psychology of wine pricing.

What's funniest to me is that some of these friends only developed their wine snobbery as they became older and more successful and had more money.  In college, when we were all broke, they had no problem consuming a 99¢ bottle of Liebfraumilch.  Of course, in those days, quality didn't matter.  If it said "wine" on the bottle, it was good enough.  The goal then (like mine with a 99¢ six-pack of Schmidt's beer) was not to choose a beverage that soothed the palate, but one that got you drunkest fastest -- and preferably had the same effect on someone of the opposite sex.

Maybe Dr. Wiseman can work on that as his next research project.