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A fine glass of hooey
Is an expensive bottle of wine really the better? Our answer just might save you a lot moola.
December 20, 2005: 10:15 AM EST
By James Surowiecki, MONEY Magazine

NEW YORK (MONEY Magazine) - Red or white? It's the first question you ask when choosing a wine, right? Silly you. What you should be looking at, see, is whether it's a grand cru or a reserve. And do you adhere to the Parker scale? (You really should, you know.) And last, you philistine, do you want something lithe and supple, or firm-structured with good harmony?

This is the point at the wine store when you pay $40 for a wine that ends up tasting suspiciously like the $9 bottle you tried a week ago. You hope your guests can tell the difference even if you can't. Wine is what economists call an "experience good" -- you can't decide how much it's worth to you until you drink it, but you have to buy it before you can drink it.

In 2004, Americans bought a record 270 million cases, and with more wine-drinking has come a greater need to understand what one is buying. But the purchase can be daunting. There are too many choices and there's too much information, most of it unhelpful. Winespeak, the florid description of a wine's "sublime minerality" or its "caramel, prunes and bourbon" taste, seems designed less to inform than to make you feel like a hayseed.

The only way to assure yourself of quality, it seems, is to pay up. Sometimes way up. (Other experience goods work in similar ways: Premium vodkas often cost two to three times as much as ordinary vodkas, but in 2005 ordinary Smirnoff won a New York Times blind taste test hands down.)

All this doesn't mean you shouldn't pay more for a wine if the social situation demands it or if you just want to. But if all you desire is a great experience at a good price, the guidelines for quality that you've been using--price, the information on the label, ratings--are irrelevant. You might as well pick the bottle with the coolest-looking label. Or you could aim to satisfy the one criterion that really matters: your taste. It's quite possible that doing so will cost far less than you've been led to believe.

But first you should take a clear look at some of the conventional principles that have long guided Americans when they choose their wines.

Dubious claim No. 1 Expensive = Good

Why it's bogus In restaurants, many people order the second-least-expensive wine on the list. (They don't want to spend a lot, but they don't want the absolute worst pick.) And while there's a rough correlation between price and quality -- an $80 Bordeaux will taste better than Two-Buck Chuck -- it's very, very rough.

Wine skeptics have known this at least since a famous 1976 taste-off between California and French wines. At the time, no one who knew anything would pay $40 for a California wine. But in two contests the American wines trounced the better-pedigreed competitors. The "price equals quality" assumption has been squashed many times since.

Among nearly 3,000 entries at the San Francisco 2000 International Wine Competition, wines that cost $10 or less won a third of the varietal class contests. As Wine Spectator put it not long ago, "There are plenty of $15 wines on the market today that in terms of flavor and enjoyment rival wines costing three or four times as much."

The problem with using price as a sign of quality is that the cost of a bottle is often influenced by factors that have nothing to do with whether you'll actually enjoy drinking it.

For one thing, people often buy expensive wines as a way of demonstrating sophistication and wealth. A 1997 study by three French economists, for instance, found that the price of Bordeaux wines was mainly determined by their ranking in the Médoc classification system (which essentially puts Bordeaux vineyards into five tiers of prestige), even though they found little correlation between rank and quality.

In other words, the price of a Bordeaux had more to do with its label than its taste. The wine market is also notoriously trendy, so when a wine, for whatever reason, becomes hot, sales -- and often, by extension, prices -- soar. In the wake of the hit movie Sideways, which featured a glowing tribute to the virtues of pinot noir, sales of pinot noir jumped nearly 45%.

What to do Set a price cap. When trying out wines, pick an arbitrary amount -- $15 -- and stay under it. That'll make trips to the store less daunting, and you'll learn which wines you like in that price range. As you experiment, you'll never blow too much on a wine you don't like.

Dubious claim No. 2 Costly "reserve" wines are better

Why it's bogus Labeling a wine as reserve or grand cru supposedly signals higher quality, but the difference between these and "regular" wines doesn't appear to be worth paying for. In 2001, French researcher Frédéric Brochet asked 57 wine experts to taste two bottles of Bordeaux, one fancily labeled as a grand cru and the other clearly marked as a ho-hum vin de table.

In fact, the same wine was in both bottles. But the experts gushed over the "grand cru" and dismissed the "vin de table" as weak and flat. It was like the old college party trick where you give one kid nonalcoholic beer all night and see if he acts drunk.

Another study, in 2005, asked nearly 400 wine drinkers to sample reserve and regular versions of the same wine. Surprise! Just 40% could tell the difference. What's more, of those, nearly half preferred the regular. In other words, only a fifth of the people would actually have reaped any benefit from paying more for the reserve.

What to do Leave more expensive reserves and grands crus for people who think they can tell the difference.

Dubious Claim No. 3 Experts know what's good for you

Why it's bogus Many wine drinkers rely on the judgment of experts, the most revered of whom is Robert Parker. He samples 10,000 wines a year, ranking each on a 100-point scale. His influence on the wine market has been compared to Alan Greenspan's influence on the financial markets.

A 90-plus rating from Parker often makes a wine sell out, and studies suggest that his blessing can boost the price of a wine by as much as 15%. Parker disciples might seem like sheep, but the impulse to follow his advice is understandable. If label and region are questionable indicators of quality, people want some anchor to rely on. And because Parker ranks so many wines on the same scale (at least in theory), he provides a convenient way of making a decision.

But relying on experts to tell you which wine to drink is like asking a hot-dog vendor for movie reviews. Wine is about taste, and there's no such thing as a universal palate. Some winemakers are convinced Parker favors rich, full-bodied wines, which you may not.

So why pay a premium for a bottle he anointed? In a broader sense, there's plenty of evidence that experts don't know much more about wine than, well, you. New Yorker writer Calvin Trillin once investigated a legendary test given at the University of California at Davis, renowned for its enology program.

Students supposedly tasted red and white wines in black glasses and were asked which was which. The school wouldn't confirm it, but Trillin did meet one student who said that he got only three out of seven wines right. And as part of his 2001 study, Brochet asked 54 experts to taste a red and a white wine, except that the "red" was actually a white dyed with food coloring.

The experts described the white using words associated with white wines--"fresh, dry, lively"--and the "red" using "red" words: "intense, spicy, deep." So don't be intimidated by winespeak. Most of what people think they taste is in their heads. That includes you: If you think you like it, you're right every time.

What to do When there is a consensus among experts, that's a sign that a wine is probably worth trying. Also, if you find a critic whose taste seems to jibe with yours -- the reviewer in the local paper, perhaps, or a food columnist -- use his or her judgment as a starting point. (Run your own test at your next party. Here's how.)

Dubious Claim No. 4 Store owners know nothing

Why it's bogus Snobby drinkers might look down their noses at proprietors of wine shops, thinking of them more as salesmen than as connoisseurs. But, in fact, your local store can be one of your most reliable advisers because repeat business is a powerful incentive to keep a retailer honest. Given a sense of what you like, a knowledgeable store owner can often point you in a good direction.

What to do Become a regular and you'll likely get good suggestions. Make it clear from your first visit that you're not interested in trendy labels.

The Truth: You're the expert

Wine shopping is plagued by what the psychologist Barry Schwartz calls the paradox of choice, wherein more options can actually make us less happy. In the end, you can only make good decisions about wine if you take that initial step and figure out exactly what you like and what you don't. You can educate your palate, but you can't bully it.

What to do Remember that wine is not an end in itself. It's a way to show you care about your friends, a social lubricant that should make you feel good, not like a dimwit. "You don't need to know a lot about cooking to enjoy food, and it's the same with wine," says Andrea Immer Robinson, author of Great Wine Made Simple. "If you're just looking for the best deal--and there are plenty of inexpensive wines to enjoy -- you're completely justified."

To further help you choose wines to experiment with, pick something seemingly arbitrary -- a favorite geographic region, for instance, or the varietal that was served at a party you went to -- that will at least give you a reason to try a particular bottle. "They served this at a great wedding we went to" or "This is from the part of Italy where we honeymooned" is a better reason to buy a wine than the fact that some dude you've never met scored it a 91 rather than an 89.

Or you can spend tens of years and thousands of dollars studying labels and memorizing vintages so that you can develop a more epicurean approach to choosing wine. But wouldn't it be awful if, at the end of all that, you closed your eyes and still couldn't taste the difference between red and white?

Party fun: Run your own taste test

So you think you could distinguish between red and white wine if you were blindfolded? Take this test -- in front of guests, if you dare.

1. Equipment Plastic cups, black marker, blindfolds and an array of three red and three white wines.

2. Prep Number the wines and sets of cups 1 through 6. For each tester, pour a small cup of every wine, making sure the bottle number matches the cup number. Serve the blindfolded testers their six cups, but in a different order. Have them drink one at a time and say "red" or "white" after each. Record their answers.

3. Tips Ask the store for a variety of flavors -- some full-bodied, some light. Serve all wines at room temp, and open the reds a half-hour before. Good luck.

More great ideas from Money magazine:

When smart shoppers do dumb things

How Average Joes can retire rich  Top of page

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