Thursday, 14 April 2011

"Expensive wine and cheap plonk taste the same to most people"

So The Guardian, home of Bad Science, today has this headline slapped by a giant image on it's home page leading to this article.

There are  a few things wrong with this story and the research behind it it's made me even want to blog about it. Even though I don't dispute it's findings.

The headline doesn't match the story.

The research presented shows that people couldn't tell which wine was more expensive. This doesn't mean they thought they tasted the same does it?

We're in quite a good situation in the UK now, we get decent well made wine at all price points. You can get a drinkable wine for £3. For my own personal enjoyment I'd quite likely choose a £6 Chilean Red Blend over a £25 White Burgundy. Which was true before I started to learn about wine, the difference being now, hopefully, I could recognise the difference in quality between the two. Previously I'd have just said the Chilean one was better.

Maybe people just voted for the one they liked best?

Judging the quality of wine is a skill.

Until I started being taught about wine, I wouldn't have been able to tell you how to measure quality. I could tell you what I liked, but not why. 

Price doesn't directly equate to quality.

Even if you can judge the quality there are a ton of other things affecting the price of wine. Not all of them mean what you are drinking is higher quality. There are a lot of wine snobs who just want to spend a lot on wine as a status thing, but I've probably met a greater proportion of  people interested in wine who are always on the look out for a bargain. This Gran Tesoro Garanacha from Tesco is still an absolute bargain at just over £4. Tastes like it cost twice that.

This is probably the most fundamental flaw with the research. Even though they were choosing similar blends/grapes from similar regions that doesn't mean that the price will reflect the quality. Look at any Decanter tasting and you'll see cheaper wines outperforming more expensive ones when judged by experts.

How good were the wines?

Would have been really good to have a bunch of "wine experts" blind taste the same wines and see how their perceptions matched the general public. It might be that the 'public' were super accurate and it was a freak set of wines where the cheap ones really were as good as the expensive ones. I've had a £15 Bordeaux that I thought was more unbalanced than that Gran Tesoro. What if the people conducting the experiment uncovered bargain priced hidden gems? Or had some overpriced stinkers?

We know that qualified experts are pretty good blind tasters, they can usually tell what a wine is made from, how it was made, what's in it and where it was from. It's part of any good qualification system. So their opinion does carry some weight.

So how do you judge quality anyway?

Whilst the experts might be able to tell what a wine is and where it was from you only need to take a look around at wildly different scoring systems to appreciate that even amongst the experts there can be wild disagreement about how good a particular wine is.

Not only that but there are a load of different 'tasting systems' that judge wine on slightly different things. 

You could take 580 members of the public to a gallery, show them a nice Art Student's painting and a Pollock and ask them which was more expensive. I suspect you'd get similar results.


So, taking all those points together, would you expect the average punter to be able to identify the price of a wine based on a blind taste? To be able to pick a price of a wine you really have to understand, what the wine is, where it comes from, how it was made and what the quality is. That's not easy. We had to do it as part of our WSET courses, and whilst I got the price right on the exam, I know that in the practices I frequently got it horribly wrong.

The thing I agree with is that, if you don't really care about wine, you might as well spend £5* as £20 on a bottle. And sometimes, when you do care about wine, you are better off spending £5 on a bargain than £20 on some overpriced monstrosity. Just like there'd be no point paying for the Pollock if you thought the Art Student's painting would look nicer on your wall.

So, with all that in mind why wasn't the headline "a small number of the general public perform just as averagely at a slightly crap experiment about tasting wine as you'd expect" and why is it a front page of the website story?

*or £3 if you find a decent one!

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