Steven Levitt, author of Freakonomics and everyone’s favorite economist, talks on his blog about a wine test he conducted with some Nobel prize winners:
(special thanks to Stephen Dodson for sending me the great article)
Right now, it is amazing how many smart people believe one bottle of wine is so much better than another. In fact, it seems (from my humble little poll of friends) that the more educated someone is, the more they believe the myth of wine and the more they buy into marketing messages.
This is an example of a scam that works much better on educated people than on those who are just street smart.
My estimation is all but few thousand people in the world can’t tell the difference between different bottles of wine. Its silly. And if anyone doesn’t believe me, I’m willing to wager cash on a taste test.
Street smarts: 1
The idea that only a few thousand people in the world can tell the difference is rubbish. Statistics from any study or tasting indicate about 25% people are gifted with great sensory perception, about 50% normal and about 25% below average. Can they tell the differnce between a 1982 and 1986 bordeaux, or the movie moment, no, they probably won’t nail it, but the difference between a good bottle of red made in a barrel vs. a shoddy bottle made with chips in a big gallo factory – pretty much everytime!
There is certainly a lot of pretentious behavior connected to wine. But Derek has pretty much nailed it. There’s a reasonable bell curve distribution of palate sensitivity for tasting wine or tasting barbecue.
There are also two kinds of pretentiousness. The first strives to present a sophistication at the 42 sigma end of the sensibility distribution. The other works from the other end. Those folks want to show us they’re “real” by also showing us that they’re common. Steven Levitt’s tale falls toward that end of the spectrum.
Levitt talks about a $60 bottle of wine (valued during his undergrad time at Harvard in the mid-eighties) compared the “the cheapest wine in the store from the same grape.” Leaving aside the fact that if it is “the cheapest wine in the store” you probably have no clue what grape is involved, he’s saying that an average person can’t tell the difference between a $120 bottle of wine and a bottle of Two Buck Chuck from Trader Joe’s.
I’m simply not ready to buy that, even if it’s supported by a battalion of PhD researchers. Ask me to believe that an average person can’t tell the difference between a $5 bottle of wine and one selling for $20 and I might believe it. The same is true for the ability to tell the difference between different grapes.