American in Spain

The Wine Industry Is Mostly Bullshit

October 19, 2009

One thing I learned on my trip to the Bordeaux wine-making region of France is that the vast, vast, vast majority of things said about wine are complete bullshit. The upper end of the wine industry is almost entirely about marketing and branding, and has very little to do with the product. In a blind taste test, I bet that 97% of wine drinking adults can tell the difference between a 1€ bottle of wine and a 15€ bottle of wine. But once you get up to a 15€ bottle of wine (the threshold price might actually be closer to 7€), I bet less than 1% of wine drinking adults can tell the difference between that 15€ bottle and a 50€ or 100€ or 1000€ bottle of wine. There's just not that much difference!

The Power of Suggestion

The most significant factor in how much you will enjoy a glass of wine is how good you are told it is before you drink it. During our wine tour in Saint Émilion, we were given several wines to try. On some, tour guide told us, "This wine is not yet ready. It will be ready to drink in five years. But if you wanted to really drink it now, you would have to decant it for an hour before drinking." We took a sip. "See how it's too aggressive up front? And then the taste disappears so quickly?" the guide continued. And sure enough, we all totally agreed. Then, he gave us a similar wine from ten years ago that "was ready for drinking now." He added, "See how the bouquet is evenly balanced and the aggressiveness comes at the end, lingers, and then fades very slowly." What do you know? That's exactly what I experienced! The ten year old glass of Saint Émilion wine I had during the tasting was some of the best wine I've ever drunk. But it's not worth 50€ for a bottle.

I recall an early episode of Penn & Teller's Bullshit where they debunked the entire bottled water industry. They set up a fancy California restaurant with a special Menu d'Eau with various exotic waters from all over the world. One was named, exotically, Agua de Culo, which is Spanish for "Butt Water". Meanwhile, out back, they were filling up the bottles of water with the garden hose. The waiter presented each bottle to the customers, describing each one using words like crisp, fresh, alpine, glacial, pure, etc. And the customers, after drinking the water from the garden hose, completely agreed with the waiter about the description of the water. It was some of the best water they'd ever drunk. The human senses of taste and smell are extremely vulnerable to suggestion.

Blind Taste Tests

Just like the only scientific way to run a clinical trial is with a double-blind trial, the only way to scientifically evaluate taste is with a blind taste test. Someone recently suggested to me that most people couldn't even tell the difference, when blindfolded, between red and white wine, but I find that hard to believe. However, the results of blind taste tests are often surprising.

One of the wine tasting guides we had in Bordeaux told us that there was recently a scandal when they had a blind taste test amongst the owners of the Chateaus that make the most expensive wines in the Bordeaux region. The results weren't surprising to me. Apparently a cheap 20€ table wine came in second place amongst ten multi-thousand-euro bottles that were competing. It was the owners that were doing the tasting, too! They couldn't tell their 2000€ bottle from a 20€ bottle of regular wine! It just goes to show the arrogance that comes from feeding clients so much bullshit that you actually start to believe it yourself. I'm sure that there are many Chateau owners that understand that the wine business is all about marketing and subliminal suggestion, and they would never compete in a scientific test like that.


My point is that drinking wine is a hugely subjective experience, and that for 99.99999% of us, a 10€ bottle of wine is no different from a 500€ bottle. So unless you are looking for a way to get rid of excess money (see Donate link at top of this blog!), there's never a reason to pay more for the wine than for the meal it accompanies.