If You Enjoy Wine – Avoid Blind Tastings

The Early Years

I started enjoying wine years back. I vaguely remember Lancer’s Sparkling Rosé, Mateus and Thunderbird. On special occasions, my parents would buy the “heavy whites” from France – the Meursaults and Montrachets. They were better.

At a conference in the Val d’Aosta of Italy’s Piedmont region, I was served an Italian fonduta made with Fontina cheese and grated white truffles. It was served with a Barolo, and that became my favorite wine for several years. Later, I was quite fortunate to have a six week assignment in Rome. I regularly went to a “blue collar” restaurant for dinner and drank the wine everyone else seemed to be drinking – a Santa Christina Toscana made by the Antinori family. It was not expensive but it tasted great!

Working in Africa in the ‘70s, I “discovered” Pinotages from South Africa. I also came to realize that its Cabernet Sauvignons were as good as or better than any other country’s. They were not available in the US due to anti-apartheid trade barriers. Many years later I attended a party in Macau where everyone had to bring a wine. The winner was an excellent heavy red Portuguese wine.

And back in the US, there were my wine shop buddies who always had a new wine for me to try. Life was good.

Meetings of the American Association of Wine Economists

In 2012, I joined the American Association of Wine Economists and attended a couple of their annual meetings, one in Princeton and then in Stellenbosch. At the latter, I had a chance to get re-acquainted with the Pinotages. Also, I learned:

  • Extensive research by economists had found no relationship between price and the wines people preferred – people were just as likely to favor inexpensive wines as expensive ones.[1]
  • We did a blind tasting and Bob Hodgson explained how to distinguish between accurate and inaccurate tasters.[2]
  • Dominic Chicchetti and Neal Hulkower argued back and forth on wine rating methods, including scores versus ranks.[3]

The Wine Tasting Setup at Stellenbosch

The Lenox Wine Club

With newly acquired knowledge on how to conduct blind tastings, I formed a 14-person wine club.All members were experienced in the sense that they had been drinking wine for 20 years or more. Over the next two and one half years, we did 10 blind tastings. For each tasting, we chose a varietal or other grouping of similar wines, with a wide price range for each tasting. The blind tastings were carefully done. We even built in a modified Hodgson test to identify our most accurate tasters. What did we learn? We learned again that price and taste were not correlated. In fact, we were more likely to prefer the least expensive wine to any other. The results were the same for our most accurate tasters as for the group overall. The findings are summarized in Table 1.

Table 1. – The Lenox Wine Club – Tasting Highlights

The findings are clear and unequivocal. The 3-liter boxes costing $16 were preferred to wines priced at over $80.

The Joy Is Gone

The blind tastings took the joy out wine for me. I have lost interest in trying new wines when I travel. I strongly believe that if I tasted a “new” wine against a box, I would prefer the latter. When I go to restaurants, I just ask for their cheapest heavy red. I don’t check in with my buddies at the local wine shop any more. For home consumption, I just buy Bota Boxes. I have moved on. The only things about wines that still interest me are decanters. I don’t like drawing wine directly out of a box to drink, so I first “decant” it.     

[1] Robin Goldstein, Johan Almenberg, Anna Dreber, John W. Emerson, Alexis Herschkowitsch, and Jacob Katz, “Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better? Evidence from a Large Sample of Blind Tastings”, Journal of Wine Economics, v. 3, no. 1 and Sébastien Lecocq and Michael Visser, “What Determines Wine Prices: Objective vs. Sensory Characteristics”, Journal of Wine Economics, vol. 1, no. 1.

[2] Robert T. Hodgson, “How expert are “expert” wine judges?” Journal of Wine Economics.

[3] Domenic Cicchetti,  “Blind Tasting of South African Wines: A Tale of Two Methodologies”, working paper no. 164, Journal of Wine Economics and Neal Hulkower, “Borda is Better.”

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