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Why do people buy wine?

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There’s a million reasons, of course, but one that’s interested me for years is why they’re willing to pay a premium for some wines and not for others. And in some cases, a huge premium.

The plain and simple fact is that a $1,000 wine isn’t ten times better than a $100 wine or 20 times better than a $50 wine. In fact, you could make a strong argument (which I guess I’m making now) that, once you get above a certain price, there’s less and less difference between wines. That $500 bottle of Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon isn’t necessarily better than a $50 Napa Cab.

We have to define what “better” means, though, before we can proceed. By “better” I mean the wine’s hedonistic or organoleptic or purely sensory qualities: the flavors, the way it feels in the mouth, the finish. In a great winemaking region such as Napa Valley, where the overall quality is as high as anywhere on earth, the consumer can rightfully expect a certain standard of excellence once the wine gets to, say, $40. This is why you can make a blind tasting and often a more modestly priced Cab will win.

Which returns us to the question: If the $500 Cab and the $50 Cab are so alike in objective quality, then why would anyone in their right mind buy the former?

Well, you have divined the answer, haven’t you, dear reader? It’s because, when it comes to paying these astronomical prices, there’s nothing objective whatever going on in the buyer’s mind. It’s all subjectivity.

How does this subjectivity work? We get a hint of the mechanism by reading this description of a tasting set up by a crafty Frenchman, Frédéric Brochet, who fooled a bunch of so-called connossieurs. “[He] decanted the same ordinary bordeaux into a bottle with a budget label and one with that of a grand cru. When the connoisseurs tasted the ‘grand cru’ they rhapsodised its excellence while decrying the ‘table’ version as flat.”

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, and of wine news in general, you’ve no doubt heard enough of these kinds of experiments to know that they demonstrate the point I’m trying to make: Your experience of the wine all depends on what you think you’re drinking.

My goal today, though, isn’t to reiterate this point, but to try and rehabilitate the reputations of people who routinely get fooled in these tastings, and to show that they’re not total idiots, and you shouldn’t condemn them as such. Instead, their very failure to perceive reality illustrates one of the best reasons to drink fine wine: because it satisfies, not just the senses, but the intellect.

When I taste Lafite Rothschild, for example, and I know what it is (nobody tastes Lafite blind), I have to admit my soul lights up. I get excited. I pay very careful attention, because this is, after all, Lafite. I know the back-story: First Growth of Bordeaux. Ancient history. One of the greatest red wines in the world. Thomas friggin’ Jefferson loved it. My reaction similarly would be the same as, say, being given the Koh-i-Noor diamond, as opposed to costume jewelry. If you gave me the Koh-i-Noor (you’d have to wrestle it away from Queen Elizabeth first), you just know I’d stare at it and bring it up to the light and look through it and ogle it and go ooh and ahh and remember that moment forever. Now, on my own, I’m sure I couldn’t tell the difference between the Koh-i-Noor and a cubic zirconium from QVC, but that’s precisely the point: in our little thought experiment, I do know the difference. And that makes all the difference.

This subjectivity explains why wines of equal or almost equal quality may vary so widely in price. The pleasure of drinking Lafite consists of far more than merely what the wine tastes like. This is something that’s hard for outsiders to understand, but which is easy for a wine geek. To think that you’re in a limited circle of people privileged to taste something as exclusive and expensive as Lafite boosts your love and appreciation of the wine. This may sound snobbish to some people, but it’s perfectly understandable. It’s occurring in the brain, the seat of thinking and understanding; and pleasuring that part of the cerebral cortex is as important as pleasuring the senses, maybe even more so.

So I’m arguing for some understanding for these poor schlemiels who get caught in these wine tasting entrapments. It could happen to you, it could happen to me, and in fact, it has. What it says about wine isn’t that it cheapens the experience or levels the playing field, but that it elevates wine tasting to a fine art whose appreciation requires knowledge and understanding. As the physicist/mathematician, Freeman Dyson, observed, “Mind and intelligence are woven into the fabric of our universe in a way that altogether surpasses our understanding.” What we think is, for each of us, reality; it’s our collective thinking that elevates Lafite to Grand Cru-ness.

  1. Tell a story attached to anything and the price goes up.

  2. Kurt Burris says:

    I’ve been lucky enough to hang around schools, people, or businesses with the money or connections to have pretty rocking cellars and by virtue of that have been lucky enough to taste some amazing wines. While some filled the bill (both the 61 1nd 62 La Mission Haut Brion still stick out), some where just really, really good. And some were just OK. Not that I sent them back, but the saying did cross my mind “The more you pay for a painting, the less likely you are to believe it’s a forgery.” Quality, just like beauty is, you say Steve, in the eye of the beholder.

  3. True enough, Kurt.

  4. Experiments have shown that branded aspirin actually reduces pain more effectively than generic aspirin, a clean Jeep is believed to run better than a dirty Jeep and, as you point out, the more you pay for a wine, the more actual pleasure you experience in your brain.

    I like your point that “pleasuring [the seat of thinking and understanding] is as important as pleasuring the senses.”

    Speaking of pleasures, I enjoy your thoughtful essays, Steve.

  5. Thank you, Deb.

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