Corbett Barr

Lifestyle Business Weekly

Cheap vs. Expensive Wine: Can You Taste the Difference?


Some friends had my wife and I over for dinner this past weekend. They cooked French food from a classic Julia Child cookbook, and we sampled wines from Sonoma Valley, California and Burgundy, France.

It was a great time, made even better by the stories that came along with the wine. We had recently visited the winemaker who produced the California wine with the friends who had us over that evening, so we reminisced about that weekend and some of our other trips up to Wine Country. Our friends then told us about the French wine, which they had picked up last month on a trip to Paris and Burgundy.

Living in the Bay Area, so close to the Napa and Sonoma Valleys, we’re pretty regularly exposed to wines and wine collectors. Most of the wine sold directly by smaller winemakers around here is fairly expensive by my standards. A bottle of white wine in Sonoma or Napa generally runs between $25 and $40, and a bottle of red will set you back $30 to $50 or more.

That’s a far cry from the $8 to $10 my wife or I would typically spend on a bottle from Trader Joe’s or the local market. That difference got me thinking this weekend. Can I taste the difference between cheap and expensive wine? Can anybody really tell the difference?

I’m not much of a wine drinker lately. I would usually rather have a beer, a scotch or a cocktail, like a gin and tonic. I used to drink more wine, but I’ve suspected recently that it (red wine in particular) might be the cause of migraine headaches I get from time-to-time (that’s a whole different story).

Back when I was a traveling business consultant with an expense account, I attended a lot of company and client dinners at big expensive restaurants. It wasn’t uncommon to drink red wines at those dinners from wineries like Far Niente, Silver Oak or Cakebread Cellars. Wines like that retailed for upwards of $80 and cost much more in the restaurant.

And wow, that wine tasted amazing. All of us at the dinners talked about how great the wine was, and which wines we liked most at the $100 a bottle price point. Funny thing is, I’ve never bought a bottle of wine that expensive when it’s on my own tab.

Looking back on it, it seems pretty funny that a 20-something American like myself who hadn’t even sipped red wine until I was 22 would suddenly be a wine expert specializing in high-end offerings. But, we all seemed to think there were mind-blowing differences between the high-end bottles and the free cheap bottle the hotel gave us at check-in for being a regular guest.

Maybe we could tell, maybe we couldn’t. I can’t really say because we never did any side-by-side tastings, and certainly didn’t try any blind tastings. I still haven’t ever tried a blind wine tasting to see if I actually prefer more expensive wines over cheaper ones.

That’s what got me thinking this weekend. How many people really can tell the difference between cheap and expensive wine? Are there really that many people with refined palates out there?

Science Has an Answer

It turns out that plenty of people have asked that very same question. Some scientists have even attempted to answer that question with double-blind studies involving 1,000s of tastings.

In particular, Robin Goldstein and a team from the American Association of Wine Economists wrote a paper about the issue called “Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better? Evidence from a Large Sample of Blind Tastings.”

The experiment was conducted in 2007 and 2008 and led to the findings in the paper I mentioned, as well as a book by Goldstein titled “The Wine Trials: 100 Everyday Wines Under 5 that Beat $50 to 50 Wines in Brown-Bag Blind Tastings” (affiliate link). Goldstein now also writes for the Freakonomics blog.

Over 500 people tasted wine flights composed from 523 different wines ranging in price from $1.65 to $150. They then answered the question “Overall, how do you find the wine?”

The bottom line is that in blind tastings of regular people, there is no correlation between the wines they like and the price of the wine. In fact, the paper found a slightly negative correlation, suggesting that regular people actually prefer cheaper wines.

Among wine experts (people with formal wine training), the test found a slight positive correlation between the price of wine and the scores assigned by the reviewers. Experts, it seems, really do prefer more expensive wine according to the experiment. About 12% of the participants were labeled “expert,” because they had some wine training, such as a sommelier course.


How Does Price Influence Us?

So, if non-experts actually prefer cheaper wines, why were all of us young business consultants so convinced that the expensive wines were so sublime? Were we all experts? Definitely not. As I mentioned, I had only been drinking wine for a year or two before becoming smitten by the good stuff, and I had definitely not had any formal training. None of my colleagues had any formal training either.

Now, it is possible that someone without formal training could actually tell the difference between cheap and expensive wine. A non-expert could even prefer the expensive wine. But certainly we didn’t all have naturally refined palates.

The reason for our preference was the subject of another test, conducted by Johan Almenberg and Anna Dreber of the American Association of Wine Economists. The results of their test were published in a paper earlier this year called “When Does the Price Affect The Taste?”

Almenberg and Dreber’s test found that people (especially Women) assign a considerably higher rating to wine when informed before tasting that the wine retails for $40 a bottle.

I wasn’t really surprised by the results of either test. As consumers, we’ve been conditioned to expect a positive correlation between price and quality. Ever hear the saying “you get what you pay for?”

It turns out that in wine and other “positional goods” (what economists call products and services whose value is mostly a function of their desirability), price is often used as a marketing tool. A more expensive price signals value, affluence and high status to potential customers.

The wine “experts” who rate wines for big magazines can have a big affect on what we like, but not necessarily because we think the wines taste better. The wine ratings in major publications are highly correlated with the price of wine, meaning a more expensive wine is likely to score higher.

As consumers, we often prefer the more expensive good or service over the cheaper one, even though the cheaper one might satisfy us better. This may be because we enjoy the status that expensive things convey upon us. Your friends know that you like expensive wine, so they perceive you as being high class.

It could also be that we prefer more expensive products just because we’ve been conditioned to expect them to be higher quality. That’s the power marketing has over us.

Maybe Economics Alone Misses the Point

Thinking about these results, I can’t help but think there’s something about the way economists look at things that misses the point. When you reduce wine simply to how it tastes in a clinical setting, yes, you can say that people are wasting money on more expensive wine that they don’t even really prefer.

In real life there are so many other reasons you might enjoy a bottle of wine. The place and setting you drink it in, the friends you’re with or the food you pair it with all come to mind.

Thinking back to our dinner with friends this weekend, it’s clear that anything a blind tasting might tell us about the wines we were drinking would have almost been irrelevant.

Our friends collect wine for the experience. They love getting to know the winemakers, attending events, talking about wine and spending leisurely Sunday afternoons with friends in Wine Country.

They may or may not have “expert” tasting abilities. And who really cares? They can afford the wine and it makes them feel good to buy it. It’s much more fun than reducing life to economics.

Still, I can’t help but wonder, could I tell the difference between cheap and expensive wines? It would be an interesting experiment. I may just have to find out.

Can you tell the difference? Does it matter?

photos by rpeschetz and emurray.

Corbett Barr

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  1. Well….I can tell a little bit. For example, Yellow Tail is absolute crap….it just is. However, my wife and I regularly (actually exclusively) buy our wine from Trader Joe’s because:

    1. It’s cheap
    2. It’s damn good

    They don’t have all of the marketing overhead that some of the big box retailers have or even your local grocery story has. They buy direct and pass the savings on to you.

    People perceive expensive wine as tasting better because there is an implied assumption that the more something costs, the better it is. It happens every day. If you pay more, you must be getting a better product, right? Well, not always and it’s a key marketing tool I’m sure all of us have heard about launching products and ebooks and that we shouldn’t price it too low because there will be a perception that it’s crap if it doesn’t cost a certain amount. Same is true with any other product.

    Another example is Vodka. Skyy vodka was created purely on marketing. It wasn’t produced to be a good vodka. Instead they said, ‘let’s go out and test people…see what they’re drawn to,’ and they came up with a pretty blue bottle and fancy name. Same goes with Grey Goose. If you put that alongside, let’s say, Svedka…can you actually tell the difference?

    I believe you’ve hit it head on with the power of marketing over consumer choices.

    Finally, I’m glad to hear that you like scotch! I’m a scotch drinker myself.

    • @Nate – Second the Trader Joe’s recommendation. My wife and I got most of our wine from there or Costco. It’s cheap and good.

    • We’ve heard the same thing about Trader Joe’s, and I think that’s why we buy wine there. Supposedly they have lower markups and wine buyers who know what’s good.

      Vodka is a great example of marketing. Why would one brand cost 3-4x what another costs? Are they using grains or a process that is much more expensive? Doubtful. They definitely spend more on marketing though, by sponsoring events, etc.

      Does scotch fall into the same realm of marketing? Hmm, maybe I like that Laphroig Quarter Cask because of marketing? I’m envisioning some blind taste tests of all kinds…

      • Ok….you like Laphroig? Awesome man, awesome. I have a bottle on the shelf right now. 10 year though, not Quarter Cask.

        I really don’t think scotch falls into the same realm. There really isn’t a lot of traditional media advertising for scotch. You don’t see advertisements for it in magazines or on TV (at least not the ones I read or shows I watch). I’ve heard that gin is gaining some popularity again, so it will be interesting to see how the advertising and marketing increases for that.

        Not positive where you’re located. California? At any rate, if I’m out there I’ll have to drop you a line so I can buy you a couple fingers of a nice single malt! Cheers.

    • Jon

      I’m gonna have to disagree with you about the vodka differences. I’m actually allergic to cheap liquors. I actually break out with hives if I have something too cheap and it’s because they don’t filter cheaper alcohol as much as they filter higher priced ones. As far as wine, I think it’s usually bs when they give a bottle a high price.

    • jessieessex

      Almenberg and Dreber’s test found that people (especially Women) assign a considerably higher rating to wine when informed before tasting that the wine retails for $40 a bottle.

      I like the parenthetical reference to women and the word “especially”. What does that mean? I assume both men and women were tested, I assume more women were swayed by the price, the word called for would be “more” rather than “especially” which is an emphasizing word. So, I assume that women who were swayed by the price tended to rate the wine much higher than the handful of men who were not swayed by the price but just not wine savvy.

      Lesson I learned is that if you tell a woman it is expensive, she will like it more.

  2. If you like whites, like I do, you can’t go wrong with Trader Joe’s house-brand Chilean Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay which both go for $3.99/bottle where I live. I keep them in my house all the time for casual drinking (with or without friends). Sauvignon Blancs from Chile tend to be very, very good at amazing prices.

  3. The placebo effect is a powerful thing, and I’m just as happy to get additional quality from a well-constructed brand (which is what makes wines more expensive, usually…they generally don’t cost anything more to make) as a wine-grown grape.

    Both methods add value, and my senses don’t know the difference!

    • Hey Colin, I know you’ve written about the power of marketing and the placebo effect before. I’m with you, even though I know about the placebo effect, I still enjoy good branding enough to pay more for products sometimes.

  4. Ash

    “As consumers, we’ve been conditioned to expect a positive correlation between price and quality. Ever hear the saying ‘you get what you pay for?'”

    While unrelated to wine (although I *do* love a good glass…or 8….and don’t discriminate against the Franzia boxed variety, either), the saying you quoted above just goes to reflect our society’s erroneous thought patterns that more money = better, as you said. I often ponder all of the implications that probably result from that, but the point is that it’s interesting to study these sayings and phrases that we often take to heart and guide our lives with, and notice the values that are reflected as a means of understanding ourselves, and others. My favorite example is “The early bird gets the worm,” which clearly communicates our cultural value of both individualism (and, hence, competition) as well as our beliefs about time, and how faster = better.

    Now take the following Costa Rican saying, and compare/contrast: “Why do today what you can do tomorrow?”

    The underlying cultural assumption is on the exact opposite side of the spectrum.

    Food for thought! :)

      • Ash

        Yes, Pura Vida! I’m headed down there for a month in a couple of weeks to chill out & catch up with old friends, maybe explore Panama a little…looking forward to it! Pura vida, solo bueno!

        • Have fun in Costa Rica and Panama! It sounds like you’re looking forward to adjusting back to the pace down there. We’re headed to Mexico for a couple of months in January. I can’t wait to get a break from the American way of life for a while.

  5. Just wanted to say that, being from that area myself, I totally relate to the desire to solve this mystery! So much of what we like in wine is personal preference and the power of suggestion. Having been a server in both a high end restaurant and a wine bar, I can tell you that when you ask about the wine on the menu and what it tastes like, it’s really hit or miss on whether the server’s been allowed to taste it at all. That being said, when I hadn’t tried something, I would talk about the primary taste qualities of that specific varietal (because I’m a huge wine dork) and return to the table to see how the wine went over. It’s amazing when you say something tastes like chocolate how many people will just agree with you. Undertones of plum? Definitely!

    Also, if you’re getting migraines it might be due to another American marketing phenomenon in the wine industry. As I’m sure you’re aware, American’s are quite fond of knowing what they’re getting when they buy something. And if it’s the same thing they’ve bought before, they look to have the exact same quality as the first time.

    This is a more or less natural impossibility with wine making. Weather conditions vary from year to year, different grape batches from the same year will have varying levels of mold or ripeness, there are always differences in barrel aging, etc. This is what makes wine making an artform. You don’t always end up with something good. But being that many of the well known wineries sell wines in the low to mid price point, targeting the masses in America who are looking to buy a brand they have heard before and taste the same thing they have had before, there is a lot of added sugar and chemicals to maintain consistency. This could be what’s causing your headache (and I’m not talking about sulphites – there’s more sulphite in a slice of bread than in a bottle of wine). Try sticking to family owned wineries when your drinking US wine (I’d be more than happy to send you a list of my favorites from the Healdsberg and St. Helena areas). Smaller artisan wines tend to be more along the lines of European style wines.

    That’s all. Happy tasting! This was a great article!

    • It’s weird that a restaurant would expect their servers to sell wine, but not to have tasted it themselves. From what I gather, the higher end and more “foodie” restaurants pretty much require servers to taste everything on the menu.

      Thanks for the tip about chemicals and sugar in the wine. I’ve tried to narrow the source of the migraines for a while, but haven’t really found any rhyme or reason (except a strong correlation with drinking red wine).

  6. People are quite fortunate if they can’t tell the difference between cheap vs. expensive wine…..they can spend a lot less money.

    There are always lesser expensive wines that will taste better than some wines that are more expensive. Overall, the cheaper wines are less complex.

    The bottom line (as always) is drink what you enjoy!

  7. “Almenberg and Dreber’s test found that people (especially Women) assign a considerably higher rating to wine when informed before tasting that the wine retails for $40 a bottle.

    I wasn’t really surprised by the results of either test.”

    Me either, brother!

    You’re right – standard economics fails to capture the full decision making process. Behavioral economics, however, tries to make up for this – and is just what Freakonomics, and the wine book, is all about. I just finished reading Predictably Irrational which is all on the same subject – using behavioral economics to explain the decision making process. What I’m trying to get at is that I read books.

    • Freakonomics is one of those books people have been telling me to read for years now, but that I haven’t gotten to for some reason. Is that another recommendation?

  8. My dad is a long time red wine drinker and knows his wine and he spends on average 2€ for a bottle. You have some cheap wines that taste like crap and you have wines that cost 3€ that are great! When you buy bottles from 10 to 25€ you can expect better quality but it still comes down to personal taste and how you drink it. The more expensive red wines tend to have stronger tastes that most people don’t like, and only the experts “understand” them. I did an internship in a Michellin stared restaurant with a huge wine cellar. There I had the opportunity to sell and taste some wines with price tags from 175€ to 2950€ on a day to day basis and there are some great wines, but the prices are still ridiculous!

  9. I for one, cannot really tell the difference between cheap and expensive wine. I watched this: John Cleeses wine for the confused. They do a little taste test near the end, and different people liked cheap or expensive wines, or whatever. The answer at the end was, “Drink what you like” Doesn’t matter if it’s cheap or expensive, (well as long as you can afford it!) as long as it tastes good to you! I like a wine called Paisano, it comes in nice big jugs, and it’s pretty much what my family defaults to when we have a big get together. It’s cheap, and tasty. Can’t go wrong!

    • Thanks for the tip. It looks like they do a blind tasting in the film. I’ll check it out (it’s on Netflix watch instantly, FYI).

  10. Funny. . . my husband and I were just talking about this today. We were in a Whole Foods and there was a wine importer in there offering a “special” on $150 bottles of red, for “only” $120. I tasted it, and it tasted great. Then we told him it was out of our price range and asked what he’d recommend. He took us to a $9.99 bottle that he said was made at the same winery as his stuff. He said there were some subtle differences, but for most people, the $9.99 bottle was just fine.

    I’m getting ready to open it up. We’ll see how it compares.

  11. Exactly. “Made at the same winery” and “subtle differences” says it all, doesn’t it?

  12. Hi Corbett,
    I’m with you concerning the preference of cheap wines vs. the more expensive ones but would also like to introduce a different view.

    I think there is a big difference between the taste of wine and the perceived taste. The first is only extracted by the actual tasting of the wines and involves all of your senses. The perceived taste is way more complex and is derived from marketing, price perception, social pressure, mood etc. The quality of the wine is just a small component in this one.

    When wine is sold for $9.99 and for $99.99 the taste is the same. But the perceived taste of those wines can be completely different.


  13. Julie

    We buy wine according to “points” rather than price. We look for points in the 90 point range. If you go to BevMo – they have all the wines by points. I’ve had expensive wines that I didn’t like and less expensive wines that I like. Usually you can find good 90+ point wines around the $15.00 range. And if you read the descriptions of the wines – you can select by points and taste – much better way of wine selection than price! I go to Napa and get all caught up in the wine tasting at the wineries and buy the expensive wines and bring them home and then for some reason still enjoy my good personally selected bargains from the local store!

  14. A blind taste test a few years ago by Wine magazine had the experts picking the cheap wine as better. Price is just a number!

  15. Felix

    Ah..WINE. Wine is a world onto its own. It has its own history, culture and language. People either speak ‘wine’ or they don’t. Wine appreciation is something that is acquired and it takes a long time and most likely a bit of monetary due. It is not something that you can get reading a book, second hand from someone else’s tasting or try a couple of different wines and come to any worthwhile conclusion. Aside from what one likes or dislike, wine is like modern art or jazz music. To the casual observer, a master’s great work looks the same as a child’s doodle or sounds just like a bunch of noise.

    It is true that there are good and not so good wines in each price category. There are good ten dollar wines and not so good ones just as there are good hundred dollar wines and so-so ones. It is also true that taste in wine is very subjective. That’s why the same wine is most often rated differently by the different authorities (Wine Spectator, Wine Enthusiasts, Robert Parker, etc.) BTW, stores generally quote the highest ratings from these authorities. By the same token, the taste of a wine can be altered due to the way it was stored, the way it is served (decanted, properly rested, temperature) as well as the glass it is served in. In general, better wines (more expensive ones) do cost more to make. Cost can increase based on the spacing and trimming of the vines, the method used in picking, selecting and crushing of the grapes, the care and method of making the wine such as the type of barrel used, as well as the timing of the bottling, etc. It is very difficult to make a great wine and sell it cheap commercially. Trader Joe’s is a clearing house for wineries when they want to have large quantities of wines cleared for some reason, be it over production, quality not up to the usual, expected standards or to make room for the newer vintage. Some better known or higher-end wineries will actually create a second label to do the clearing out of their wines thru TJ’s. No winery will ever strive to make wine to be sold at TJ’s and for some more prestigious brands it could be seen as a kiss of death. It is possible to get very good wines at very reasonable prices at TJ’s but the down side is if you do find something you liked, it may not be available anymore.

    I like wine and I like to think that I can generally tell a good wine from a not so good one. I drink wine pretty much everyday for at least the last twenty-five years. I have about a thousand bottles in my cellar. I belong to mailing lists of wineries that only sell their wines direct. I seek out wines from different regions of the world and different varietals. I make it a point to try the local wines (if they produce any) everywhere I travel to (sixty? plus countries). I am no expert by any means and I don’t know what the secret is. I wish I do! Last week, I went out to two nice restaurants for dinner. At each place I had two different wines. One place I had two wines in the hundred and fifty dollar each price range and the other place in the sixty dollar range. I selected all four but had not tried any one of them previously. At each place, one of the wines I thought was great and the other not so much and not worth the price. I wish it is as simple to pick a good wine as reading the label or the price tag. But then again, it would take the joy out of the whole experience, wouldn’t it? I will just have to continue to explore and keep tasting until I discover the secret!

    • Hey Felix, I think this is your first time commenting here, no? I should have known this subject would get you to write something ;)

      You’re absolutely right about their being a major difference between casual wine drinkers and wine “experts.” I think art is a great correlate to wine, in that most people have no idea why various different works would be considered better or more sought after by collectors and/or experts. I can’t imagine how different wine might taste to you after 25+ years of careful study ;). The broader point I was getting at in the article is how marketing and pricing influences people who don’t consider themselves experts in a particular field.

      Cheers! -Corbett

  16. As we have been traveling round the world, we try to frequently stop at wine regions to taste wine. We both are avid wine drinkers though by no means connoisseurs. Now, after several months frequently tasting top-notch wines, we tend to gravitate toward the expensive wines. The difference is this: expensive wines are usually hand made with the best grapes in older barrels and aged longer. As the tastings are free, we don’t even look at the price of the bottle until we are done tasting but, almost always, we end up liking the wine that is more expensive. It isn’t universally true — in some cases, we have preferred the $15 bottle to the $60 bottle, but, more often than not, we go for the more expensive bottle based solely on taste alone. Whether or not we buy the bottle is, of course, a different story.

  17. Well, I definitely recommend you a Romanian wine called “Lacrima lui Ovidiu”, or, if you enjoy more heavy, “Busuioaca de Bohotin”. They’re close to cognac but have a very unique taste.

  18. I understand but somewhat disagree with the gist of the article, though certainly agree with some of the points. I second Felix’s review. I am what you’d consider a wine aficionado, I love and study wine, have a certification, been a partner at a wine shop that conducts daily tastings, and I write about wine regularly on my Iron Chevsky blog at (pardon the plug). I have done a number of blind and non-blind tests, and participated in even more. There is no question in my mind (from my own evolution of drinking as well as from observing others) that generally more expensive wines are more nuanced, more balanced, have more interesting personalities and are of higher quality. I don’t believe you can find a GREAT wine in under-$20 range, though you can find many good wines. In under $8, you can find passable wines, but not anything seriously good. However, I do agree that when it comes to people’s enjoyment of the drink, it’s very common they will enjoy the 2-buck-chuck (I used to as well, years ago, when I didn’t know any better.). Juice tastes good too. As Alder Yarrow (perhaps the most famous wine blogger) once wrote to me – “for most people wine is no more complicated than ice-cream”. True – for most occassional drinkers, the juicier, oakier and sweeter the wine (even if they think they are drinking a dry wine), the more they like it – it’s primary and tasty and easy – the aspects we like when we are children. Over the years, with practice, experimentation and actually reflecting about what we are drinking, some people will continue evolving their palates. It is, IMHO is no different from appreciation of anything artistic or skilled – art, music, cinema, food. For most people, subtleties are lost and are not appreciated. They prefer loud and obvious, which are usually much easier to make – just dump a bunch of ketchup, mustard, salt and pepper – and voila! But master chefs use less to achieve more! I don’t think anyone would argue that there is a place for In-n-Out Burger (or whatever your favorite fast food joing) and for French Laundry (3-michelin star restaurant). Both can be enjoyed tremendously, and depending on one’s level of sophistication, they may wonder why anyone would ever spend $700 on a lunch at French Laundry. They are not *wrong* in their enjoyment – simply limited.

    As for the power of suggestion, I agree absolutely, and plan on writing an entire blog article on that, having had quite a bit of experience.

    Best regards,
    Iron Chevsky.

  19. Mark

    Here’s an interesting study which shows overwhelmingly that people thought a wine tasted better when charged $90 instead of $10:

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