a close-up of a pile of gold bars

A Lafite Rothschild Bordeaux sells for a minimum of around $500 a bottle, while humble brands like Charles Shaw and Franzia sell for as little as $2. But as far as “wine economists” are concerned, the level of correlation between the price of a bottle of wine and its quality is low or nonexistent. In a number of damning studies, they suggest that wine is not just poorly priced, but that the different tastes we describe in wine may all be in our heads.

A 2008 paper in The Journal of Wine Economics, for example, found that when consumers are unaware of a wine’s price, they “on average enjoy more expensive wines slightly less [than cheap ones].” Experts do not fare much better. The study could not conclude that experts preferred more expensive wine: “In sum, we find a non-negative relationship between price and overall rating for experts. Due to the poor statistical significance of the price coefficient for experts, it remains an open question whether this coefficient is in fact positive.”

In another experiment, critics tasted one red wine and one white wine. They described the red in language typical of reds and the white in language typical of whites. The problem? Both were identical white wines; the “red” had been tinted with food coloring.

Another study looked at the accuracy of the influential 100 point scale invented by wine critic Robert M. Parker Jr. By having judges at a tasting rate the same wine multiple times, retired statistician and hobbyist winemaker Robert Hodgson found that the judging was completely inconsistent:

“The judges’ wine ratings typically varied by ±4 points on a standard ratings scale running from 80 to 100. A wine rated 91 on one tasting would often be rated an 87 or 95 on the next. Some of the judges did much worse, and only about one in 10 regularly rated the same wine within a range of ±2 points.”

Year after year, Hodgson replicated his results. When he broadened his scope to results of hundreds of wine competitions, he found that the distribution of medals “mirrors what might be expected should a gold medal be awarded by chance alone.”

In March, we reported on these findings as we strove to determine what lies behind the price tag of a bottle of wine. As we have happily spent an extra $10 for a “nice” bottle, and at times felt certain that we suffered when we went with the thrifty purchase, we sought out an explanation for the economists’ and psychologists’ findings.

People in the wine industry responded nearly identically. They admitted certain shortcomings in the wine industry (that large-scale tastings dull critics ability to identify and enjoy wines, that scales ignore the subjective aspect of taste, or that 75% of the price is cachet), then maintained that they could generally identify wines they liked and that the great wines were in fact fantastic. But no one offered a rebuttal to studies that found zero correlation.

We admitted defeat, and wrote about how a wine’s price is primarily driven by factors of production (even if we were unsure that those factors impacted taste at all), branding, the existence of a large network of middlemen involved in distributing wine, and a healthy dose of snobbery and romanticism.

We refrained from drawing final conclusions about whether wine is a hoax. Others have not (see here and here, for example). They found a ready audience for their message of “Wine is bullshit.” But if wine is bullshit, does that mean that good beer, cheese, and steaks are as well?

Taste does not equal your taste buds

To understand why this may be the case, it helps to start by understanding what people mean when they say “taste.” Your taste buds tell you about the sweet, sour, bitter, umami, or salty qualities of food, but there is not a sum of each taste that equals the taste of fried chicken or fresh strawberries. Information from all 5 senses informs our perception of taste.

To test this out, try eating with your nose plugged, or remember back to your meals the last time you suffered from a stuffy nose. Just as smell and memory are closely linked, so too are smell and taste. And just as the information provided by senses other than our taste buds can make a surprisingly significant impact on how we perceive the taste of wine, the same is true for other foods and beverages.

Take color, which can trick us into tasting a nonexistent flavor in food in the same way it tricked the wine critics tasting white wine dyed red. As the New York Times reports:

When tasteless yellow coloring is added to vanilla pudding, consumers say it tastes like banana or lemon pudding. And when mango or lemon flavoring is added to white pudding, most consumers say that it tastes like vanilla pudding. Color creates a psychological expectation for a certain flavor that is often impossible to dislodge, [food chemist] Dr. Shelke said.

Sight is surprisingly crucial to identifying common foods. At Dans Le Noir, a restaurant that employs blind waiters to serve customers expensive dinners in a pitch black restaurant, diners are not told the menu. An investor in the restaurant explains that “After dinner we show them photos of what they ate and the menu, and they can’t believe it. They might get the difference between carrots and peas, but they confuse veal and tuna, white and red wine.”

There are many other examples of how information garnered from our other senses, including higher-order information, impacts our sense of taste. The surrounding environment makes a difference – we get more pleasure from food when surrounded by soft lighting. So too do our expectations: our experience with similar foods in the past, branding and packaging, and price tags all influence the taste and enjoyment we derive from food and drink.

Not all wine is the same

The best wine tasters in the world, formally speaking, are Master Sommeliers. There are less than 200 in the world, and to gain their title they must identify 6 wines in a blind taste test by grape variety, region of origin, and vintage. If we assume that the Master Sommelier title is not just a conspiracy to perpetuate the lie of wine, then their ability to pass the test seems to prove that not all wine tastes the same. But how do they succeed when “experts” can be tricked by red food coloring?

The answer, as reported by Psychology Today, is that expertise comes from applying good analysis and extensive knowledge:

Research shows that contrary to common thought, wine experts do not have more sensitive palates, per se. They don’t, for example, have lower thresholds for detecting a wine’s tannin and alcohol content. Experts are also no better than novices at tasting whether two wines are the same or different.

What makes [Master Sommelier] Steven Poe an expert is how he brings his formal knowledge of wine production to what he tastes. For example, Poe would be familiar with the flavor outcomes of malolactic fermentation —a process of secondary wine fermentation. In a blind tasting, he might notice one of the flavors associated with the process—a buttery texture, for example—and then attend to the other likely flavor results of malolactic fermentation including hints of yogurt and sauerkraut. This could help Poe narrow down a wine’s region and vintage.

Master sommeliers can still likely be tricked by feints such as dying white wine red. Or they may occasionally find cheap wines more enjoyable than expensive wines in a blind taste test. They do not drink wine, find it delicious, and say, “Aha! What a delicious wine! It must be a prestigious vintage.” Instead, they have the breadth of knowledge of different varieties to follow the clues in what they taste like Sherlock Holmes crossing out possible suspects. Identifying a wine as a French bordeaux rather than a $2 Charles Shaw wine may render the wine more enjoyable to him, but the effect would be the same as when he occasionally mistakes a $25 bottle for a $500 one.

What this means

People react strongly to studies suggesting that “good wine” does not differ from the most humble vintage. It’s particularly shocking because the price of a bottle of wine can vary from $2 to over $2,000. And given the way people use the language of wine to police class lines, they are particularly popular as ammunition in a cultural war against snobbery.

But what these studies really tell us is that our idea of taste as a constant, even if appreciated in subjectively different ways, is a fiction. Due to the complicated way that we experience taste – as an amalgamation of information from all 5 senses, our expectations, and how we think about what we are tasting – taste is easily manipulated.

Our enjoyment of good food is just as susceptible to trickery. Food dye can trick us into tasting a flavor like lemon or cheddar that is not actually present. Fish markets, restaurants, and sushi joints present less expensive fish as their more prestigious (and supposedly better tasting) peers unnoticed every day. This past year, Europeans happily ate up meatballs containing horsemeat, only expressing outrage when regulators revealed its presence.

Since a $5 wine can so easily be mistaken for a $50 wine, we encourage you to unabashedly reach for wine on the bottom shelf. We’ve applied this principle, often a bit self-righteously. But it should also give you pause about everything you eat and drink. If you boycott expensive wine, should you also avoid sushi and seafood restaurants because you know that cheap fish can be just as enjoyable? Embrace fast food chains’ practice of diluting the quality of their meat? If wine is bullshit, then isn’t everything else we eat and drink bullshit too?

This post was written by Alex Mayyasi. Follow him on Twitter here or Google Plus. To get occasional notifications when we write blog posts, sign up for our email list.