Much has been written about a scientific ‘study’ by psychologist Richard Wiseman which showed that people can’t tell the difference between cheap and expensive wine. (See, for example, this report this report in The Guardian and this report in the Telegaph.)
But, in this world of soundbyte news reporting, it’s just the headline message that is reported, with few of the important details. So I feel I need to make some comments, because the coverage has left everyone with the impression that there is no readily discernable difference between cheap and expensive wine.
This is a message many people would like to believe, but it’s not true.
Wiseman, a psychologist from the Hertfordshire University, is one of the seven-strong advisory group for the Edinburgh International Science Festival (www.sciencefestival.co.uk), and it seems that this ‘study’ was in essence a clever publicity stunt to boost the profile of the festival by generating column inches—one that worked very well. It was not designed as a proper scientific study, although this is how it has been reported.
Almost all the news articles on Wiseman’s stunt lack any comment on the methodology, beyond reporting that 578 festival-goers were given wine to taste ranging from cheap to more expensive, and that they couldn’t tell the difference.
There is a single, crucial detail that is absent from these reports. It was not a comparison between two wines, one cheap and one expensive. Instead, subjects were given just a single wine to taste, and then asked to say whether it was cheap or expensive. ‘To keep it as realistic as possible, we presented them with a single glass of wine and they had to say whether inexpensive or expensive,’ revealed Wiseman when I asked him about this.
This makes the results, which showed that people had a more-or-less random chance of getting it right, unsurprising.
Tasting wine blind is difficult. Being asked whether a wine in front of you is expensive or inexpensive is a difficult task indeed. It would still be difficult, but considerably less so, if the subjects had been offered a comparison of two wines to chose between.
There is also a confounding factor. For supermarket wines, such as those used in this study, quality and price are not always well aligned.
Wines purchased from the producer for the same cost can end up at very different prices. A supermarket may pay a grower 1 Euro per bottle and then list the wine at £4.99 (a standard mark-up, given tax and logistical costs). They may then buy another wine for 1 Euro and list it at £7.99 or even £9.99, with a view to discounting it later. This is common practice. Also, you could get a much better wine for £6.99 from a less fashionable region (e.g. the Languedoc) than from one more fashionable (e.g. Burgundy), simply because some wine regions offer much better value for money.
The relationship between price and quality is so tenuous in supermarkets that, in this sort of study, you could get pretty much whatever result you wanted if you were canny about which wines you chose. I’m not suggesting this is what went on here, but it’s certainly a confounding factor.
Then there is the more telling point about the value of expertise. There are many areas of human endeavour where I am unable to discern absolute quality because I lack expertise. Take visual art: I am not well enough versed in this area to tell you what is good and bad, but my lack of ability to discern quality doesn’t lead me to dismiss the entire enterprise.
Even if Wiseman’s study was rigorous and fair (which I don’t think it is), and came out with the same results, the lack of the ability of novice or inexperienced wine drinkers to discern quality in wine should not lead commentators to suggest that fine wine is all in the head, or is a load of nonsense.
Of course, knowing about a wine changes our perception of that wine. This is a really interesting and important observation. But aside from this, there are genuine differences in character and quality in wines that have their genesis in the chemical composition of the wine, itself influenced by the site characteristics of the vineyard, the growing season, and the winemaking process. It is these very real differences that make wine so fascinating. And it would be a shame if, through a publicity stunt dressed up as a piece of scientific research, people were put off exploring wine because they were led to believe that differences in wine quality are actually illusory.