Price v quality: a question of psychology

Last updated 10:41 30/07/2014

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There is always an awkward moment when my wife and I go out to dinner at the homes of friends who don't share our interest in wine but are, nevertheless, partial to the odd drop out of a clean glass.

It comes when we present them on arrival with one, or a couple, of bottles of what they assume is expensive wine, as it usually is, and insist it's for their pleasure, not ours; that they should keep it till later and enjoy.

Which always seems to prompt the same apologetic thanks: "Sorry, but we only have . . . [usually something they bought on special from the supermarket earlier in the day]. We hope you like it."

My stock reaction is to ask "do you?", and when they say "yes", to tell them I'm sure that we will too.

The lecture about assuming that the wine we have given them must be better because it almost certainly more expensive I save till later.

We must never assume that expensive wine (let's say $30-plus a bottle) is better than wine that sells for less. The sad fact is that even if it was better most of us wouldn't be able to tell the difference anyway.

As one Australian writer recently pointed out, the price tag is not one of the characteristics that make a wine high quality. And she highlighted some of the numerous studies over many years that indicate that price, quality, and enjoyment of wine are essentially unrelated.

Among them:

In Britain, Hertfordshire University psychologist Richard Wiseman concluded after conducting a blind taste test that the chances of identifying a wine as cheap or expensive are about the same as flipping a coin - 50/50.

In 2007, researchers from the California Institute of Technology and the Stanford Graduate Business School found by scanning tasters with an MRI that wine they believed to be expensive was more enjoyable.

After a study in 2009, Johan Almenberg and Anna Dreber of the Stockholm School of Economics decided hosts can quite safely reveal the cost of the wine they are serving. "Much is gained if the wine is expensive, but little is lost if it is not."

But there was a twist: "Disclosing the high price before tasting the wine produces considerably higher ratings from women."

Almenberg and Dreber also concluded that people who have training in wine enjoy expensive wines more when unaware of the price, while untrained drinkers enjoy it less.

Don't know about you, but I have never heard a better argument for presenting your hosts with a bottle of sub-$20 wine and telling them the cost without blushing.

Some suggestions:

Selaks 2013 Reserve Hawke's Bay Chardonnay, $16
A surprisingly good chardonnay given the modest price tag. A typically rich and textural, peaches and citrus Hawke's Bay mix leavened with biscuits and spicy oak. A bargain.

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Main Divide 2011 Merlot Cabernet, $19.99
Another beauty from the great-value second label range at Pegasus Bay. A generous, blackberried, plummy mouthfiller with a whisper of vanilla and a couple of squares of rich, dark chocolate. Moreish.

Mission Estate 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, $16.50
A good example for beginners of this meatier red blend and a perfect match for roast lamb with rosemary. A tell-tale hint of tobacco on the nose but sweet, bright berries and spicy dark plums on the palate.

The Crossings 2013 Sauvignon Blanc, $18
A savvy that won't have anybody guessing exactly where it's from. The clues include cut grass, capsicum, gooseberry, herbs and citrus. It's from Marlborough, of course. A good, clean drop.

3 Stones 2013 Pinot Gris, $14
Okay, it's not a gold medal-winner but it does represent very good value for money if you like peaches, pears and lychees with a scrape of honey and a touch of sweetness. Fresh and enjoyable drinking.

- The Southland Times


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