Wine Notes: Wine Economist Karl Storchmann says, ‘Forget the snobs’

In an entertaining and informative read, Eileen Reynolds talks value, taste, trust and bull shit with economist Karl Storchmann, founder of the Journal of Wine Economics for Futurity.org:

On the correlation between price and taste:

A Journal of Wine Economics study of 6,000 blind tastings found that, when they didn’t know what they were drinking, most non-expert wine drinkers actually preferred inexpensive wine over the pricier kind.

Based on that, we all should just go for the palate- and budget-friendly Two-Buck Chuck and be happy, right? Not so fast, Storchmann cautions, citing a 2008 study (published in PNAS) that wired subjects up to fMRI scanners while they were tasting wines that they were told cost different amounts.

In the experiment, subjects said they preferred what was presented as a $90 wine over that presented as a $10 wine, even when what the researchers poured them was actually from the exact same bottle. Moreover, the drinkers’ brain scans showed that they weren’t bluffing about what they felt: The medial orbitofrontal cortex, a region of the brain associated with pleasure, showed higher activity when the subjects drank the wines they had been led to believe were expensive.

In other words, the satisfaction we get from consuming something we perceive as fancy is totally real. “You see this all the time at wine tastings,” Storchmann says. “Once you tell people this wine costs a thousand bucks, all of a sudden you hear ‘oh yeah, it tastes of rose petals’ and all this crazy stuff. If you believe that it is really good and tastes of leather, then it will be really good and taste of leather.”

On wine experts:

For a person who really loves and knows a lot about wine, Storchmann doesn’t have much patience for the snobbish culture that surrounds it. “Wine is made up of some percentage of grapes, but then there’s also a lot of bullshit,” he says. The notion that wine is something only those with lots of training and highly developed palates can properly enjoy was invented by wine experts, Storchmann insists. “They want you to need them.”

As economists, Storchmann and his colleagues are in a position to disrupt all of that by subjecting received wine wisdom to rigorous statistical analysis, and often the results are telling. In a pair of Journal of Wine Economics investigations, California winemaker Robert Hodgson found that expert judges at prestigious wine competitions gave different scores to the same wines that they tasted on different occasions, and that earning a coveted “gold” designation at one competition didn’t significantly raise a wine’s chances of receiving a the same at another at another.

And on the conservatism of the wine establishment and drinking local:

“90 percent of the entire wine press is here in New York, and twenty miles in front of their nose is outstandingly good wine for a very low price. Why has no one written about this?” Storchmann’s theory is that it’s just too risky, especially for young wine critics trying to make a name for themselves, to recommend something so…well, accessible.

“The locavore thing works for food,” he muses, but “there’s this crazy idea that we should drink wine that’s as from as far away as possible—that it should come from Australia or something. No one wants to write about a region that the wine press considers a laughingstock known for traffic jams.”

It’s a shame, because a “drink local” movement, in addition to helping get high quality wine into consumers’ hands at a fraction of the cost of imported bottles, could also dramatically reduce the industry’s environmental impact. Vineyards aren’t a terrible threat in terms of land use because grapes tend to grow in rocky areas where not much else will thrive, Storchmann says, but then there’s the costly matter of shipping finished wine (which is heavy due to its water content) around the world. For a New Yorker, choosing wine from New Jersey rather than, say, New Zealand, France, or even California could mean signaling a commitment to reducing the industry’s carbon footprint.

Read the rest.

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