Wine's finest might be all in the mind

May 13, 2008|By TIM ROWLAND

I've had this ongoing debate in my head for some time now: Is it worthwhile to become an expert in the area of one consumer good or another, simply for the pleasure of paying more for it?

Ignorance might or might not be bliss, but one thing's for certain: Ignorance is cheap. Or at least cheaper. In all, I've come to believe there is a fine line between being an aficionado and an aficionadupe.

If you know nothing about cigars, a $425 Montecristo No. 2 from 1961 isn't going to give you any more pleasure than a Swisher Sweet. Probably less, in fact.

Art is kind of the same way although, unlike a consumable, it's not gone in a matter of minutes. But the more you know, the more you have to spend to be satisfied. For bank account purposes, I almost wish for the days when my artistic desires could be satiated by Steve Tyler belting out "Walk This Way" on an Aerosmith poster.


But at least with art, education means something. Apparently that might not be the case with wine.

An upcoming book called "The Wine Trials" chronicles the results of consumer taste tests, once all the fancy labels and vineyard reputations are stripped away. As it turns out, the average wine lover might not be paying for something that's better, but something that they have been told is better.

The New York times says, "(I)n recent months, American wine drinkers have taken their turn as pop culture's punching bags. In press accounts of two studies on wine psychology, consumers have been portrayed as dupes and twits, subject to the manipulations of marketers, critics and charlatan producers who have cloaked wine in mystique and sham sophistication in hopes of better separating the public from its money."

The blind taste tests didn't do much to disprove this theory.

A $10 bottle of champaign, not from Champaign, but from Washington state, beat out a $150 Dom Perignon. The Charles Shaw cabernet, affectionately known as "Two Buck Chuck," beat out a Napa wine costing 25 times as much.

Personally, I think this is great news for people who genuinely like wine. There's plenty of good wine out there that's available without spending a fortune. But it is terrible news for people who genuinely like looking down their noses at people whose tastes are not as "sophisticated" as theirs.

As a matter of fact, now there is a very real danger that people enjoying cheap wines will start looking down their noses at the snobs. Is nothing sacred? Part of the joy of wine is to be able to sit there and sniff and swirl and gush about "legs" or "balance" or "finish" to the point where you don't know whether they're talking about a generoso or a gymnast.

But now if you're enjoying an $80 bottle, you risk getting sideways looks from the table next to you, as they chuckle and whisper about you being a gullible stooge.

But there is hope. The Times story goes on to say that psychological studies show people who pay a lot for a bottle of wine really get more pleasure out of it than they do a cheap wine - not necessarily because it's better, but because they think it's better.

So there you go. If drinking expensive wines makes you happy, by all means, order up.

At the very least, you know you're making the bottler happy.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or via e-mail at You can listen to his podcast, The Rowland Rant, on

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