Wine Talk

Snooth User: Jason Benjamin M

Just HOW Subjective is Wine Preference?

Original post by Jason Benjamin M, Jul 2, 2011.

When I first took up wine as a true hobby a few years back, I assumed that what makes a wine enjoyable was about 50/50... Half of the credit goes to the consumer, each of whom has a unique set of habits, preferences, and neural networking. The other half goes to the vintner, who carefully selects his crop, critcally oversees the winemaking process, and delivers a high-quality product that can be ubiquitously enjoyed around the world.

But as I started to keep fervent notes on the wines I was drinking (thank you Microsoft Excel), I started to notice one dominant trend... In short: THERE WERE NO TRENDS.

Okay, that's not entirely true. I have personally given higher ratings to Italian reds and California Cabernets (among others), but I think we can all agree that regional and varietal preferences can be completely attributed to personal preference. I'd never be so callous as to declare Merlots and Australian reds as somehow objectively inferior because I'm not a big fan of them...

Instead, I'm talking about the two extrinsic factors that allegedly determine how enjoyable a wine is:

1. Price per bottle. Using simple logic, a $25 dollar wine must be twice as good as a $12 wine, right?

2. Wine opinions from poncey sources such as wine magazines (Wine Spectator), world-renown experts (Robert Parker), and local pundits (wine shop staff and personal friends).

Indeed, my precious Excel spreadsheet includes the price of each bottle I try, as well as the source of inspiration for buying the wine, including the occasions when I choose a a wine completely on instinct ("Oooh, that label is pretty!").

Again, despite all these wonderful sources of wine information, no trends have emerged. I have loved $6 wines, hated $30 wines, and vice versa. I have loved wines given by friends, and hated wines lauded by Wine Spectator. I even bought the ever-popular Wine Trials book (, and have used it to discover new wines from outstanding to downright undrinkable.

Furthermore, my own instincts are apparently just as good (and bad) at picking out a wine as Wine Spectator and Robert Parker. One of my personal favorites (a $10 Nero D'Avola), as well as a truly terrible wine experience (an $8 Merlot/Cabernet from Californa), have both stemmed from my own random crapshoots at the local wine store.

I'm starting to think that wine preference is not really 50/50. By my experience, It's 100/0 in favor of the consumer. But that doesn't discourage me one bit. If anything, it sets the stage for a never-ending quest: finding the perfect wine for me. Which of course, will be different than the perfect wine for you.

After all, who cares what Robert Parker thinks? As long as you're happy at the very moment the wine touches your lips, the vintner has succeeded.

Please do respond with your thoughts on the subjectivity of wine preference.

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Reply by JonDerry, Jul 6, 2011.


I've often wondered about the efficiency of the wine market, or the lack thereof.  Like any business, a big portion of the inefficiency comes down to the marketing and branding that allow some wineries to get a higher price tag over others that may have a better product.  I'm sure you know of some restaurant chains in your city that have average food, but are able to get tons of customers and charge higher prices than a smaller, lesser known place with better food. 

Also, a big factor is how educated consumers are about the wine they drink.  In most cases, people are introduced to wine at restaurants and grocery stores.  They just buy what they know, or what looks good to them on the shelves.  I'm also guessing that a big chunk of wine drinkers are up there in age, and aren't as much a part of the information age, and researching wines online. 

Anyway, the factors of market inefficiency are long, but the game is slowly starting to change and i'm sure it will be very different in five to ten years. People are starting to look more and more for value, though certain grapes and regions remain in high demand and those tendencies figure to be slower to change.

Reply by lingprof, Jul 7, 2011.

Wow, I'm surprised that this seemed to spark a lot of controversy!  I quite liked it, as a kind of "relative newcomer's view of the wine world."  A few comments:

1) Is it possible, JB, that there's some self-selection in your buying that is affecting the ratings?  i.e. we know you didn't try a truly random sample of $8-$10 wines.  I bet you skipped right over the Beringer, Fetzer, Sutter Home, etc.  So I'm guessing you got most of those at local wine stores you trust or through friends' recommendations, so that they started out likely to be better than the "average" wine at that price.  Does that sound plausible?

2) I think there is a difference between *preference* and *quality*, and I do maintain the faith that there's at least a vague correlation between price and the latter.  If you took a $10 Merlot at random, and a $60 Merlot at random, and had 100 people try them, I'm pretty sure a majority would prefer the latter.  And if 50 of those people had done some previous experimenting with wine tasting, I bet they would all be able to tell which was the more expensive wine (due to higher complexity), even if a few shrugged and sheepishly admitted they *preferred* the cheaper one.  Now if you took a $60 Merlot and a $60 Pinot Noir and gave them to 100 random people, they'd probably be much more split on the preference. 

2b) I'm talking statistical probabilties here.  I personally did a wine tasting where a $6 supermarket cab beat out a $25 chilean cab unanimously in terms of which we thought was more expensive, as well as preference.  But I had "stacked the deck".  I was shocked by that cheap wine when I opened it, and that was part of what inspired the tasting.  If I picked 10 more pairings like that at random, I bet that in at least 9 of them, the pricier wine would win.

3) I just frickin LOVE spreadsheets!!  My wine list and notes are actually in a word document.  But someday I dream of transferring them over so I can sort by my own ratings on things like "boldness", "food-friendliness", "spicyness", etc.  ;-)


Reply by lingprof, Jul 7, 2011.

whoops, the linguist mis-spelled spiciness, lol!


Reply by Richard Foxall, Jul 7, 2011.

lingprof: Forgiven for the misspelling.  It's summer break, after all. ;-)

But here's an interesting question:  Taste a $60 cab and a $10 pinot and see who prefers what.  Now switch: $10 cab and $60 pinot.  Do  the same people prefer the same variety?  How many people move from one to the other?  How many people just like pinot more than cab, or cab more than pinot?  That would tell you quite a bit about the strength of preference vs. quality, esp if quality is correlated to price.  Pull the prices closer together and do it again. 

Also, people's preferences for some expensive wines probably come from being exposed to Bordos or Napa Cabs and not, say, good inexpensive Portugese reds from Dao, or Amador County Zins.  

I think price does not correlate well with "quality" very often--but blind tasting with mixed prices is necessary to figure that out.  Price is based (often) on marketing, perceived desirability (why is CdP so much more expensive than Vacqueyras? They practically touch, and there are vineyards literally on the other side of the stone wall from CDP that have to use Cotes du Rhone), and so on.  I think some of the best wines can be made by blending grapes, even of one variety, but take a Joel Gott, who buys from different AVAs and can't quite use one or the other because of the geographic spread. So he sells "California Cab" for a reasonable price, albeit a premium for anything without a smaller AVA designation.  But Silver Oak limits itself to a smaller choice of AVAs to maintain the Napa label (they buy grapes, don't be fooled, it's not an estate wine), limiting what they can do so they can still label it Napa.  It's still blended.  But they charge about 10x what Joel Gott does. And it sells out.  And it's not that good, IMO.

Your point about skipping over the big names at the lower prices is a really good one, and the effect on the correlation between price and perceived quality a good one. 

Reply by lingprof, Jul 7, 2011.

Good points, Fox. 

I should just clarify that when I say price and quality correlate somewhat, I meant loosely and at the extremes.  I do not believe that a $60 wine will probably be better than a $50 one, or that a $37.50 one is exactly 2.5 times as good as a a $15. 

I think, as I said, that it's mostly statistical.  And requires at least a little bit of trying stuff out.  Some people may honestly not be able to tell the $10 from the $60 ever. 

How much do I love your experiment about the switched cabs/pinots??  You know I'm going to absolutely have to do that one.  Although I'll probably go 10-40 or something.... Would also love to do a truly random sample by price point (no stacking the deck).  For example, roll that letter cube that comes with Scattegories and select the first $10 cali red you find starting with "R", a 20 one starting with "L", etc.

I wish we could get Snooth to fund some tasting experiments like this for Snoothers!!  I would volunteer to be the lab manager!  ;-)

Reply by GregT, Jul 7, 2011.

ling, Jason, et. al. - if you're really interested in the correlation btw price and quality, here's some reading from a buddy's website:

If your French isn't that great, here's some more from CA.  It's a few years old, but the general concept is current:

Then think about basic pricing issues.  Take Dell. Their genius wasn't better computers.  He started the business while in college.  He just realized that if he made 1% but turned his inventory every month, he'd be better off than the Compaqs of the world who made 5% but turned their inventory once a year.  That's one approach.

Then you have DeBeers. They had plenty of diamonds, enough to turn them into commodities. What did they do? 

Buy them from everyone else and keep them off the market.  How else can they charge you $4000 or $40,000 for a rock that's really worth maybe $40?  And they'd hire movie actresses or even "loan" them to movie actresses to make them seem more glamorous than they really are. In fact, the price of a diamond has NOTHING to do with it's rarity, it has to do with it's availability on the market. 

Recently, DeBeers spotted a marketing opportunity - they etch each diamond with a guarantee that it's DeBeers and let you know that means it's not a "blood diamond".  I guess that's almost like a winery telling you it's biodynamic.  Don't you just feel a little better about yourself for buying that one instead of another one?  And won't you pay just a little more money?

I'm drinking a wine right now. The bodega had dreams of putting it on the market at $50 retail.  Nobody ever heard of them and nobody bought the wine.  The importer dumped it and stopped carrying it and you could have bought it at $19 retail.  What's the real price?  Am I drinking a $50 wine or a $19 wine? 

Point is, the price is set by the market. The goal of the winery is to maximize price. Quality is intrinsic to the wine.  Value is determined by you.  Those are three different factors and you have to decide whether they're related or not.

Ratings, if they're honest, reflect what the critic thought.  But don't forget, if the producer took the critic to lunch the week before, or if he's the brother in law of the guy's daughter, maybe the critic gives him a few extra points.  After all, there's not that much difference between 89 and 92 except the fact that you'll be able to sell all of the wine at 92 and at 89 you may need to offer some discounts.

Reply by JonDerry, Jul 8, 2011.

I like the example about the $50 bodega especially Greg.

Have to wonder how many good value wines exist today because the producer doesn't raise their prices as aggressively as the market would allow.

Getting to know the best and worst pricing discrepancy's on the market is definitely a rewarding thing.

Fox - It's interesting, I hadn't thought about Silver Oak as buying their grapes, but it totally makes sense.  Definitely agree the wine is clearly one of the worst buys out there.


Reply by dmcker, Jul 8, 2011.

In Napa, Chappellet and Mayacamas are examples of quality wineriess that don't gouge. Hell, so are Dunn and even Togni (kind of) and I suppose Neyers. Ridge down in Santa Cruz has been pretty good for awhile, but methinks I do detect creep these days. Over in Bordeaux, Pontet-Canet used to be great value--for a very long time. But the RPmarketing machine together with rampant Bordeaux avarice (a virus that can't seem to be resisted, even if Poujeaux and Sociando-Mallet and Potensac are still hanging relatively tough), together with that extra bit of demand pressure from China, did their scruples in.

Yeah, Greg, the DeBeers example is textbook for a certain type of marketing. Have known some trustfund babies from that family, and had interesting talks with their elders. Also interesting is their collusion with Russian mining interests who at one time seriously threatened the franchise.

I'd say that bodega wine is definitely not a 50, but more like a 19. Empirical evidence points clearly. The interesting shades of the picture come from how supply and demand are massaged....

Reply by Richard Foxall, Jul 8, 2011.

dmcker: Ridge is definitely going up.  I agree about Chappellet, although the Pritchard designate is pretty darn expensive.  But the Signature is still very reasonable.

JD: good values because they don't price as aggressively as the market would allow?  Or are the others just not very good values?  I love winemakers and even a few owners, although the fact that you have to have money to get into to begin with (I know, exceptions exist, don't bombard me with them) means they tend to skew right of me and reflect a sense of entitlement.  Whatever.  The point is, I don't think anyone runs a winery as a charity, and as long as they feel the market will support a higher price, they will raise it.  Maybe GregT has the data, but how many wineries got a great score or made WS 100 and didn't raise the price?  Chappellet, but that's because they have been there before and it's built in.

Silver Oak bought grapes from Phelan, who then went out and built a winery based on the idea that Silver Oak's purchase meant they had a $100 wine... they could market it for $80 and rake it in, right?  Wrong.  You can now buy the winery--they couldn't sell the wine, even when they got pretty good reviews, and I think the bad label, unknown name, and dopey website are at least partly to blame--they were business people who understood distribution in other industries, so they had more on the ball than some folks.  But I just loaded up on the 2004 vintage, a steal at $15.  But not worth $80 and no way worth what SO charges.  Who have lovely wineries and not nearly enough land to be making the wine out of estate grapes. They don't exactly hide that on their website, but the presence of two wineries may make it look like, gee, there's the Alexander Valley property and the Napa. It's all part of the marketing.  It works:  When they release, there's a long line of Porsches at the gates, I am told. 

lingprof: You can do a tasting at differing price ranges by going to the pinot festival in SF and trying different things, but it won't be blind. You could do it at the Bordeaux thing that K&L puts on, too.  But I think designing experiments to determine where "quality" outweighs "preference," and whether price correlates with what most people view as quality, well, maybe that's my new calling.

If you want to do something like that, I would suggest spacing out the prices a little bit, with, say, 2 really inexpensive, 2 moderate, 2 premium and one or two "I can't imagine I could appreciate a wine that costs this much," whatever that means to you.  If you make them too close, I think it's hard to say what was just dependent on the retailer you bought from or minor discounts in the supply chain, vs. real market segmentation. Like, $10-15 cab (Liberty School, for one, a not bad option, and Clos du Bois), $20-40 cab, $60-75 cab, and a three digit bottle.  Just my sense of it.

No one in their right minds thinks the pleasure of a wine is linear to price, right? There's a pleasure just in tasting something rare, even if it's just a tiny bit better.  But now we're into the "is there an objective measure of wine quality." 

BTW, GregT, my intro to RdD was buying stuff that a distributor had gambled on.  Less than half of your bodega's eventual price, and made me a fan for life.  Maybe people like the points systems because the other "objective" (read: numerical) measure of price isn't working for them. Makes them comfortable for a while.  "Hey, it's a 90 point wine, and I got it for only $9." If dmcker says it's a $19 wine, that sounds like a good measure--he'd pay $19 and I have a pretty good idea of what he likes. Maybe all wine could be sold by auction--then it would sell for exactly what the person buying it thinks it's worth.


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