It's only plonk if you look at the price tag
So you think you can tell fine wine from plonk without reading the label? You might be deluded because, economists say, our grasp of wine's class and worth is shaky. Several scathing studies suggest we are suckers for mystique and marketing - the price tag-driven power of suggestion.
According to the industry blog The Wine Economist, the wine retailing industry's "dirty little secret" is that we automatically lean towards dearer brands. On the hunt, we look at least for a mid-range bottle, irrespective of other dynamics, swayed by the brainwashed belief we should spend proper money. Nobody wants to look crass.
Our unease about buying plonk is exploited by supermarkets. Cheap brands are shelved near the floor, forcing anyone who feels moved to buy an everyday table wine to stoop - so demeaning.
The contrarian case for still taking the low-rent road and picking plonk is anchored in an anecdote about wine tycoon Ernest Gallo. The Wine Economist recounts how, during the 1930s, Gallo poured a customer two glasses of wine, saying that one sold for 5¢ and the other for double. Both were the same, but guess which the customer chose - the 10¢ one.
"Clearly, the customer wanted to buy an identity - the image of someone who wouldn't drink that 5¢ rotgut - even if he couldn't actually taste the difference," The Wine Economist says.
The mystery client's suspect belief that pricey wine has more class than its low-cost counterpart is widely shared, science shows.
In 2001, the cheeky University of Bordeaux researcher Frederic Brochet ran two experiments. In one, Brochet tested the impact of labelling, presenting the same Bordeaux superior wine to 54 volunteers in two different bottles: one fancy, one plain. Duly duped, although they were tasting the same wine, the volunteers ranked the wine from the "expensive" bottle higher than the wine from the "cheap" bottle. In the second humiliating test that underlined the depth of consumer naivety, Brochet had 54 volunteers taste white wine dyed red with food colouring. Incredibly, all failed to sense it was fake.
Further evidence that we are blind about wine comes from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). In a 2008 Caltech study, 20 volunteers connected to brain scanners sampled a range of wines.
The Caltech study showed that our brains feel more pleasure when we think we are drinking a $45 wine instead of a $5 bottle - even when the vino is the same.
It gets worse. In 2011, a British psychologist devoted to exposing the frailties of human perception, Richard Wiseman, ran a double-blind wine test featuring stock ranging from a $5 Bordeaux to a $50 champagne.
The 578 experiment participants rightly identified pricey varieties only half the time - the same level as guesswork. Go for the plonk, Wiseman advised.
Wiseman's subversive findings spurred former Wired writer Jonah Lehrer to say that, if pricey wines taste no better, then the wine sector has no business model. "It's yellow tail all the way down," Lehrer wrote.
Clearly, the case for spurning that costly vintage fancifully linked with some chateau is strong - it might well taste like vinegar.
Worse, the pate that accompanies your fancy wine could be just as dubious. A 2006 study published by the American Association of Wine Economists found that most people cannot tell pate from dog food. Remember that the next time you seek a snack to go with your snobby grand cru.