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Trust Your Taste

By Michael Schiaparelli · May 21st, 2008 · Fermentations
A recent New York Times wine column reported on several studies that attempt to identify how a wine's price affects consumer perception. Apparently, "average" consumers tend to like a wine better if they think it costs more, while in totally blind tastings (where even cost is hidden) they seem to prefer "cheaper" wines over more expensive ones.

Now, I don't think anybody in the wine business is surprised by these findings. In fact, this phenomenon plays out regularly in Cincinnati at those quarterly Bacchanalian Society fund-raiser taste-offs. Inexpensive, mass-market, commodity wines tend to take top honors, while interesting, complex and often more expensive wines tend to show poorly.

What's going on here? Are savvy wine marketers conning the rubes into spending more for inferior products?

Of course not. "Average" folks just tend to prefer big, simple, straightforward, sweet flavors. We like Coke, margaritas, Apple Pucker martinis. Snickers bars. McDonald's burgers loaded with sugary sweet ketchup. Cereal with frosting or marshmallows or "Crunch Berries."

Add in the fact that Americans generally don't like to be challenged by what we put in our mouths.

Many actively reinforce this behavior, feeding our kids chicken fingers or mac-n-cheese from moronically universal "kids menus." Few encourage their kids to eat asparagus or Brussels sprouts -- let alone squid or 'gator or frogs legs or skate wings. Instead, we offer them frozen pizza and salty fries, then lament that they're "picky eaters."

We're encouraged to live lives of culinary sameness, and most of us learn to prefer ... culinary sameness. Not so surprising, is it?

Why, then, should we expect "average" consumers (at an appropriate age, of course) to prefer dry, balanced, subtly complex wines -- the kind that generally cost more -- over some god-awful pink plonk that tastes like Kool-Aid with a kick? Over time, of course, some will start drinking fruity, alco-bomb Aussie Shiraz and Spanish reds loaded down with American oak. And some might even learn to appreciate overpriced, name-brand Pinot Grigios or Napa Cabs that score well in the wine rags.

And, though they won't be "average" consumers by any definition, a precious few will eventually get it. They'll trust their palates. They'll be adventurous and rely on some passionate local retailers (like Mike Maxwell at Market Wines, 129 W. Elder St., Findlay Market, Over-the-Rhine) or restaurateurs (like Burke Morton, general manager of Lavomatic, 1211 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine) to turn them on to something new.

And those consumers won't give a rat's ass whether the wine in their glass costs $12 or $112. They'll appreciate it because it speaks to them in a new and exciting way, and because it proves that different and satisfying experiences lurk out there on the loneliest store shelves and most godforsaken corners of many wine lists.

So ignore the price. Try something new. Trust your taste. And for god's sake -- eat your Brussels sprouts!




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