First, a story:

   I had just moved to the Chicago area and needed to meet some people, so I sat on a folding chair in my new apartment complex courtyard. A neighbor came out onto his balcony and asked if I wanted to hang out. He had some friends in town and they were bored.

   As it often does, it came up that I work in wine. They asked about the difference between expensive and cheap wine. I geek out on these questions. After their protests, I ran home and grabbed two bottles of cabernet, both from California. One was under ten bucks and the other was around forty. I poured everybody a glass of each, and asked them which they liked more.

   After tasting both, my new neighbor said, "I can tell you which one I like, and I can tell you which is more expensive, and they're not the same."


   Consumer perception of wine pricing was a hot topic back in 2008, before the financial meltdown, before dropping high-end wine sales became the big story. Interesting studies about wine pricing were released in the field of economics and also the field of neuro-biology (follow those links for science!).

   The economists' report confirmed what we all suspected: In a blind tasting, people who are not wine experts tend to like less expensive wines while those with more wine experience tend to like more expensive wines. Freakonomics author Steven Levitt wrote this entry in his blog about it, concluding (with or without a smirk) that it is unwise to seek education about wine for fear of developing expensive tastes.

   It's easy to dismiss something that you have not invested yourself in, something that you do not wish to understand.

   The second study the one done by neuroscientists is the one that stuck in my head. It suggests that people not only react more favorably to a wine when we are told it is expensive, but we show increased "blood-oxygen-level-dependent activity in medial orbitofrontal cortex, an area that is widely thought to encode for experienced pleasantness during experiential tasks." Which I guess means that your brain physically reacts more positively to wine when you are told it is more expensive, even before you have sniffed it.

   It's causing a miniature crisis every time I taste expensive wine. Where I used to think "It's a hundred bucks, so it better be good," I now think "It's a hundred bucks, so I am at a hightened level of brain activity." That 2007 Ornellaia that I tasted last week was it really as monolithic as I perceived? The barrel sample of 2007 Opus One was it really as amazingly complex and intense and focused as my receptively oxygen-addled medial orbitofrontal cortex concluded?

   Is my appreciation enslaved to a subjectivity beyond my own perception, subject to a level of prejudice hardwired into my brain function at a physiological level?  It's getting tough to sleep.


   This has been on my mind because of the comment on this blog from early last month. My fellow Binny's guy Bill suggests that I might be part of the "'price has no bearing on quality' brigade," which I think is unfair. Price has a clear bearing on quality. I'm always looking for and blogging about great values (so much that a friend recently offered post-it note with a list of synonyms for "value" that I might mix it up) but lately the wines capturing my attention are the most expensive.

   Though price does matter, a hefty price tag does not guarantee that the a will be good, nor does it guarantee that you will like a wine. So in the end I guess it's up to each person to find their own golden mean, as wishy-washy as that sounds.

   So. How about you? What do you consider a value? At what price does something get too expensive, even if it is super delicious?