Sunday, April 12, 2009

Expensive taste

It's axiomatic that personal taste isn't a matter of right and wrong; someone who doesn't like shrimp has no better or worse taste than someone who thinks shrimp is the most perfect foodstuff ever eaten. Sure, there are some general standards: spoiled food is generally bad, rotting anything is generally frowned upon. But for the most part taste is, yeah, a matter of taste.

That said, there are standards for taste, and they're generally set by experts. I'm specifically thinking about wine. An expensive wine is generally agreed to be better than a cheap wine. Some of it's supply and demand: the expensive wines are rarer and therefore more expensive. But some of the rarity is manufactured; a specific wine might be vinted in a smaller production run to add to its value. And the rest of the value is a factor of what wine experts tell us. The experts tell us it's the best wine of the year, and it gets expensive. The experts tell us it's not so good, and it's cheaper. But, again, it's all a matter of taste. If you have expensive tastes -- that is, if you agree with the experts 100% of the time -- that's not a good thing. What's more likely: all of your subjective judgments independently agree with the pronouncements of a panel of experts; or, you've let the experts' pronouncements define your tastes for you. Option one is statistically unlikely. And option two would be a bit embarrassing to admit. But, especially with wine, I suspect that a lot of people's tastes really are determined by the pronouncements of the experts. It'd be hard not to internalize expert opinions about wine; they sound so formal, so authoritative, it's natural to assume they're right, especially since they all tend to agree. But they only agree because they all went to the same school (in the "school of painting" sense, rather than the "educational establishment" sense), wherein they were graded on their ability to agree in detail with other experts. 

Laura started me thinking about this when we went out for post-show dinner on Friday. She ordered the least expensive chardonnay, and she was extremely impressed with it; we're adding it to her list of favorites. She's got good taste, but it's entirely defined by her internal values, rather than what experts have determined to be the best. She likes some expensive wines, too, but it's because the experts and she happen to agree occasionally; she doesn't fall into the "expensive = quality" trap. I really respect this about her.

I also respect the fact that she is always willing to try the new and different, rather than falling into habit and ordering the same thing every time. I think she works under the assumption that she hasn't tried her favorite wine yet; she's got favorites, but she knows there has to be good and different that she hasn't experienced yet.

Oh, and: Friday's wine was Pure Evil, a South Australian chardonnay. Laura gives it her stamp of approval. If you're a wine-oriented person and you see it on a menu, give it a try and see how closely your taste matches with Laura's.


NerfSmuggler said...

I read somewhere that the least expensive wine is actually better than the second least expensive wine offered at a restaurant. The second lowest priced wine is, more often than not, actually the cheapest wine that the restaurant marked up.

The chain of logic goes something like: Idiot/Bumpkin comes in and doesn't know anything about wine so he wants something cheap, but he doesn't want to appear cheap, so he will almost always order the next-to-least expensive. Since he doesn't know anything about wine, we can give him the really cheap stuff safely.

With totally made up numbers per bottle.
Selling price / Purchase price:
$100 / $80
$ 75 / $60
$ 50 / $30
$ 30 / $ 7
$ 25 / $15

Since I don't drink wine, I don't really have any expertise or investment in the field, so take with grain of salt.

Jeff Mountjoy said...

I read an article (I think it was on the Freakonomics website) talking about wine a few years ago. The general rule is that the restaurant's price per bottle is the customer's price per glass, for wine $10/glass and under. This falls apart at higher prices; you can charge $7 for a glass of cheapish wine, but you can't charge $500 a glass for wine that costs $500 a bottle (plus, you can't buy really expensive wine by the glass). There's still a markup, but as a percentage it gets smaller the more expensive the wine. A wine snob -- oops, I mean "connoisseur" -- will pay $600 at a restaurant for a bottle he could buy for $500 elsewhere, but he won't pay $2500. The restaurant is still making $100 on the bottle (or whatever -- I'm making up my numbers here, in lieu of actual research)...