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My Dad's well-off, and he regularly drinks $100/bottle wine at restaurants. He was having dinner with another well-off man in a category above him who regularly drank $400/bottle wine. Dad asked him, what's the difference, really? Between $100 wine and $400 wine? The man held his thumb and finger together about an inch and a half apart.

Myself, I won't drink anything above $20/bottle. There is just too much good wine out there at below that price point. Wine has really entered a golden age, with science making winemaking better than it's ever been. A $11 bottle is better than what the kings of Europe drank 100 years ago. But it's also that I'm a commonseur and can't tell you if there are notes of berry, or oak, or strontium in wine. I just know what I like (anything with low tannins, basically). Merlot, Pinot Grigio, Malbec, Pinot Noir, all good. Cabernet Sauvignon gives me heartburn. But if I'm having a big steak, bring out the big cabs. They work together.

As far as Coke vs. Pepsi, Pepsi is sweeter and people will choose it in a head to head test because of the sweetness. But people like me don't like the cloying taste of Pepsi and actually prefer Coke's acid bite. There's also alcoholic beverage mixers - ever had a Jack and Pepsi? You haven't, because it's awful. Without the phosphoric acid kick, Coke doesn't work.

The man held his thumb and finger together about an inch and a half apart.

Sorry, could you explain how I'm supposed to interpret this? It seems like a strange way to respond to the question being asked.

That's a fairly common gesture to indicate a very small difference between two things in my experience.

Maybe it's a generational thing. I don't recall ever seeing a friend answer a question contrasting two entities using that gesture. Or maybe it's cultural. I think people I like to talk to would never answer that particular question with a hand gesture. Instead, they'd be far more likely to earnestly explain the nuances or the lack thereof with actual verbal commentary.

My interpretation is that the difference is noticeable but pretty small.

I caught a fish this big

That’s exacerbated further by ordering wine at a restaurant. 200-300% markup is the norm. That $400 restaurant bottle might cost $130 retail.

My two favorite, local restaurants charge a $25-30 per bottle uncorking fee if you bring in your own. Easy enough to do the math, there.

I think Coke works best with ice to dilute it slightly. There's such a difference drinking it straight from the can vs. pouring it into a glass with ice. (To say nothing of Mexican Coke!)

people actually tend to prefer the HFCS Coke (I know I do).

What people actually prefer is coke in a bottle

Ultra-premium wine, like any luxury good, is driven by the fact that people with more dollars than sense will naturally derive more enjoyment from having spent a stupid amount of money on it. So it literally tastes better to them at 200 bucks a bottle than it would at $20, or even $50. Consumer psychology be crazy like that.

Give me Winking Owl any day.

My mental model of wine (as a wine troglodyte)

Is that the quality of wine (or anything of subjective taste) is logarithmically related to the price. With some large error bars that handwave at personal preference. And the quality is proportional to price not because you get what you pay for, but you don't get what you don't pay for.

Anyways, the above is obvious. What I'm finding surprising is that so many people here are defending blatant status signaling as anything but. To those of you getting mad at the notion that someone might not see the appeal of 200 USD wine, do you really derive 10x the satisfaction than a 20 USD wine? If yes, is that satisfaction in your taste buds or knowing that you can spend 200 USD on fermented grapes?

I'm also deeply annoyed at the notion some people have that complexity (number of differentiable details) = quality. If you mix cheap but different wines, you probably get a new wine that is at most twice as complex, perhaps even more complex than a much more expensive wine. And a professional sommelier might even be able to parse that complexity, does that lead to the conclusion its better?

But I suppose status signaling isn't really effective if the signal is not modulated. The subtler the signal the better?

Yeah Yeah "I know who is the better painter in the set {Monet, A 3 year old}.

As is the argument @FiveHourMarathon is making.

I just don't think there is enough bandwidth (and error bars small enough and instruments accurate enough) in most matters of taste to really conclude that one preference suggests you are more high-falutin than the other. Literature might be the exception not the rule.

I default to vacuous status signaling until proven otherwise when I come across arguments of this form.

I've always been too broke to get into wine, so maybe this analogy will miss...

It's kind of like music. Anyone can have an opinion about what they like and they're not wrong. But some people dedicate their lives to music and have a better ear, larger vocabulary, better understanding of complexity/history/what have you... These people might have a completely different tastes and all sorts of rational as to why something is good (or better).

But, at the end of the day: Is Holdsworth a better than Iommi? Probably, but I know who I'd rather listen to...

I don’t know how broke you are and where you live, but if you sign up for a rewards account at Total Wine, and activate the offers they run on various categories of “winery direct” wines on their app, while buying in store, that’s about the most economical approach you can find.

The wines they label as”winery direct” are from large producers that give TW bulk discounts. And then TW runs 15-20% off retail on those wines as part of their loyalty program. Offers are things like 15% off Italian winery direct wines, or 20% off any six winery direct wines.

And then the Wine Folly website is a great free resource with info about major varietals/wines/regions.

Familiarize yourself with varietals/wines and try some food pairings. Can certainly dip your toe in with $10-16 bottles (if interested).

And, there are even some eminently-drinkable boxed wines on a budget. I’m brining Ropiteau Freres pinot noir to Thanksgiving. That’s the equivalent of four bottles for $25. Le Petit Frog makes a mightily-acceptable boxed white.

Huh, I'll check it out. And getting a few bottles for Thanksgiving is a good call!

Thanks for the rec!

I've found Pinot Noir to be the best pairing with the traditional American Thanksgiving meal, there are some other good options, though and none seem to be perfect, so don't be afraid to try a few.

I've always found it difficult to be a wine beginner. So many varieties of grapes, makers, etc. I need to get over myself and do proper research. lol

(Sorry if this is a dumb question): What's a good price point for a pinot noir? I'm kind of assuming that (most) cheap wine isn't good and expensive wine is a diminishing return curve...

It depends on where you are, in the west I would look for an American (California or Northwest) start in the 12-20 range, and start with the ones that have lots of fruit/jammy terms in their description (try to hit a total wine or Trader Joe's if you can (just pick something in the middle of the price hump at TW or that has a good description at TJs). You can experiment from there (there used to be a lot of good Northwest pinot noirs under $10).

If you're buying for Thanksgiving, I usially look for one with a pairing suggestion with salmon or roast meats or has some earthy tasting notes (sometimes tobacco, grass/hay) and don't be afraid to bump the price a little if it's affordable and something sounds like a great match with your favorite dish.

I'm going to hit Trader Joe's. Thank you!


To those of you getting mad at the notion that someone might not see the appeal of 200 USD wine, do you really derive 10x the satisfaction than a 20 USD wine? If yes, is that satisfaction in your taste buds or knowing that you can spend 200 USD on fermented grapes?

Speaking for bourbon rather than wine, but I don't need to get 10x the satisfaction for it to be worth it - I can only drink so much bourbon and having a few of those pours be expensive is worthwhile to me. Even at a $200 bottle (which is a price I haven't paid yet), I'd be looking at roughly 16 1.5 oz pours, which makes them about $12.50 per pour. If we're thinking wine bottles, we're talking about $40/glass. Both of those are expensive! But they're also well within the range of prices that normal, upper-middle class people can swing without changing anything about their lives otherwise, at least when we're talking about the occasional treat.

Put another way, there's no meaningful tradeoff that I'm making. The marginal dollars that I spend on nice bourbon would otherwise add nothing to my life. I can easily imagine this calculus shifting much, much farther if I made a lot more money.

You’re right that it is generally logarithmic.

I’m an American, and wine in the U.S. is generally more expensive than in Europe (because wine produced abroad and sold retail must be brought in by a licensed American distributor and these middle-men don’t run charities, and it is far more common that European producers have owned the land their vineyards are on since before anyone now working it was born). Just my opinion, but I find the best bang for the buck is around $35-40 if you also have a large wine fridge in which to age bottles for multiple years (the quick requirements are no UV light, store around 54-55 degrees Fahrenheit, keep away from significant vibration). Helps to have enough storage that you can cut down on the per-bottle shipping costs and lock in bulk discounts by ordering by the case (12 bottles).

I thought that these days wine doesn't gain much by aging. You're meant to drink it soon. In fact, if you keep it for years, it'll go bad.

Wine, whether corked or screw top, continues to slowly oxidize in the bottle. Kept at proper temperature the aging can alter a wine’s flavor in a desirable way. Not kept at proper temperature, it will wreck the wine.

Different wines/varietals benefit from aging differently. Some wines are generally considered best young, like a New Zealand Sauv Blanc, as people are usually looking for bright acidity when selecting one. As a rule of thumb reds benefit from longer aging more than whites. But you can age whites, too. My favorite bottle I’ve consumed was a 10-year-old white Bordeaux.

And within reds, those with higher tannin benefit from longer aging. I like to tuck Willamette Valley Pinot Noir away for five years. But, you can age California Cab Sauv, red Bordeaux, Cotes du Rhone, etc. for a decade plus.

And none of the above is to say you need to age wine after purchase. Here’s a good video looking at different vintages from the same wine:

(Any wine you plan to drink within six to nine months after purchase will be just fine at room temperature in your home.)

I'm surprised he didn't link to this which seems directly on point.

But even more on point, to a wine aficionado, saying you don't appreciate good wine is just like saying to me that you would sooner buy a Lay-z-Boy recliner than an Eames lounger. If you don't see the difference, you just aren't one of our sort, which is a small subset of people but it's one to which I belong. I recall an argument here before where an interlocutor (since departed) told me that he saw no difference between consuming LibsOfTikTok and reading Marx's Kapital, I remember thinking this is just such a disconnect there's no way to even explain it.

A more Motte-ish analogy to the different studies Scott cites here: take three authors, Scott Alexander, Stephanie Meyer, and Honoree Jeffers. Scott cites studies where mass consumers are given different wines, if you gave mass book consumers passages from the works of each of those three authors most would prefer Meyer. Scott cites studies in which experts were given wines, if you gave literary experts passages from each they'd pick Jeffers every time. Yet I'd pick Scott every time, and there's a subset of people who would pick Scott who I align with, and to call literary skill "fake" is an absurd (repugnant?) conclusion.

I'd argue that wine is no more fake than literature.

I think the question at the heart of Scott's essay is would the experts really choose the same "best" wine every time? Say you had 10 high quality wines, 9 worth $200 and 1 an acclaimed award winning $10k bottle. The wine experts would all be able to tell all the wines are good wines, that none are cheap trash, but would they actually be able to pick out the $10k bottle? Not even necessarily enjoy it more, the price of the 10k is for its uniqueness not its quality according to other commenters, but even identify it. If the answer is yes, then wine is not fake. If the answer is no, then wine is kinda fake.

I'm with you, and in fact this is the thread that finally got me to stop lurking on the new site and set up an account (under a different name, not that I posted a lot or was well-known on the sub beforehand).

I think what a lot of people here, Scott included, are missing is that wine is not just about the taste. In the same way that literature is not just about the plot. The style of the prose, which gives the book structure, usually matters much more than the story itself. And the background behind the work--the circumstances in which it was written, and when and where and why the author wrote it--also contribute to the importance of a work. Sum up Moby Dick in a sentence or two and it doesn't sound very interesting. But actually reading it is an entirely different experience.

Wine is basically the same way. The taste matters, of course. Nobody wants to drink a bad wine. But for a wine lover, it's just as important to explore WHY it tastes that way... what the winemaker chose to do, how that year's vintage compared to the year before, where the vineyards are, how the climate at the vineyards affects the growing conditions, whether the winery has been around for 30 years or 500.

Not everybody needs to care about these things... there's nothing wrong with buying an $8 wine, or a $30 or $70 big-brand wine without much character to it. There's nothing wrong with reading Dean Koontz or John Grisham or James Patterson novels either! But there's so much more depth out there, for those who are interested, and that transcends far beyond just the actual flavors in the wine.

It's not that the historical context doesn't matter. It's that wine experts pretend that their judgments about context are really judgments about the physical quality of the wine. The wine experts of the 70s claimed that their judgment of the superiority of French wine was founded on taste, not on pedigree or prestige.

But there's so much more depth out there, for those who are interested, and that transcends far beyond just the actual flavors in the wine.

But the actual flavors of the wine don't seem to matter that much at all. It would be like being a literary critic who could expound for hours about the literary trends of the 20th century, but who couldn't recognize the difference between David Foster Wallace and David Walliams. If wine connoisseurs wanted to bill themselves as simply historians and trivia masters, that would be one thing - but they don't, they're explicitly seeking to be judges of aesthetics (on the level of flavor).

here's nothing wrong with reading Dean Koontz or John Grisham or James Patterson novels either! But there's so much more depth out there, for those who are interested, and that transcends far beyond just the actual flavors in the wine.

But I don't have to know Tolkien wrote LOTR to make a new English legendarium in order to like it better than The Firm, Along Came a Spider, or B is for Burglar. In fact, I knew jack shit about LOTR when I first deeply enjoyed LOTR in the 90s.

But for a wine lover, it's just as important to explore WHY it tastes that way... what the winemaker chose to do, how that year's vintage compared to the year before, where the vineyards are, how the climate at the vineyards affects the growing conditions, whether the winery has been around for 30 years or 500.

I understand this, but said wine lover should able to do all this...with a blank bottle.

I think the background of the work is incapable of mattering - it cannot modify the experience of a blind sampler, and so it cannot reliably impact the experience of consumers in the future when the background or context may be lost or warped. Or even now when the seller can just lie about the background. The product is as good or bad as it is with zero context. Sure, you can use the context (assuming you trust it is accurate) to predict salient facts about it, but that is not the same as those facts being modified by or dependent upon the context.

The structure of a book is perceivable "blind" so it can easily be considered - it is part of the work. The vintage of some wine? No. The author is dead. Embrace that and don't fool yourself into disbelieving your own senses because of the prestige of the product. Does it have desirable quality A, or not?

If you don't like a passage of Shakespeare given to you unlabeled (and you didn't recognize it), then you ought not like it in the alternate setting where you're told the author. All else is pretentious hogwash.

there's obviously a difference between good and bad wine, and sommeliers aren't charlatans, but our senses are easily tricked. you can make ice cream taste better by improving the packaging, same with wine.

My $0.02 on this subject.

Great wine mostly comes from vineyards that have been producing wine since the time of the Romans, with all the institutional knowledge built up and passed down with each for many, many centuries. Their name is synonymous with quality wine because in the era when mass media was passing ideas freely, and the cost of trade fell dramatically their wine knowledge was not moving as quickly and there was a lot of really bad wine (think things like adulterating it with toxic ingredients and contaminating the wine with bacteria bad) made by newer entrants. So their names became brands for the knowledge they won by trial and error over millennia.

Today, modern agronomy and microbiology has dramatically lowered the bar required to make consistently decent or better wine in a vastly wider array of places and by many many more producers. You can still find bad wine out there, but in general bad means not great, not the truly horrid stuff from a century or more ago. Try a wide variety of wines, and don't be afraid to try different wineries in different years, some times a vintage will be your vintage and the next one won't. Drink what you enjoy and in good health.

This is such a tired argument. Here, to put it to bed:

Go spend $200 on a bottle of Caymus Special Selection. It's one of the most popular wines there is, and it's really fucking good.

Taste it. Now go taste the $8 bottle you got at Trader Joes. See how they taste completely different? You're welcome. And also it turns out that the rich people spending $200/bottle aren't stupid, they're just richer than you and you're jealous.

Did you read the article? If anyone tries to do what you just suggested, they don't taste completely different at all. People can't tell the difference.

People could tell the difference between wines under £5 and those above £10 only 53% of the time for whites and only 47% of the time for reds. Overall they would have been just as successful flipping a coin to guess.

You just directly contradicted something in the article based only on your say so.

The article eventually concluded that wine is not fake, but in a very narrow sense that certainly doesn't mean that you can tell the difference between a $8 bottle and a $200 bottle.

A counter-article on that study. The original study doesn't seem to be published anywhere either.

The study was done by letting each person taste one wine, and say whether it was cheap or expensive. This doesn't seem like a very convincing test.

That said, if some dude claims to have found a mystery vault full of Thomas Jefferson's wine, it's Fake.

I don't think I could pick out varietals consistently, but I know I can tell the difference between Pinot Noir and e.g. Cabernet Sauvignon or Rioja (note these are not actually varietals -- Cabernet Sauvignon wine usually has other grapes mixed in, and Rioja is always a blend). And I can definitely tell the difference between cheap wine and decent mid-priced wine; you don't need to be able to pick out varietals or country to do that.

There's a lot of confounders, though. Some wines are inconsistent; a good bottle is really good but other bottles are just OK or even bad -- one I like a lot when it's good, LAN Rioja Reserva, is like that. There's plenty of mid-priced wine which isn't good. The way wine (or anything, really) tastes varies a lot in a person, due to state of health, what you've eaten/drunk recently, etc.

It’s not fake in the sense that nobody can discern between different wines, but the gap between cheap and expensive wines is less real than the difference between cheap and expensive cars or houses. You can also find or train people to identify hundreds of different brands of mineral water, some expensive. But the expensive ones are not objectively better. If they were, they would be chemically isolated and mass produced.

There are a number of factors that impact the price of different wines. Supply and demand are definitely present, and mixed into that is conspicuous consumption, and that is separate from the wine, itself.

What real estate costs a vineyard faces factors in. (If someone still has an outstanding commercial mortgage on their vineyard in Napa, that is going to increase the price of the wine produced).

Some things do improve quality, or at least are discernable in the taste of a given wine, that also do increase cost. Two examples would be how densely planted a given vineyard is (the vintner has to weigh a higher yield versus allowing fewer vines to pull more nutrients from the soil), and how long a wine is aged before it is bottled (many wines are made from Sangiovese, but Brunello di Montalcino is aged for a minimum of two years in oak and a minimum of four years in total, and that four-to-five year lag to market impacts a producer’s bottom line). And those aforementioned oak barrels add cost, particularly if aged in new oak (versus aging in just stainless steel, concrete, etc.).

If someone still has an outstanding commercial mortgage on their vineyard in Napa, that is going to increase the price of the wine produced

Fixed costs don't change prices for profit maximizing businesses.

If they could make more profit charging more (or less), they'd charge more (or less).

In your economics 101 textbook, certainly. But this is a significant part of why, absent import costs, European wines are cheaper than American wines at the bottom end of the price scale.

At the upper end it’s to do more with demand, so American wine growing regions have to develop an international reputation. Napa has, and places like Willamette are on their way.

In my own life, I have anecdotal experiences with bourbon and other whiskeys that have pretty thoroughly convinced me that the idea of wine tasting being "fake" is a combination of wishing that the expensive things weren't special, wishing that the experts were fake experts, and a desire to feel superior to silly people fussing about such things. I accumulate bourbon much faster than I drink it, so I now have a shelf with dozens of bottles, ranging from mundane (but enjoyable!) stuff like Bulleit and Woodford Reserve up to fairly uncommon and pricey bottles like EH Taylor Barrel Proof Uncut and Michter's 10 Year Rye. When my wife or I grab a pour for each other, we often take them blind and see if we can guess what we chose for each other - at this point, our success rate in picking them out is getting pretty close to 100%. This is true even for fairly similar and competitive products - it's not that hard to tell the difference bewteen a pair of single barrel picks that are bottled at the same strength and have similar age statements.

So, where I'm going there is that I'm a rank amateur, barely even a hobbyist by the standards of the whackos that are super into whiskey, but I can tell the difference between two products that are both distilled corn aged in newly charred American Oak barrels for X years. If I can pick that up, it seems impossible to me that wine experts legitimately can't tell the difference between red and white varietals - the experimenter either screwed up or they found the fakest experts around. Ever since I noticed that, I just brushed off the "studies" that say otherwise, but it's still nice to see the breakdown from Scott.

First, the experts weren’t exactly experts. They were, in the grand tradition of studies everywhere, undergraduates at the researchers’ university.

Honestly, this is such a bad starting point that I can't imagine that anything extracted from the data could plausibly be useful - everyone involved from the researchers to the journalists breathlessly reported on those silly wine people is bad and should feel bad.

There's also stuff that goes beyond "interesting". For example, Glenmorangie objectively has an airy taste. It's like the best sub $50 whiskey that you can buy if you don't like being assaulted with the barrel taste, and it also somehow does better than vodka at being smooth. Makers Mark is also a pretty good sub $30 bourbon, to my taste--but it can be somewhat objective, I'm pretty sure that if we give a random person a dram of Makers Mark and Jack Daniels they would recognize the more refined taste of the former.

I remember the best tequila producers in Mexico saying that there's no way a bottle of tequila should cost more than $40. But - the market was demanding super overpriced tequilas. So, they shrugged their shoulders and marked up the price to $200, and people loved it.

I usually buy Cabo Wabo, which is the cheapest 100% agave at the store I go to other than 1800 (which I don't like). But I have to admit Cuervo Platina is really good. Looks like it's a $60 bottle, though, nowhere near $200.

Whiskey, I think, is a market where people are intentionally different. Jack Daniels isn't marketing to the same people as Woodford who aren't marketing to the same as single barrel offerings. I thing there are often huge sweetness differences which are easiest to pick up on. Is the same true of wine? Are the $10 winemakers intentionally making sweeter wine to appeal to college girls?

I am adjacent to the wine business and winemakers absolutely make sweeter wine to appeal to a mass market. Especially at the cheap and widely distributed end of the spectrum. That's what a lot of people want, and the more industrial side of the industry is happy to oblige.

I agree about whiskey too. Jack Daniel's and Woodford are owned by the same company, but appeal to very different people. Same with Old Forester, also the same company. Not just because of the flavor profile, but the branding and perceived associations too.

Great to know.

Especially at the cheap and widely distributed end of the spectrum.

Meanwhile in Hungary.

Go figure, people don't like bitter tannins. The ones who do are really into wine, and they don't buy nearly as much as the mass market does.

Kim Crawford, Kendall Jackson, Woodbridge, etc. are 💯 marketed to different demographics than Caymus, Guigal, etc.

I think it's more complex than this.

I've little doubt experienced tasters can come to know what they are tasting with some high level of accuracy. The more interesting question is whether the more expensive product is "better" than the cheaper product, considering 'there is no accounting for tastes.'

When you're buying a piece of furniture, let's say a dresser, it's a bit more clear cut. Here's an example:

Let's say you are choosing between a $100 chipboard/cardboard dresser at Kmart or an $800 all real wood dresser with the same dimensions & function.

The real wood dresser is "better" in ways that are demonstrable. It will last much longer, it can be refinished, it will hold a heavier amount of clothes per drawer, the drawer bottoms won't buckle or bend, the drawers will slide as expected, etc. etc. It's objectively better in terms of it's utility. (Plus it carries better signaling value.)

But what if you're trying to choose between two real wood dressers within identical dimensions and materials...but they have different finishing stains with different colors. This is what wine/whisky differences are often about. Which stain is better? And why?

Unless there is a difference in the protection the different stains offer, it's all preference. Value will be dictated by the preferences of the buyer, and those preferences will be driven largely by things like trends, culture, and the maybe the rarity of each stain (which is just signaling if there is no added utility).

It may be, by the way, that whisky A takes 10x the time and effort and money to produce vs. whisky B, so it's much more expensive, but that is no guarantee the taste will actually be preferred on the merits of taste alone. People will say, "Whisky A is MUCH better! They use the best process! I can taste the difference!" But this all takes place in a world where brand preferences are strong partly because of the cognitive failings of human brains, such that people have tricked themselves into wanting things that are actually not as good.

Relatedly, I've had the experience a couple times in the last couple months where I went to a nice restaurant and paid a relatively large amount of money for a meal that I sincerely didn't enjoy as much as I enjoy meals from casual dining joints.

Why do I pay 5-10x the price for a meal I don't enjoy as much?

Mostly signaling. I was on dates, and the stigma attached to a first date at Panera Bread or Panda Express would be too much work to overcome, so I fork out the big bucks to sit in a socially acceptable place and eat socially acceptable food. I bow to convention and signal to my date I'm aware of the norms and capable of participating.

Good points in general, and I can't speak for the wine part, but do want to be a bit pedantic about the whiskeys:

This is what wine/whisky differences are often about. Which stain is better? And why?

In the whiskey world, some differences are like this, but some really are more objective, like the dresser. Whether they're worth the extra money or not will be in the eye of the beholder, but it really does cost a lot more to produce a 12-year whiskey than a 4-year whiskey. Evaporation directly results in a loss of the angel's share, the capital costs of sitting on stock and warehousing it are significant, and staff have to continually monitor barrels (some things need to be taken earlier, you can't just rely on everything aging evenly). Some products also include finishing in other barrels (port or rum barreling has become pretty stylish). At the end of the day, I suppose someone could still prefer the cheaper 4-year, but I think it's pretty unlikely that you'd ever get that result with any consistency in a blind taste test.

I think your point holds up much better when comparing products that are objectively similar - does the price tag on a 9-Year Willett bottle make any sense? Not to me, which is why I don't buy it. Should 12-year bottles of Van Winkle branded things really run up into the four figures? Well, based on the couple times I've gotten to try them, I'd say that it absolutely doesn't make sense and that people like having those bottles on their shelves for status. But really, I will actually insist that most people who like bourbon will find a good 12-year single barrel more enjoyable than the mass market products from the same distillery.

A final note on signaling is that the hypothesis is doing too much work. I can't speak for others, but I don't host people very often and most of the people I host don't care about whiskey. I (probably overpaid) for a pricey Bardstown bottle recently - I don't think I even personally know anyone that has even heard of their products. Of course, I could have been convinced by marketing hype, I find that entirely plausible, but I can't really see the path to that being about signaling. Pay for a bottle that literally no one I know cares about, pour a dram at home with no guests, plop down and watch 1883. That seems... not about signaling. The most straightforward story is that it's actually good whiskey and there isn't a need to tack on any other motivation.

The obvious caveat applies that the article is about wine, not about bourbon - I'm mostly just assuming that the wine world behaves pretty similarly because it has all of the same underlying social dynamics and subjective impressions of flavors.

People signal to themselves, because you have a mental image of yourself in addition to others having a mental image of you. It may not be important for you to have others see you as wealthy, tasteful, refined, knowledgeable. It may still be important for you to see yourself as that. Why else would you test your own ability to identify whiskey? You're not immune to your own judgmental gaze.

I take your point about some whisky being orders of magnitude more time-consuming & expensive to produce, but that's part of my point.

Some products may advertise being "handmade!", and it takes 10x more time & effort to make them, but a machine actually does a better job of producing that product. People will still often pay more for the handmade product if that characteristic is used as a selling point, because brand recognition and perceived value are examples of how the human brain is easily hacked. People have clustered together notions of "quality" with the concept of "handmade" and reality is hard-pressed to convince them otherwise.

From the essay:

Or consider the famous Pepsi Challenge: Pepsi asked consumers to blind-taste-test Pepsi vs. Coke; most preferred Pepsi. But Coke maintains its high market share partly because when people are asked to nonblindly taste Coke and Pepsi (as they always do in the real world) people prefer Coke. Think of it as the brain combining two sources of input to make a final taste perception: the actual taste of the two sodas and a preconceived notion (probably based on great marketing) that Coke should taste better.

This is truly remarkable data. People come to expect Product A is better than Product B, and that expectation drives their experience...even when they actually think Product B is better when branding is not available.

On signaling: I'd say it's much more influential than we realize. Further, there is a sort of "self-signaling" at play. It's a deeper discussion, but I believe people's choices are a part of a narrative they are telling about themselves, and it contributes to their experienced happiness/satisfaction (Kahneman) as they traverse life. We all want to be the kind of character in the story who "appreciates good whisky" and "spends more for quality." We don't want to be the guy who has undiscriminating tastes.

the famous Pepsi Challenge:

Which is also a bit of a hoax/mirage. We know why Pepsi wins the Pepsi challenge: More Sweetness, less acidity. Those things also make Pepsi lose the Pepsi challenge if consumers are asked to grade drinking an entire can, particularly if it gets diluted by ice or gets slightly warmed over the course of drinking the can.

I 100% agree in being able to tell apart whiskey, even whiskey that isn't far apart price-wise (think Woodford vs Buffalo Trace).

I'm less sure about things like "tasting notes", as the article's first paragraph mentions, and there seems to be less research in this area. Certainly different wines can have different chemicals, but to what extent can they be distinguished from each other in a complex mix of substances? Do they even appear at a high enough volume to be detectable? Sometimes there are very distinct flavors, but in other cases there's apparently nothing that sticks out.

Agree on tasting notes - sometimes, I'll sips something and have something highly specific pop to mind immediately. Other times, I can start to put it together a bit after a Kentucky chew. Still other times, I never get beyond, "I don't know, it tastes like bourbon, which is a good thing for bourbon to taste like". I can easily accept that other people are much better at teasing these things apart, particularly the folks that are actually managing the barrel and bottle programs. Freddie Noe probably tried more different bourbons and understood more about their taste profiles before he was legal to drink than I will in a lifetime.

My girlfriend and I enjoy wine, and have a glass, each, at dinner nearly every night. I’d say we’re hobbyists.

I suppose I could get certain red and white varietals confused based on production method, maybe.

Red wines (made from red varietals) are fermented with the skins/stems/seeds. White wines can be made from any varietal but the fermentation happens absent the skins/stems/seeds. (If you ferment white varietals with the skins/stems/seeds you get orange wine.) Tannins are the chemical compounds imparted by including the skins/stems/seeds and they are quite noticeable (they impart a dry feeling in your mouth after consumption, and impact the flavor).

Now, if I had to blind taste test a white made from Pinot Noir grapes, or uncharitably some uncommon red varietal, there’s a chance I could confuse it for something else, but I don’t think I’d fare all that poorly.

But if the blind taste test was a red wine versus a white wine, that’s far too easy to discern.

Huh. Never heard of that. Where can I get an orange wine?

Georgia is the best country for orange wines, but there are orange wines from Italy (Friuli). You might have to search for "amber wine" to find them.

My local Total Wine has two different bottles on offer. It’s not super common but should be able to track down a bottle if you call around.