Think of the connection between wine and money like that between manhood and penis size: Whether you buy into the myth, or stridently reject it, you still want to know how big it is. Men have always whipped out expensive bottles of wine in order to impress people. In a 1990 article in Wine Spectator, one Nelson Durante explained why, after selling a communications business for tens of millions of dollars, he spent $6,500 on one bottle of 1925 Brunello di Montalcino in a New York restaurant. “Every sip I took of the wine,” he said, “I remembered the bottom line of the contract.”
Even better, and bigger, was the lunch that Piers Morgan, onetime editor of England’s Daily Mirror, had with famous chef Marco Pierre White. The meal cost $460, while the wine bill came to $46,000, including one bottle of 1911 Chateau d’Yquem that measured a whopping 19,500 dollars long. White, who was doing the ordering, explained his display of manliness by pointing out that he was about to get married. Ah yes, one last fling before he gets the noose!
There is, naturally, an opposing school of thought that says that it’s not how expensive the wine is, but how expensive it isn’t. Some wine lovers brag about bargains the way others crow about blowing the average teacher’s salary on an afternoon’s indigestion. They love to sucker their friends into blind-tasting several wines and then shriek in delight when everyone’s favorite is revealed to be the lowest priced. Two-Buck Chuck, a ridiculously cheap wine that Trader Joe’s might as well just sell in juice boxes, won top prize last year at the 28th Annual International Eastern Wine Competition, causing the cheaper-is-better crowd to go (gr)ape shit. This kind of enophilic reverse snobbery was officially enshrined when the aforementioned Wine Spectator included the $11 Yellow Tail Reserve Shiraz as one of its Top 100 wines of 2007.
Enter a recent study by some economists at the California Institute of Technology, where 21 volunteers tasted five samples of wine knowing nothing about them but the price. In actuality, the five samples only represented three different wines—one $90 wine was repeated with a fake $10 price tag, and a wine that cost $5 was thrown in again with the incorrect price of $45. The tasters consistently said that they liked the wines with the higher prices better, and brain scans conducted as they drank showed their pleasure increased as they drank wines they thought were more expensive.
So, what does this prove? Well, it shows that we absolutely do judge a wine by its price tag. Those with more money than restraint can continue to spend knowing that their efforts to impress will pay off, and the Two-Buck Chuck junkies can continue to feel smug about pulling the wool over the eyes of the rich.
But we would all do well to notice one thing: The study was conducted by economists researching how wine is marketed. One thing I know for certain is that whenever marketing gets smarter, the rest of us get a little more stupid. Still, there might be a bright side. With the Euro getting stiffer and stiffer against the increasingly limp dollar, and the price of European wine rising, we can all rest easy knowing that, as every spam e-mail tells us, our new, bigger-priced bottles will guarantee more pleasure!