Can a $10 bottle of champagne be better than a $150 bottle of Dom Prignon?
It''s easy to say why one car is better than another; it''s not so easy with books or movies. That''s one reason we value the recommendations made by Amazon and Netflix. Now what about wine preferences? Is there anything harder to articulate?
An article in today''s New York Times considers a study that had ''500 volunteers sample and rate 540 unidentified wines priced from $1.50 to $150 a bottle. The results are described in a new book, The Wine Trials, to be published this month by Fearless Critic Media.''
The book wraps the results in a discussion of marketing manipulations and statistical validity, but a brief article in the April 7 issue of Newsweek magazine, naturally, seized on the book''s populist triumphs: a $10 bottle of bubbly from Washington state outscored Dom Prignon, which sells for $150 a bottle, while Two-Buck Chuck, the cheap Charles Shaw California cabernet sauvignon, topped a $55 bottle of Napa Valley cabernet.
The Newsweek article notes that ''100 wines under $15 consistently outperformed their upscale cousins.'' But that says less about wine than about Newsweek''s notion of what it is for one wine to ''outperform'' another. As the Times notes,
Two caveats are in order here. First, it turns out that the results of the tastings are more nuanced than the Newsweek article let on. In fact, the book shows that what appeals to novice wine drinkers is significantly different from what appeals to wine experts, which the book defines as those who have had some sort of training or professional experience with wine. The experts, by the way, preferred the Dom Prignon.
In other words, when it comes to wine, some people not only tolerate mediocre wine, they prefer it. I remember when I first learned that lesson, because it was the occasion of meeting the woman who would become my wife. No, my wife doesn''t prefer mediocre wine, but her friends, S and K, who introduced us, do.
That morning, I had picked something nice at the wine shop and, not knowing how many other people might be there, bought two lesser wines as well. I opened up the vintage bottle first, and both S and the mutual friend didn''t think much of it at all. I opened one of the others, which they liked a lot better. So I quietly sipped the $26 Lytton Springs cabernet, while S and K eagerly imbibed, if I remember correctly, a $6 bottle of Bogle merlot.
There''s nothing wrong with enjoying cheap wine (my retirement fund would look a little better if I did), and the main lesson here is that if you want guidance from the opinions of others, you''d be well-advised to find people who have the same tastes as you. That''s what makes recommendation systems, like those at Amazon and Netflix, so powerful. They not only collect the opinions of others, they filter out those of people like S, who don''t share our preferences.
We all have friends who have the same tastes as ourselves in movies or books or wine, and we treasure them, because they provide something hard to find''reliable guidance when it comes to unfamiliar things that we hope to enjoy. What''s important is the recommendations they make, not the friendship, and recommendation systems institutionalize that and give us access to total strangers who can serve us in the same way.
As our social networks evolve, we''re going to get more and more recommendations, and, frankly, we can''t have enough of them. Though my wife and I agree, by and large, on wine, we don''t on some other things, such the best driving route between any two locations. She avoids the Interstate, will patiently sit at busy intersections, and has been known to drive 10 miles out of the way to see her favorite lilac bushes in bloom.
Already, Google offers recommendations of news articles based on the likes and dislikes of readers it thinks have the same interests we have. Someday, Google Maps will give, in addition to a ''best'' route, routes recommended by people who, like ourselves, prefer highways to county roads, or go out of their way to avoid left turns, or or detour over to the state park in the springtime. In driving, as in movies and wine, there''s no accounting for taste. Except now there is.