Thursday, September 5, 2013

The UC Davis wine price challenge

UC Davis senior winemaking classes hold an interesting challenge at the end of four years of study -- and no student has gotten it right yet.

Dr. Hildegard Heymann of UC Davis' Viticulture and Enology Department told me that every year, she asks students to taste six wines blind and link them with their actual retail prices.

The prices are distinctly different, such as $5, $10, $25, $50, $100 and $200. There's a bottle of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild waiting for the student who gets them all right.

Fortunately Lafite-Rothschild improves with age, because no student has won it yet, in nearly a decade of trying. Heymann said the best anyone has ever done was to correctly choose the cheapest and most expensive wines.

These not consumers or wine bloggers; these are students who have been intensely studying wine for four years and are about to go out and become leaders of the industry. They know all the tricks and traps of sensory evaluation. Yet they blow it anyway.

"The mistake most of them make is in ranking by their personal taste," Heymann said.

How hard can this be? I want to take a shot at it. I believe I can tell the price category by the quality and intensity of the oak flavor, especially in the top-end wines. But I guess I'm just setting myself up for failure.

Do any readers remember being humbled by this or a similar blind-tasting challenge?

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Jack Everitt said...

"How hard can this be?"

This is a sucker's game and I think mathematically insulting to UC Davis students. This is because there is not a reason in the world they should feel humbled. Not one. Why? Because their odds are just terrible at succeeding at this impossible task. Impossible because the greatest wine tasters in the world won't get it right (unless they're very lucky).

There are 720 permutations (123456) here - 720 possible answers. If you quickly assume that starting at say the $5 bottle, it's either that one or the next higher priced, that works out to a 1 in 32 chance (12222); but we already know that it's not that easy or someone would have gotten it already. A more reasonable but optimistic odds would be 1 in 108 (122333). But I think the correct odds are likely 1 in 256 (122334) - that allows the $50 bottle to be either 25,50,100 or 200 - which is not unreasonable to me. This is making the wild assumption that the wine's aren't very atypical for their price; if they are, just go straight to the 1 in 720 chance. (n.b., I apologize if my math is off; it's been 35 years since I learned how to calculate permutations.)

And let's not forget how easy it would be to skew this "contest" by choosing lousy expensive wine and/or outstanding cheap wine for it.

In summation, I think this whole thing is a fool's task - is it really necessary to convince a student that the prices of wines are vaguely connected to perceived quality or personal likability? I think not. If I was a student in this class, I would pass on this so-called challenge.

Jonas Landau, everydaywineguy said...

Wow I didn't think a fun exercise could be turned into such a buzz kill. Blake please bring back the bad tasting note of the week-I'm begging!

Bob Henry said...


Winemaker Bruno D'Alfonso told me once about his experience enrolled as an enology student at UC Davis.

One of his laments was that Davis rarely opened up its vast wine library for student tastings.

Consequently, Bruno and his fellow students formed their own wine tasting group to fill that void.

Bruno further stated that Davis teaches students how to avoid defects in wine -- but doesn't guide them on "styling" a wine.

(Library tastings could aid in that instruction.)

Bruno said that students arrive at those experiences and insights on their own.

So it doesn't surprise me that 20-something "starving students" with little or no "expansive" experience tasting fine wines fail the test.

A separate consideration: there is no direct link between intrinsic or superior quality and suggested retail selling price.

As William Langewiesche noted in his The Atlantic magazine (December 2000) profile of Robert Parker:

"The truth is that even the best wines cost only about $10 a bottle to produce, and they are not inherently rare."

"Positioning" a wine as a luxury good in the minds of consumers can account for a $100 or $200 suggested retail selling price.

~~ Bob

Unknown said...

Perhaps this should be seen as a final lesson rather than a test; the lesson being that price doesn't correlate with taste in any predictable way.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Mr. Henry, you need to have tasted widely and often to catch the differences in price points and sometimes the $5 wine was a blowout and is better than a $10 wine, also the top end may be young heavy on the oak and less fruit forward so seem less elegant thus cheaper than the $100 wine....... and be a wine YOU might pay $200 for but I wouldn't pay $50 ;)

Andy said...

To make this test fair 2 things would have to be done. First, it would have to be given to maybe 35-45 years who have graduated from the program (education + experience; I agree that education alone would give them no chance). Second, it would have to be controlled for vintage, , region and varietal with which the examinee had some experience (e.g. 2009 Napa cabs or 2005 Brunello costing $10-200 dollars for a California / Italian group respectively). In these circumstances, I bet there would be a correlation and that bottle of Lafite would be long gone.

Also, the cost of making wine can be much greater than $10 per bottle. I run a large home winemaking co-op where we strive to make professional quality wines. I made a Napa Cab in 2009 with grapes purchased from a vineyard that sells their wines for $85 per bottle -- if you add up the direct costs (grapes, barrels, fermentation supplies, bottles, corks etc) it was $15 per bottle. This does not include labor, costs of owning the vinfication facility / equipment, taxes etc -- these costs can be variable but are frequently not insubstansial. High end wines without huge economies of scale are much more expensive to produce than what Mr Langewiesche suggest.

Winegeek66 said...

I would love to take this challenge. Hildegard started teaching at UCD after I graduated. One of my favorite experiences while in school was challenging our professors to a taste off. 7 wines were tasted blind and all we had to do was guess the varietal and origin. I am proud to say us students bested our professors (all of whom's names are synonomous with CA Vit and Enology study for the last 30 years) We scored 8 out of 14 and the profs scored 7 out of 14. Both failing grades for sure but very clearly illustrating the difficulty of this type of sensory evaluation. It did not help that the student that chose the wines had mischief up her sleeve when she picked a Moldovan Merlot among other seemingly impossible selections.

JT4 said...

We tried tasting new world style wines vs. old world style wines. We got three of each from a trusted retailer. My daughter, who is working on the 3rd level for her Master Sommelier, just sniffed them and got them all correct. Way beyond my skill level.

Jeff van de Pol said...

As a UC Davis V&E alumnus who attended Dr. Heymann's sensory classes, I can confidently make two statements. One: Dr. H's classes were among the most rigorous and challenging I ever encountered. Two: they were quite possibly the most valuable classes in my time at UCD.

The topic of wine price-to-quality is always an interesting debate. However, my key takeaway from the tasting discussed in this article was that one needs to enter into any tasting with no preconceived notions.

There were other similar tastings in this course that emphasized this point: for example, we were asked to rank a set of five wines (which we did, and then fiercely debated the rankings) only to learn afterwards that all five were the exact same wine.

These sorts of tastings helped (me, at least) to taste as objectively as possible. At the time, it was especially valuable because I wasn't yet that experienced, so it established the right perspective early.

As my career in the winemaking industry has continued, I find that I am continually utilizing the lessons I learned at UCD, and esp Dr. Heymann's classes.

Put another way, she kicked our asses in school, and I am forever thankful.

I also recommend these sorts of tastings to all wine lovers; it is educational in the very best of ways.



Bob Henry said...

Dear JvdP,

As someone who matriculated through UC Davis, you are probably familiar with Maynard Amerine, Edward Roessler’s reference book titled “Wines - Their Sensory Evaluation.”


Possibly even Émile Peynaud’s “The Taste of Wine: The Art and Science of Wine Appreciation.”


Let me introduce to one more that makes up the troika.

The late Canadian wine writer Andrew Sharp wrote a wonderful consumer guide titled "Winetaster's Secrets."


[Backgrounder on author:]

Quoting Robert Parker book review:

"An extremely well written book with the most informative and perceptive chapters on wine tasting I have read. This is the finest book for both beginners and serious wine collectors about the actual tasting process -- lively, definitive and candid."

Every time I open up my highly annotated and dog-eared copy, I learn (or recall) something new and important.

Highly, highly recommended.

~~ Bob

Jeff van de Pol said...


I am most definitely familiar with the works of Amerine, Roessler, and Peynaud (in fact, they were required reading at UCD). Like you, I find that I am often referring back to many of these texts even now (which is more than I can say for those boxes of university notebooks collecting dust in my garage).

One thing that surprised me almost immediately upon entering the V&E program was the emphasis on legacy. The professors, almost all considered at the top of their fields, were actually quite humble, and routinely referenced/paid respect to Olmo, Amerine, Meredith, et al.

I suppose this is why I rankle a bit when the UCD V&E program is stereotyped as a high-falutin, wine-by-the-numbers institution. Sure, the academic rigor is important, but what I still remember most about my time there was the passion for making beautiful wine (from both the professors and the students), and the humility that comes from recognizing our industry in the US is still a youngster, and that we owe much to our predecessors.

OK, enough soapboxing. Back to harvest,


Jeff van de Pol

P.S. I look forward to reading Sharp's book. Thank you for the recommendation.

Bob Henry said...




In inexperienced markets there is wide and misplaced belief in a correlation between price and quality.



Almost one third of China's richest citizens have admitted they know nothing about wine and just buy top end brands for gifting or displaying.



Veblen goods –

Excerpt: “Some types of luxury goods, such as high-end wines, designer handbags, and luxury cars, are Veblen goods, in that decreasing their prices decreases people's preference for buying them because they are no longer perceived as exclusive or high-status products.”

Giffen goods –

Excerpt: “Some types of premium goods (such as expensive French wines, or celebrity-endorsed perfumes) are sometimes claimed to be Giffen goods. It is claimed that lowering the price of these high status goods can decrease demand because they are no longer perceived as exclusive or high status products.”


"Great Winemakers of California: Conversations with Robert Benson"

Interviews with 28 California winemakers.



"New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff"



[Los Angeles Times profiles:

-- and --,0,1104958,full.story]


~~ BOB

Bob Henry said...


I just "Googled" you to learn your winery affiliation.

I enjoy Chimney Rock wines for restraint: not too ripe or alcoholic. Harkening back to the style of 1970s and 1980s California Cabernets.

Not at risk of red wine "premox."

From Decanter Magazine
(May 24, 2013):

"Red Wines May Have Premature Oxidation Problems, Say Bordeaux Researchers"

By Jane Anson
Reporting from Bordeaux



~~ Bob

Anonymous said...

I would be curious to see such a tasting (with controls on vintage, region, grape) to be compared via industry professional groups.

Meaning, how would a group of winemakers compare to a group of wine writers, to a group of sommeliers, to a group of wine Wholesale/Import decision makers and to a group of serious (knowledgeable) wine consumers.

Most interesting blind tasting from my memory was the one I passed to be allowed to take the Master Sommelier exam.

I tasted the six wines and on the last one I guessed Nebbiolo, 20+ years old, Barolo or Barbaresco from 1978 vintage. I was asked by the tasting panel which was it Barolo or Barbaresco! Thought I had given them all I could yet they wanted more. I just took a guess. I passed so must have been right... or close enough. Many other exam tasters thought it was Old Rioja (they did not pass). I really don't like never knowing what wines were in any of those exams that I took back then.

Douglas Trapasso said...

As soon as I read this, my thought was, “This would make an awesome 'Price is Right' game”!