From The Archives: Icon wines – are they worth it?


Following a shiraz tasting, I took the samples of 2003 Penfolds Grange (tasting) and 2004 Henschke Hill of Grace (tasting) out to dinner with friends. As I might have expected, there was a lot of oohing and aahing over what were recognised as icon wines, and what can only be described as incredulity at the prices. These were seasoned wine drinkers, but even they were amazed that Australian wines could be retailing for $550 and $530 respectively.

Over a grand’s worth of wine went down the hatch in a matter of minutes. Both were greatly enjoyed, but probably not that much more than any other good Aussie red costing a tenth, or even a 20th of those prices. They certainly didn’t give 20 times the pleasure of a decent $25 shiraz. These drinkers were all from the arts community and they didn’t need any explanation of how the phenomenon of fame can inflate the price of an artist’s work.

Wine in the 21st century has in fact become like art: a great reputation can boost its price way beyond its intrinsic worth. The fact that people willingly pay those prices is an acknowledgement that a wine can be worth far more than the cost of the grapes, the bottle and the winemaking effort. Over and above the reputation for high quality built over many years, there’s the investment value (the belief that the price will continue to rise as the years roll by), the fame and star-factor of the winemaker perhaps, and at least with Hill of Grace, the scarcity of a small-production wine, and the difficult-to-quantify factor of a single discrete vineyard which is composed of ancient vines of unique genetic stock.

But, let’s return to the actual fluid inside the bottle. No doubt most people who get to drink Grange or Hill of Grace enjoy it. A lot. But how many drinkers would be able to pick it as a great wine, if it was served to them in an unmarked glass alongside two other glasses of similar but much cheaper wine? Would untrained tasters rank the icon wine as the best?

Probably not, if research I’ve been reading is correct.

There is an American Association of Wine Economists (a scary thought in itself) and they’ve published a working paper (number 16, dated April 2008) which concludes that there is no correlation between the price of wine and the pleasure people receive from it. The same goes for critics’ scores. If you have the patience to wade through statistics and boring methodology, you can read the paper at, but I wouldn’t encourage you. The researchers, led by a wine critic named Robin Goldstein, carried out an impressive-sounding 6,000 blind tastings, and the title is “Do more expensive wines taste better?” Their simple answer is “No.”

Their abstract begins: “Individuals who are unaware of the price do not derive more enjoyment from more expensive wine.” And “The correlation between price and overall rating is small and negative, suggesting that individuals on average enjoy more expensive wines slightly less.” They do acknowledge that for people with wine training (which is not defined), “there are indications of a positive relationship between price and enjoyment”.

At first glance, it seems pretty good reason for wine critics to hang up their tasting glasses for good. But these results are no surprise to professionals in the wine game. Enjoyment of wine has always been a personal thing. Even in formal tastings such as show judging, while most pros agree on the formal parameters of quality, there is always a subjective element, and this becomes more important when judges are asked which wines they would actually like to sit down and drink.

I would need to know a lot more about the wines that were served in this experiment before making more comment. Expensive red wines, for example, are often designed to age and may have tannin and/or acidity which many people may find disagreeable when the wines are young.

On the other hand, cheaper reds are designed expressly to be drunk young and are softer, lighter and more approachable upon release. It’s been proved many times before that most people prefer soft wines, and for reds that means low tannin; for whites, low acidity. (This partly explains why semillon, riesling and cabernet are harder to sell, while chardonnay, shiraz and pinot gris are easier.)

Another point: the more expensive a wine, the more likely it is that external factors are contributing to its price, such as pedigree or reputation, rarity, value as a collectable, and – again – potential for ageing.


Another piece of research to catch my eye was a paper published by Professor Antonio Rangel, of the California Institute of Technology, in the ‘Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences’. He used functional MRI brain scanners to monitor the pleasure people received from tasting wines. He found that when price was disclosed, people preferred what they were told was the most expensive wine – even though it was actually the same wine they were told was cheap.

Prof Rangel gave his 20 respondents the same cabernet sauvignon and told them it cost anything from US$5 to US$90 a bottle. They liked the $90 sample best and the $5 sample least.

Well, you don’t need an MRI scanner to realise that some people are gullible and easily led.

Again, this phenomenon is well known in wine circles and there is no doubt that some wine producers have used high prices as a deliberate ploy to boost their wines’ image. In my experience, this is seldom successful unless the wine is very good. But, as always, some people exercise their critical powers more than others, and there is an old legal saying: caveat emptor (let the buyer beware).

When faced with a $530 Hill of Grace, there are many possible responses. “No wine is worth that much!” is one. Another could be: “It depends how much you can afford to pay, and how much you desire that wine.”

Another old wine trade saying is: “Good wine is seldom too expensive; bad wine always is.”

*First published in the Sydney Morning Herald Good Living in 2008

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