Can a cheap wine be a winner at dinner?

30th January, 2010

Dear Economist,
As an economics student, I look to impress my girlfriend on a budget, and I know I am not alone. When it comes to choosing the wine to have with dinner, on the rare occasion that I get to take my girlfriend out, I avoid going for the cheapest bottle, as this makes me look, er, cheap. So instead I go for the second-cheapest bottle. But now I hear that restaurants, having cottoned on to people like me, ensure the second-cheapest bottle is highly profitable, overpriced plonk. My best response now is to go for the third-cheapest bottle, at least until everyone else does the same. Or is it? Based on price alone, what is the best bottle to buy?
William Nicolson

Dear William,

You assume that the price of the wine and its quality can be neatly separated out. This seems reasonable, but is wrong. Price changes the very experience of quality. Neuro-economists have found, for instance, that while placebo painkillers work, they work best if the subject thinks they are expensive. Energy drinks give you less energy if you buy them at a discount. (Yes, really.) And of course, wine tastes better if you believe that it is expensive.

One possibility is to conceal the price of wine from your girlfriend and tell her you’re buying the expensive stuff when in fact you are buying the house red. This is a white lie: many people prefer the taste of cheap wine in blind tastings, and by claiming it is expensive you will quite genuinely improve the way she thinks it tastes.

If your girlfriend knows nothing about wine, this will work. If she knows more than you about wine – which seems likely – then why not invite her to choose? You’ll get a better bottle. And if she blithely splashes your money around, console yourself: you will have learnt a lesson about her that would have been even more costly to learn later.

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