Black Box wines

Is there really a difference between cheap and expensive wine, and can most wine consumers tell the difference? Yes and no.

After all, wine has been made the same way for thousands of years. Then and now, grapes are grown, harvested when ripe, stomped or pressed, placed in vat or container to ferment, then separated from skins, seeds and pith to be bottled into hopefully a palatable libation.

Ancient wines were generally pretty terrible, as evidenced by the fact they often had other ingredients like honey or roots or spices added to them to make them more pleasing.

Modernization of the wine industry has made it unnecessary to add anything to wine to make it more palatable. The consistency of modern-day winemaking makes it more difficult to determine the difference between the quality of expensive vs. inexpensive wines.

Last week on NBC’s Today Show, national investigative journalist Jeff Rossen, of Rossen Report fame, showed once again a wine social experiment conducted in New York in 2016 with a young savvy group of wine-tasters.

The group was invited to a Rossen Report wine tasting to determine if these experienced wine aficionados could tell the difference between cheap and expensive wine. The guests were not told that all of the wines they would be tasting were Black Box boxed wines, which if bottled would sell for about $5.

Prior to the arrival of the guests, Rossen’s staff filled bottles from boxes of sauvignon blanc and pinot noir. They had fancy labels printed reading “Boite du vin” (French for “box wine”).

Rossen worked the room during the course of the evening, questioning guests for their opinions on wines served. All guests gave favorable reviews, using words like “refreshing,” “smooth,” “yummy,” “full bodied” and “spice notes.” In other words, there was a lot of wine-speak in the room.

After the initial tasting, Rossen asked guests to evaluate two different glasses of wine and then tell which of the two wines they liked best. He did not tell them the glasses were filled from the same box. In each instance, the guests all had a preference, although the wines were identically the same.

Before revealing the ruse, Rossen asked guests how much they would be willing to pay for the wines served that evening. All questioned said they would pay from $20 to $48 dollars for such a bottle.

All took the deception in good stride when the facts of the evening were revealed. When asked if they would serve the wines they had enjoyed that evening, one participant answered affirmatively — if Rosen would loan her his fancy bottles.

While Rossen tricked his guests, even experts can be fooled if they are tasting wine blindly, even after being truthfully told one wine is expensive and the other is not. Wine literature is replete with examples of such experiments, proving experts can be fooled.

One such experiment was undertaken by Frederic Brochet, a researcher from Bordeaux who asked 57 wine experts to evaluate two glasses of red wine. Unbeknownst to the tasters, one of the wines was actually a white wine that had been tinted with red food coloring. Not one of the 57 wine experts picked up on the fact that the colored wine was actually a white wine.

In a second test, Brochet poured generic red Bordeaux into two different bottles, one with a grand cru label and the other with an ordinary table wine label. Though the wines were identical, the one with the fancy grand cru label got favorable reviews from the experts, while the table wine was described as “weak,” “short,” “light,” “flat” and “faulty.”

Is there a moral to all of this? Yes, don’t be guided by price alone, because it is not necessarily an indication of quality.

Taste an array of wines without price consideration. Don’t dismiss a wine because it is moderately priced, but most of all, don’t let price influence expectations for a wine’s performance.

For the new year, aspire to drink wines you find pleasing — even if they come from a can, box or an etched bottle. 

Pat Kettles writes about wine and spirits every other Wednesday. Contact her at