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Food & Wine Why are some pinot noirs stunningly expensive yet taste no better than my favourite $25 pinot?

The question

I’ve become a fan of pinot noir, but what stuns me are the huge price differences around the world, even for wines within districts such as Oregon, New Zealand and Niagara. I recently tried one called Boedecker Stoller Vineyard from Oregon at $82 because I was curious. While it was very good, I thought it was not really better than Invivo Pinot Noir from Central Otago in New Zealand, at $24.95. I felt a bit conned. How is it that prices are so variable when the quality is relatively equivalent?

The answer

Welcome to the wacky world of fine-wine pricing. As with any product in an open market, wine is governed by supply and demand. The more people want it, and the less of it there is to go around, the more it’s likely to cost. Why would some people want an expensive pinot noir when they could have a cheaper one of comparable quality? For many reasons, it turns out. Here are a few (but not all) of the possibilities:

It’s a matter of taste. While you may prefer a certain wine, others may not feel so keen. We’ve all got a unique configuration of tastebuds, and – perhaps more important – we’ve all been conditioned differently. Some people like high acidity, for example, and some don’t. Some like earthy or grassy notes, while others prefer fruit bombs.

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Wine is complicated. There are far more wine options available to people than there are options for most other consumer products, such as soft drinks or beer. It’s impractical for most people to sample every pinot noir (or any other varietal or style) on the market. That means consumers must base decisions on direct experience that is woefully limited. Your favourite $25 New Zealand pinot noir may represent fantastic value, but I can guarantee that only a tiny minority of wine lovers around the world or in Canada have tasted it.

The buy-before-you-try problem. With most wine purchases, a consumer must commit to purchasing the bottle before sampling the wine. Only in a few cases (notably at a winery store) will a retailer provide a tasting sample. This is distinct from, say, an automobile purchase, where you’ll almost always get a test drive. The same goes for lipstick or even a pair of shoes (unless you’re buying online, in which case I’d recommend against it). And if you’re buying a handbag, all you basically need to do is look at it and feel it to know whether it’s right for you; even a photo and the reputation of the manufacturer are often enough to spare you from nasty surprises. Not so with wine. Much of the time, people are buying on hope, not direct experience.

Pinot noir is a tough-love grape. It’s literally got a thin skin and is temperamental in the vineyard. It often takes extra work and low yields (which is to say, low fruit tonnage per hectare) to produce good pinot noir. If you chance upon a pleasing one for under $25, stick with it and don’t spread the word to social media. (Incidentally, I’m not surprised your go-to pinot comes from New Zealand. In my opinion, it may be the world leader in consistently good, elegant and sanely priced pinot noir.)

The “Veblen effect.” Believe it or not, a lot of consumers prefer to pay more, not less, for wine. (P.T. Barnum would have been very amused by many of today’s self-described connoisseurs.) It was the American economist Thorstein Veblen who first drew attention to the tendency of certain people to yearn more strongly for a luxury good, not less, as the price increases, which is the opposite of how things normally work in a free market. Many rich people (or wannabe rich people) love to separate themselves from the masses by investing in status symbols that the peasants can’t afford. It’s called conspicuous consumption, and it’s usually practised by people without the brains or time to discern genuine quality for themselves. To folks like that, the sticker price is a proxy for quality; if something costs more, it must be better. Shrewd manufacturers, and that includes winemakers, capitalize on that gullibility. I know this from conversations with winemakers, who’ve admitted as much to me.

Incidentally, many wine geeks will pretend to be highly knowledgeable about wine, but they may know next to zilch beyond the names of a few dozen famous labels or trendy small-lot producers. After all, it doesn’t take a car-racing licence or even the ability to drive a stick shift these days to own an exotic, high-performance sports car; all you need is a fat wallet.

E-mail your wine and spirits questions to Beppi Crosariol. Look for answers to select questions to appear in the Wine & Spirits newsletter and on The Globe and Mail website

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