How to Buy a Bottle of Wine: Buyer’s Guide to Good Wine

Selecting wine can be an intimidating or even  overwhelming experience. Thousands of bottles from around the world line the shelves. They range in price from $3.00 to $300.00 or more. Which one will you buy? Do you know how to buy a bottle of wine?


They sometimes bear gold stickers proclaiming their victories in wine competitions. They often sport neck hangers touting their ‘wine score.’ But this can be confusing.

There are conflicting ratings from The Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator, The Wine Enthusiast, Wines Spirits, International Wine Cellar, Connoisseurs Guide, and many others.

How to buy a bottle of wineIt’s often said that ‘you get what you pay for.’ That suggests paying a high price. On the other hand, perhaps an even wiser strategy would be simply asking friends for their recommendations.

Is your head spinning? Here are some ideas on how to buy a bottle of wine.

Consumer Judgments

Can consumers really taste the differences between a budget and an expensive wine? British psychologist Richard Wiseman decided to see. He asked 578 visitors to the Edinburgh Science Fair to taste red and white wines.

Half of the whites and half of the reds cost much more than the others. Tasters identified the more expensive wine only 53% of the time. That’s essentially no better than chance – – flipping a coin. Picking the more expensive red wines was particularly difficult. For example, only 39% correctly identified the more expensive choice among the Bordeaux.1

Other researchers used a sample of over 6,000 blind wine tasting comparisons. They found that ‘the correlation between price and overall rating is small and negative, suggesting that individuals on average enjoy more expensive wines slightly less.’2

Expert Descriptions of Wine

What about using the descriptions of experts? That sounds like a better idea. At the University of California at Davis, ‘researchers secretly added color to a dry white wine to simulate a sauterne, sherry, rose, Bordeaux and burgundy, and then asked experts to rate the sweetness of the various wines. Their sweetness judgments reflected the type of wine they thought they were drinking.’3  This doesn’t reflect well on the ability of the wine experts.

In an experiment by Fredric Brochet at the University of Bordeaux, 54 wine experts were asked to describe the taste of a glass of red and a glass of white wine. They described the red wine in terms typical of red wine, such ‘jammy’ and ‘crushed red fruit.’

Unknown to the experts was that both glasses were white. The ‘red’ wine was actually white wine to which tasteless red food coloring had been added.4    The apparent color of the wine was enough to influence dramatically their perceptions of the same white wine.

Another Study

In another study, Brochet asked 57 experts to describe two wines. One was from a prestigious châteaux. The other was an ordinary table wine. The resulting descriptions were strikingly different.

Unknown to the experts was that both the prestigious and the ordinary wines were really the same wine, a middling Bordeaux. Nevertheless, the supposed grand cru was described as ‘full,’ ‘complex,’ ‘balanced,’ ‘excellent,’ and ‘premier.’ The supposed ordinary vin de table was found to be ‘weak,’ ‘simple,’ ‘flat,’ and ‘faulty.’5

The Wine News printed an expert’s description of ‘a Silverado Limited Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 that sells for more than $100 a bottle: ‘˜Dusty, chalky scents followed by mint, plum, tobacco and leather. Tasty cherry with smoky oak accents’¦’ Another publication, The Wine Advocate, describes a wine as having ‘˜promising aromas of lavender, roasted herbs, blueberries, and black currants.’ What is striking about this pair of descriptions is that, although they are very different, they are descriptions of the same Cabernet. One taster lists eight flavors and scents, the other four, and none of them coincide.’6

This isn’t surprising because not even flavor-trained professionals can reliably detect more than three or four compounds in a mixture.7

Simple Test

To determine if wine consumers could match wines to the descriptions given by experts, Roman Weil conducted a simple test. He selected wines of similar characteristics (including grape type, color of wine, regional origin, sweetness, and age). They had been described by the same expert using very different words.

The pairs were given blind to testers, who were mostly highly educated upper middle-class individuals who were experienced and avid wine drinkers, but not experts. Each taster was given one wine in one glass and a second wine in two other glasses. They had to distinguish the two wines from each other.

They were able to do this much better than if done solely by chance. Those tasters who successfully distinguished between the wines were then asked to match each with the descriptions given by wine experts. Only 49.4% were able to do so correctly.

Weil concluded that ‘Wine drinkers cannot match better than chance wines with their descriptions. Wine words used by critics to convey analogy to fruits, vegetables, minerals, and odors are worthless.’8

Good Vintages

What about using good vintages as a guide? Weil tested whether or not tasters could distinguish between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ vintages. He based vintage quality on the judgments of the world’s leading wine expert, Robert Parker, Jr. The good vintages were those Parker had ranked as Excellent to The Finest. The bad vintages were those he had ranked Average to Appalling.

The tasters were again mostly highly educated wine enthusiasts rather than experts. They were given wines blind from the same producers except for vintage. Weil found that his 240 wine drinkers could not distinguish between wines of good and bad vintages, except for Bordeaux. (It apparently produces some truly appalling vintages.)

Moreover, even when they could distinguish, their preferences for the good over the bad vintages were no better than pure chance.9 That is, they were about as likely to prefer the poor one as the good one.

Reserve Wines

Perhaps buying a reserve rather than a regular bottling of a producer’s wine would be wise. The vintner has judged that some of the wine is superior and labeled it reserve (or a similar term).

In this test, Weil gave tasters wine from a reserve and a regular bottling from the same producer and year. As in the earlier tests, the tasters were avid wine drinkers, but not experts. Nevertheless, they were not particularly good at distinguishing between reserve and regular wine. Of those who were able to identify the reserve, fewer than 52% preferred it to the regular wine.10 This, in spite of the vast differences in prices. For example, $56 for the regular but $200 for the reserve wine.

Wine Competition Winners

In 2012, Rudy Kurniawan was convicted of massive wine fraud involving the sale of over $20,000,000 of counterfeit rare wine. His fraud was not uncovered because someone tasted the deception. Not a single expert did. He was caught only because he made mistakes on some of the labels.21

What about using groups of experts such as the panels that judge wine competitions? Charles Shaw Chardonnay won the top prize at the most prestigious wine competition in the US. It’s the California State Fair Commercial Wine Competition. The Charles Shaw won by beating out over 350 competitors. The wine is better known as Two Buck Chuck and sells for under three dollars. But it won top prize, the Double Gold. Second place was won by an $18 wine. The most expensive entrant, at $55, failed to win any medal.

This suggests that price is a poor indicator of quality. Something seems amiss with either the judges or the prices. They can’t both be right about quality. Fred Franzia of Charles Shaw says he sells his wine for a fair price and that others are charging too much.11

France vs New Jersey

Soon thereafter, another blind competition included world-famous and very expensive Bordeaux wines such as Chateau Mouton Rothschild and Chateau Haut-Brion. They were pitted against wines made in New Jersey. The nine experts judging the competition were French, Belgian, and American. A French wine was ranked the highest in both red and white categories. That, although both French judges preferred the New Jersey reds over those from Bordeaux. Clos des Mouches barely edged out Unionville Single Vineyard and two other Jersey white wines.12

The Bordeaux wines cost about twenty times as much as those from New Jersey. But there was also wide variance among judges. For example, scores for Mouton Rothschild ranged from 11.0 to 19.5.13 A statistical analysis of the scores was made by Princeton Professor Richard Quandt. He found that the rank order of the wines was of little significance. The rankings were not reliable and would probably be different even if the same judges repeated the comparison.14  Are the New Jersey wines under-priced or are the Bordeaux wines over-priced?

A vintner told writer Peter Hellman about a winery that sent three bottles of the same wine with three different labels to a competition. Two bottles were rejected, one with the comment ‘undrinkable.’ The third bottle, containing the identical wine, was awarded a double gold medal.15

Hodgson Study

Robert Hodgson made  a study of over 4,000 entrants in 13 wine competitions. He found ‘that (1) there is almost no consensus among the 13 wine competitions regarding wine quality, (2) for wines receiving a Gold medal in one or more competitions, it is very likely that the same wine received no award at another, (3) the likelihood of receiving a Gold medal can be statistically explained by chance alone.’16

‘The academic literature on the taste and quality of different wines is robust and damning: when tasting wines without reference to their name, type, or price, no one can consistently identify them or rate their quality.’17
Harry Waugh

Few wine experts ever acknowledge their limitations. But ‘A legendary wine master, the late Harry Waugh, was once asked when he’d last confused a wine from Bordeaux for one from Burgundy. ‘˜Not since lunchtime,’ he said.’18  Another humble expert was the Bordeaux winemaker who told of his embarrassment at a blind wine tasting in which he failed to identify his own wine.19

Perhaps the vintner should have taken his failure as a badge of pride. After all, Dr. Brouchet said of wine experts, ‘the more training they have, the more mistakes they make.”20  That’s hyperbolic, but it does imply that the judgments of wine experts are little better, if at all, than those of anyone else on the street.

How to Buy a Bottle of Wine: What’s a Consumer to Do?  

An anonymous blogger responded to the inability of expert tasters to differentiate between expensive and other wines. The comment was that just because they can’t taste the difference, doesn’t mean it’s not there. But why would anyone want to pay more for supposed quality that neither they nor experts can taste? Feelings of inadequacy? Snobbery? Desire to consume conspicuously?

Where does this leave consumers trying to buy a bottle of wine? The evidence doesn’t support the idea of relying on opinions of consumers, descriptions by experts, opinions of experts, good vintages, panels of experts, reserve wines, awards from wine competitions, or price. So, how to buy a bottle of wine?

A reasonable suggestion would be to start by trying a variety of inexpensive wines. Then try buying more expensive examples of your favorites. Doing so blind would obviously be necessary. Continue this process until you find that the increased price seems to bring no increase in preference. The lower that price point is, the more fortunate you will be.

Ultimately, you are the one to decide how to buy a bottle of wine.

A votre sante’, skoal, l’chayim, salud, prost, or, in English, “to your health.” But always in moderation.

Readings (Popular) on how to buy a bottle of wine.

Readings (Scholarly) on how to buy a bottle of wine.

  • Ali, H.H., et al. The Impact of Gurus: Parker Grades and en Primeur Wine Prices. AAEA Working Paper No.1, 2007.
  • Benjamin, B.A., et al. Status, quality, and social order in the California wine industry. Admin Sci Q.,  1999, 44, 563-589.
  • Goldstein, R., et al. Do more expensive wines taste better? Evidence from a large sample of blind tastings. J Wine Econ., 2008, 3(1), 1’“9.
  • Hodgson, R.T. An examination of judge reliability at a major U.S. wine competition. J Wine Econ., 2008, 3, 105-113.
  • Landon, S., and Smith, C.E. The use of quality and reputation indicators by consumers: the case of Bordeaux wine. J Consum Pol., 1997, 20, 289-323.
  • Lecocq, S., and Visser, M. What determines wine prices: objective vs. sensory characteristics. J Wine Econ., 2006, 1(1), 42-56.
  • Oczkowski, E. A hedonic price function for Australian premium wine. Austral J Ag Econ., 1994. 38, 93-110.
  • Quandt, R. E. On wine bullshit: some new software. J Wine Econ., 2007, 2(2), 129-135.
  • Schamel, G., and Anderson, K. Wine quality and varietal, regional and winery reputations: hedonic prices for Australia and New Zealand.  Econ Rec., 2003, 79(246), 357-369.
  • Weil, R. L. Parker v. Prial: the death of the vintage chart. Chance, 2001, 14(4), 27-31.
  • Weil, R. L. Analysis of reserve and regular bottlings: why pay for a difference only the critics claim to notice? Chance, 2005, 18(3), 9-15.
  • Weil, R. L. Debunking critics’ wine words: can one distinguish the smell of asphalt from the taste of cherries? (No accounting for taste). J Wine Econ., 2007, 2(2), 136-144.

References for How to Buy a Bottle of Wine.


1. Hellman, P. Wine – it’s all in your head. New York Post, May 15, 2011.

2.  Goldstein, R., et al. Do more expensive wines taste better? Evidence from a large sample of blind tastings. J Wine Econ., 2008, 3(1), 1’“9.

3.  Weil, R.L. Analysis of Reserve and Regular Bottlings: Why Pay for a Difference Only the Critics Claim to Notice?  Vineyard Data Quantification Society.

4.   Brouchet, F. Chemical Object Representation in the Field of Consciousness. Presentation. Posted on website of the Amorim Academy.

5.  Brouchet, ibid.

6. Mlodinow, L. A Hint of Hype, A Taste of Illusion. Wall Street J., November 20, 2009.

7.  Livermore, A. and Laing, D.G. Influence of training and experience on the perception of multicomponent odor mixtures. J Exper Psych: Human Percep Performan., 1996, 22(2), 267-277.

8.  Weil, R.L. Debunking Critics’ Wine Words: Can One Distinguish the Smell of Asphalt from the Taste of Cherries? (No Accounting for Taste). Vineyard Data Quantification Society. May 22, 2004.

9.   Weil, R.L. Parker v. Prial: The Death of the Vintage Chart. Vineyard Data Quantification Society. May 21, 2001.

10.  Weil, R. L. Analysis of reserve and regular bottlings: why pay for a difference only the critics claim to notice? Chance, 2005, 18(3),9-15.

11. ABC News. California’s Wine Surprise, July 12, 2007.

12. Lehrer, J. Does All Wine Taste the Same? The New Yorker June 13, 2012.

13.  Lehrer, ibid.

14.  Cowen, T. Karl Storchmann reports from the front: French wines vs. Jersey wines. Marginal Revolution website, June 13, 2012.

15.  Hellman, Peter., 2011.

16.  Hodgson, R.T. An Analysis of the Concordance Among 13 U.S. Wine Competition. J Wine Econ., 2009, 4, 1-9.

17.  The Price of Wine. Priceonomics website, March 20, 2913.

18.   Hellman, P. Wine – it’s all in your head. New York Post, May 15, 2011.

19.   Hellman, ibid.

20.   Downey, R. Wine snob scandal. Seattle Weekly, February 20, 2002.

21. Steinberger, M. The vintage crime.  Vanity Fair: Culture, July 2012.