Economist’s advice: Tell her it’s expensive and she will like it more

Tim Harford writes a column in the weekend FT called “Dear Economist: Resolving readers’ dilemmas with the tools of Adam Smith.” This week he takes up the topic of wine thanks to a letter from a student who wants to impress his girlfriend in a restaurant despite being on a budget. Here’s Harford’s advice:

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.

Perhaps. But buying expensive wine might make the student look profligate. Or like a chump since price is actually an unreliable indicator of a wine’s quality especially as there are so many values in the market today. And, if caught, passing off Prosecco at vintage Champagne prices might deflate more than the bubbles on the table.

In fact, there are other ways for this student to impress rather than price: I say choose a restaurant with a good wine list, order a Zweigelt, an easy-drinking red from Austria that suffers a discount because nobody thinks they can pronounce it, or a lip-smacking, natural cru Beaujolais. After she has tried it and loves it, tell her the wine is a steal. Or go to a nice BYOB and scope out something at a good shop beforehand. You don’t have to be an economist to think that finding a terrific wine value is pretty damn sexy.

What’s your advice?

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20 Responses to “Economist’s advice: Tell her it’s expensive and she will like it more”

  1. Lying to your date about how much the wine costs? Yes, in my experience lying to girls to impress them is effective.

    My advice: enjoy the wine experience together, and quit worrying about “impressing” her.

  2. Knowledge is more impressive than simply flashing cash. Order an obscure wine (hopefully one you’ve tried before so you know it to be good enough) which is not too expensive and have an anecdote ready about the producer/region/vintage. Doesn’t matter if you have to make the anecdote up, but knowing details about an uncommon wine will get you smartie points.

    As an aside, when ordering a wine it looks better if you don’t point at the list to indicate the which one you want. When you’ve decided on your bottle put the wine list down and, when asked, reel off the name of the wine from memory. Of course, in restaurants without a decent sommelier you may have to point at the wine-list, but try not doing so first; it’ll make you look confident and knowledgeable.

  3. If you are going to a good restaurant with a wine steward or sommelier, call ahead to discuss some wines and your budget. If you decide on a wine over the phone, the restaurant can have it ready for you at the table decanted or on ice, which is sure to impress. Or, when you are seated, the sommelier can recommend a number of bottles to you and your date that are within the price range you discussed. Numbers need not be talked about. A bit of planning ahead goes a long way!

  4. Better yet, make dinner at your place with a great wine pairing and call it a night. You can show off your culinary skills, wine skills and then let the chips fall where they may. It is just too easy not to do it.

  5. Cheap and plenty of it. You’ll both get drunk and enjoy the night

  6. There’s often an imbalance in the level of interest involved and what’s going to make the best impression. This guy is stressing out about the wine, but she probably won’t care. She’s probably stressing out about which shoes to wear, but he’s not going to notice them or even be able to see them during the dinner. People get way too anxious about wine (and clothes for that matter). And if she knows more about wine than him, the guy is hosed anyway.

    The one bit of real advice I’d give to the boy is to pick a wine or a grape with a story, and learn that story well. The story of how Malbec got to Argentina and thrived, or some Italian grape that was praised by the Roman empire, or how lots of the older California wineries have funny Prohibition stories. I’ve learned that people who aren’t wine fanatics will get much more engaged in the wine as opposed to aroma/flavor/price/etc.

  7. I just read Robin Goldstein’s “The Wine Trials 2010” which addresses this subject in detail. He refers to numerous academic studies on the relationship of price to perceived quality. These studies found that “knowing” (even if it’s a false price) that a wine is expensive has a direct impact on the perceived taste and enjoyment of the wine. So while price may not be a reliable indicator of quality as perceived by expert critics, it still plays a major function in the general consumers’ perception of quality.

    We know taste is a very subjective thing and with wine it’s even more so. So while we’d all like to think our palates—and even expert critics” — are not influenced by external stimuli such as price and label, the reality is we are.

    And at the end of the day if those stimuli cause us to enjoy a given wine more, what’s bad about that?

    As for Zweigelt, I believe it along with other indigenous Austrian varietals including Grüner Veltliner and Blaufrankisch represent excellent QPR in spite of, not because of, the difficulty of pronunciation.

    But the real issue you raised is about how best to impress a girlfriend. If she’s not a wine connoisseur and the only information she has is how much something costs, she’s not worth impressing anyway. But if the price means she enjoys the wine more…and possibility exists that she will enjoy the rest of the evening too…well, that’s a very good thing.

  8. Don’t attempt to impress with the cost of something. If it works you will be paying for it the rest of your life–literally.

  9. Everyone’s points above is valid: from the ” impress me with the price” date to the Rathskeller Yellow Tail drinker. A simple (or simplistic) equation I go for is price vs age (example: Southern Rhone varietal 2001 at $40 vs. Spanish Ribera el douro 2006 at $38). If I see an older wine on the list that is on par with an equally priced younger wine, I’ll order that. Figuring that it has had some time to age and thus produce some pleasant surprises in flavor, and that it has somehow been cared for over the years by someone. So far I’ve never been disappointed with what’s been brought to table.

  10. Wow, these are some of the most thoughtful comments I remember on a blog for quite some time. Great topic to stir up, Dr Vino!

    I firmly believe that being genuine is what is the most attractive thing. If you know your wine stuff, then order the best you can in the price range that you are willing to spend on that date. If you don’t know your wines, then ask if she has a preference, and then trust the sommelier to match it with food and tell them how much you are willing to spend. I’d recommend ~50-70/bottle if you are on a first date with a non-wino girl. But first and foremost, be genuine and don’t be insecure. Confidence and sincerity score big (at least, that’s what I believe).

    Best regards,
    Iron Chevsky.

  11. Yes, I saw this (I cadge my neighbor’s used copies)and my first thought was that the columnist was awfully slow off the mark–serious studies of the phenomenon are old hat by now. Second thought: typical young-male stupidity of the sort almost all of use have committed and now blush at; it’s in our DNA as the shoe-obsession is in hers.3rd thought: Boettcher’s DIY advice always worked for me: when things went badly, the damage was minimal, and when they went well, soft seating and total privacy were readily available.
    4th thought: eventually most of learned to do this the easy way. Stretch the budget a little; dine where you’re at least a semi-regular (rather than some palace where you’re a stranger–or regarded as an interloper); dress a little better than you usually do to acknowledge the effort she’ll likely put into her outfit (notice her shoes, if they’re heels); try a little chivalry (open doors, etc.); don’t suggest going dutch; be attentive at all times and talk to her eyes instead of her cleavage. And, oh yes, the wine–the least important part of this engagement: order by the glass, especially because she’ll probably be careful not to drink too much.

    5th thought: this column, and FT’s manners column, are mainly facetious.

  12. As others have said, I think planning ahead and having something to say about the wine is the way to go. If she’s worried about you having spent too much, you can always say something like, “Well, it was also a good value, which is always a plus.” If she learns the price and is offended you didn’t spend more, then that’s a big red flag! Making the effort to do something nice while sticking to a budget is a good thing.

  13. Thanks for mentioning the book, Steve, and I completely agree. While there’s no need to go rambling off digits to impress her (and who would want to) there’s plenty of empirical evidence to back up the fact that she’ll enjoy the same wine more if she thinks it’s more expensive.

    Very few of these suggestions are mutually exclusive: the student can order an interesting bottle, learn a good story about it, and still make sure that it at least gives the impression of being “valuable.” After all, if the bottle’s design and quality and the restaurant environment suggest that the wine is expensive, there’s no need to disabuse his date and detract from her enjoyment, however slightly.

  14. “the student can order an interesting bottle, learn a good story about it”

    Noooooooooooo! Please don’t! Don’t tell obscure wine stories in a public place, and especially not in a loud voice. I’m the guy sitting at the next table over and I hate it.

    If I hear you doing that I’m going to start talking on my cell phone. Not only that, I’m going to talk LOUDLY on my cell phone about how some guy at a table next to mine ordered a really cheap bottle of wine for his date. I’m serious. I’m not kidding. I’ll do it.

  15. One more thing: If she thinks it’s really expensive stuff she may well be too intimidated to enjoy it.

    All in all, this bit of trickery is just a bad idea plain and simple.

  16. On a first date? I would go for a nice California Zin with about 17.5% alc. That’s the perfect date wine!

    ok that’s a joke. . .

  17. Fun discussion!

    Bill Marsano, as to your fifth point, yes, I think the column is tongue-in-cheek more often than not. But that doesn’t mean we can’t have a little fun too…

  18. Ah s*xism. Of course it will be the man choosing wine for women, and who will make the better choice…

  19. take her out for a curry and a pint

  20. My suggestion to impress your date but not break the bank is as follows:
    Review the wine list and select a white or red
    (her preferance)that is not the most expensive NOR least expensive. Tend to be slightly above least expensive. I would recommend Pinot Noir
    (pea-no no-are)for the red. Be sure to pronounce
    it correctly. For the white, Viognier (v-own-yea) These are great wines and not the most common so she will be impressed especially if you pronouce them correctly!


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