Cheap Food and Expensive Wine

Frank Bruni is right, I think:

The same plate of pasta goes down a lot easier at $12 — it even tastes better at $12 — than it does at $16.

Why does food behave in the opposite manner to wine, in this respect? The same bottle of wine, we know, will taste better the more expensive it is. Yet while price reassures us in the case of wine, and even intimidates us into liking the bottle more, it seems to serve no such role in the case of food, where we’re much more likely to consider a high price a sign of being ripped off.

Part of the answer, I think, is that almost everybody has wine insecurities. If we know that wine quality is inversely correlated with price, then why do we feel guilty bringing a cheap bottle of wine to a dinner party? Probably because if it turns out not to be very good, the "but it was quite expensive" defense is a reasonable one. When navigating a strange and scary and unfamiliar land – which is how most people feel when they enter a wine shop – one grasps at anything one knows, which means that people (a) buy brands they recognize, and (b) navigate by price, in the absence of any other means by which to narrow down the selection.

Very few people, by contrast, are insecure when it comes to food. They know what they like, and while they might well be willing to pay a lot of money for a great meal, they’re generally even happier when they pay very little money for a great meal. What’s more, if there’s one big secular trend in the restaurant world, it’s away from the three-star gourmet palaces of old, where you dressed for dinner and were served ostentatiously expensive food like Lobster Thermidor on fine china by obsequious waiters, and towards much more low-key shops which concentrate on the food more than the theater and which pride themselves on doing great things with formerly déclassé ingredients.

Interestingly, it’s the grander, more high-theater holdouts which still tend to have the magnificent wine lists full of really expensive bottles. Maybe the more casual places know that without the accompanying palaver, a great wine won’t seem quite as magnificent.

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