The bottom line is that in blind wine tastings, there is a zero or even slightly negative correlation between the ratings of regular people and the price of the wine they are drinking; for experts the relationship between rating and price is positive.
I enjoyed this short article, and the first blog post it links.
When my friend Mark first started exposing me to decent wine I was subject to numerous blind taste tests in which I was asked to select the more expensive bottle. I was consistently wrong when I first started. I am fooled less easily today, but wine is a very complicated thing and it takes a long time, and a lot of bottles, to get good at it and to have a good appreciation for a wide array of variatals. Thats part of what makes it fun. There is always something new to discover. Something else to learn.
There are some potential problems with running these kinds of blind taste tests particularly with two decanters that contain the same bottle. The first is that the character of a wine changes as it oxidates. If you had the same bottle appearing twice in a taste test, and you tried it first, just after it was opened, and then again after it had been sitting out for half an hour, it would taste much better the second time, particularly if it was higher quality or older.
The second is that your perception of wine is contextual. This is why people pair particular foods with particular kinds of wine, and why wine in general goes well with some kinds of food (like pasta) and terrible with other kinds (like hot wings). What you have tasted before tasting the wine effects your perception of how the wine tastes.
My advice is to always drink your cheapest bottle first. (More expensive does not always mean better, but it often does.) You'll appreciate a really good wine after a glass of average wine even more than you would if you started with that good bottle and you had nothing to compare it to. In the blind taste test if you had tried the repeating bottle first, with no context, you might have given it a medicore rating, and then if you tried it again immediately after having tried a cheap wine, you might have found it singing!
Of course, my sister suggests that I am more impressed with the quality of my wines as the evening goes on and I get more drunk. I insist that this cannot be the case. :)
The economist's suggestion, that ignorance is bliss, is a perfect example of why accounting is the opposite of art. I've found getting better at drinking wine to be very fun and rewarding. Really great wine and really great gourmet food can provide an experience that is completely different than ordinary eating -- its not about satisfying hunger but more about experimenting with the range of flavors that you are capable of experiencing... Its worth knowing why cooking can be considered an art, but you can't just roll up to an expensive restaurant and "get it." You have to learn how to perceive flavor.
The real economic trick to drinking wine is to learn how to find good wines that you like that aren't very expensive. My favorite wine costs 12 dollars a bottle. Its not the best wine I've ever had, but I like it, and its cheap. When I go to a restaurant I can usually find something that tastes good but isn't on the high end of their list. It boils down to avoiding fads and finding quality in regions that other people are ignoring. You have to keep on your toes because sometimes the word gets out and you end up paying more. Spanish wines, for example, are a good place to find value right now, but my perception is that this is changing. California Cabs, on the other hand, are way over priced in general because they are very popular.
Finally, drinking wine is a journey and not a destination. If you are the sort of person who wants to smugly believe that you know your stuff you are not going to have as much fun as someone whose mind is open to the possibility of being surprised by a new experience. Its also a matter of personal preference. Just as different people have different tastes in music, and art, so with wine. The cheaper wine that I like is not the same as the cheaper bottle Mark likes. Its not as if there is some hierarchy of taste that is directly related to price. Any economist should know that expensive means popular relative to availability. When you think popular, think of Britney Spears.
RE: Keep the Cheap Wine Flowing - Freakonomics - Opinion - New York Times Blog