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Having fun, writing about the stuff I like

Not Value at ANY Price

Oscar Foulkes September 25, 2005 Uncategorized No comments

A few months ago I flew to Johannesburg on Kulula. I had flown with them before, and the experience then was relatively painless. This time the aircraft was an MD-10, which has the engines attached to the fuselage at the rear of the plane. I sat in mortal terror at the back. The scream of the engines left me nearly deaf; the perilous shaking of the aircraft on ascent and descent had me in a cold sweat. I am generally a relaxed flier, but this time I was nauseous with fear.

Even at a ticket price of R1 this would not have been a ‘value’ experience.

There is something similarly perverse in lauding a group of wines largely scoring a theoretically undrinkable two or two-and-a-half stars (Wine magazine’s Best Value Guide). It didn’t help that the unfortunately named Bat’s Rock was the winning red wine (I have a friend who calls undrinkable wines “bat’s p*ss”).

I drink wine for the flavour, not the effect (that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!), and food is not only about nourishment. I’m not in a position to buy any wine that takes my fancy, but regardless of how cheap the wine, if I don’t like it then I’d rather drink beer.

I suspect, also, that the scores reflect the context in which the wines were tasted. Judges would expect the majority of wines submitted for this kind of contest to fall into a one-star range either side of two stars. In a panel tasting for the main part of Wine magazine, they would be looking for wines that could be worthy of four stars, or more. So, there are wines in the Guide that were ranked alongside (and above) wines costing R70 to R150 when tasted for the magazine. No matter how good a taster one is, the overall milieu affects the scores awarded.

Playing around with the formula which drives the Value Rating System, I determined that a R35 wine composed of premium grapes would need to earn a rating of five stars to get the magical 10. A Pinotage at this price can’t do better than 9, even if it gets five stars. Similarly a R39 Cabernet that gets five stars. But a two-star Cabernet selling at R17.50 cruises to a 10. At this point it can become a case of how much pain one needs to endure in the pursuit of dubious pleasure.

Knowing how scarce five-star ratings are at a best of times, it is inconceivable that a wine could score five stars when tasted for the Value Guide.

A contest that mathematically makes it impossible for a certain type of wine to win, or that relies on statistical improbabilities, is inherently flawed.

A trader does it differently. He tastes a wine within the context of a price point and then subjectively rates the extent to which the wine delivers at that price. Perhaps the Bat’s Piss would still get 10 out of 10 for value at R14, but it would be fairer to taste groups of wine at specified price points and rate the ‘value’ accordingly. If nothing else, this more accurately reflects the conditions under which retailers select wine for the shelves, or consumers decide what to put into their trolleys.

We all want the best experience for the least money. Often we rely on insiders or experts to guide us in the direction of these undiscovered gems. Sadly, due to flawed methodology, the Best Value Wine Guide falls far short of its noble intentions.

I’m quite sure that consumption of the two-and-a-half star Bat’s Rock is not life-threatening. But I’m very thankful that, noisy engines and miscellaneous rattles aside, the pilot of that MD-10 had mathematics on his side.

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