Wine critic sees glass half empty

Downshift challenge - could you tell the difference?

Must admit I’ve never heard of the Independent’s wine columnist Anthony Rose, not really my thing, but someone sent me a cutting of him discussing my downshift challenge and bizarrely he seemed to see it as a reason to spend more – perhaps he’s been sampling too much product?

Here’s a quick cut from his piece:

I was watching the downshift challenge on Daybreak TV recently (don’t ask). Drop one brand level lower and you can save 40 per cent, claimed Martin Lewis, because people are fooled at Christmas into thinking they must have the best. He tried out two Christmas trees on children, one cheerful, the other deeply depressing. The suggestion that the depressing cheaper one was better because it was cheaper lacked conviction.

Now I’ve been accused of many things in my time, but it’s the first time anyone’s ever said I lack conviction! He does correctly describe my Christmas downshift challenge though – one tree was decorated with goods exactly one brand level lower than the other, and was less than half the cost as a result.

Yet where he’s wrong is the tree decorated with cheaper stuff was by far the nicer and much more jolly of the pair.

Don’t just take my word for it – the designer Anna Ryder Richardson, who was there to set up the trees to make it fair agreed, as did a large chunk of the parents and kids who were asked to pick which they preferred WITHOUT knowing the price. Why not take a look yourself.   Maybe he got confused and thought the ‘rather depressing’ higher brand tree was the cheap one.

Anyway on to Mr. Rose’s next comment:

He then road-tested a Christmas pudding and mince pie on a blindfolded Adrian Chiles who guessed both the more expensive ones correctly. Which suggests that while it may be worth saving on basic brands, when it comes to matters of taste, wine in particular, it’s a false economy not to take the upshift challenge and enhance the enjoyment.”

Yep, Adrian did prefer the higher brand mince pies, but the Christmas pudding split people (those with less alcohol tastes like me preferred the lower brand one).

It’s about the test as much as the result

At the core of the downshift challenge is the test not just the result. The aim is to ensure when you pay more, you’re actually getting something you prefer – if you can’t tell the difference why pay more?  

I’ve done scores of downshift challenges over the years and roughly half the time people can’t tell the difference once it’s out of the packaging (just go try Sainsbury’s basic Jaffa Cakes). Of course if you can tell the difference and can afford it, go for your preference!

A couple of years ago in a full downshift challenge ITV1 Tonight prime-time special, I ran a big Christmas party for nurses, with scores of food, drink and decorations with two versions of each.  The nurses were asked to mark everything and after totting it all up, they actually preferred the lower brand goods.

Is he right to wine on?

Of course Mr. Rose’s expertise is wine. I’m not a big drinker, but have had a little experience downshifting this myself recently on the Radio 2 Jeremy Vine show.  There we did a blind tasting between two bottles…

  • A £4.99 Sainsbury’s own brand red
  • A normally £10 but reduced to £4.99 bottle of red.

The key was to see whether the reduced bottle was actually a bargain or just a pricing issue. In a blind test in the studio, JV, the wine expert and I all agreed that bottle A was a lot classier and yes, you guessed it, it was the Sainsbury’s £4.99.

And this is where I fundamentally disagree with Mr. Rose’s comments. The wine market is already far too much about the label, rather than the taste, and even then it’s a massively subjective area.

While I accept that sometimes the more expensive bottle of wine will be nicer, try it, taste it, and decide which you prefer without reference to the price. If the one you prefer costs more then decide if it’s worth it. Yet to upshift purely out of some retail hypnosis that says pricier ALWAYS means better is a nonsense.   

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