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08.07.2007

The Power of the Label

Show me a wine lover that hasn't made a purchasing decision based on the label, and I'll show you someone who isn't being honest with themselves. We all know how much power the label has. Or at least we thought we did. But now some researchers from Cornell University have come along and shown us that we had no idea just how much power over our malleable little minds that slip of paper on the bottle can be.

Here's what they did. They gave people a free glass of wine with their dinner at a restaurant, and in so doing placed the bottle of wine on the table. For half of the folks, the label read "Noah's Wine, California." For the others it read "Noah's Wine, North Dakota." In both cases it was the same wine, but everyone who got the "California" wine reported that it tasted better, AND that their food tasted better too.

Just when you thought we were all gullible enough to enjoy wines more when we think they're more expensive, it turns out that we're so impressionable that our dinners taste better too. What's next? Better sex after a dinner where we think we're drinking better wine?

The notion that the perception of taste is anything close to objective continues to be undermined by studies like this one. If our enjoyment of a wine and the food we eat with it can be significantly influenced by something as simple as the label on a wine, how is it that some people can suggest that they actually know what anything really tastes like?

Here's a secret. When we taste wine, we're not really tasting it. When we smell wine, we're not really smelling it. No information actually passes from the world into our brains. We don't really perceive anything about wine. We are merely reacting to it in the same way that our bodies react when we accidentally brush up against a hot iron. The stimulus of contact with the outside world triggers the firing of countless neural pathways in the brain, and it is this activity, these structures of our nervous system, that produce what we experience as the sensation of taste, or smell, or sight, or the quick flinch that pulls our hand back from the iron.

Since the way that we perceive the world is determined not by the world outside, but by our own neuro-physiology, it stands to reason that it's pretty easy to hack the system.

Just because it stands to reason, though, it doesn't mean that it's easy to believe. We fool ourselves all day long into thinking that we are self-willed, independent thinkers who can easily do something like describe how a wine tastes without being unduly influenced by the context in which we tasted it.

Of course, we can also get too wrapped up in worrying about such influences to the point that it prevents us from doing or jobs or having a good time. And who knows, such influence could actually be a benefit. Certainly seems like the cheapest way to improve the quality of all our meals by 11%.

Read the full story. Thanks to Arthur for pointing me to the story.

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Required Reading for Wine Lovers

The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson The Taste of Wine by Emile Peynaud Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch Love By the Glass by Dorothy Gaiter & John Brecher Noble Rot by William Echikson The Science of Wine by Jamie Goode The Judgement of Paris by George Taber The Wine Bible by Karen MacNeil The Botanist and the Vintner by Christy Campbell The Emperor of Wine by Elin McCoy The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson The World's Greatest Wine Estates by Robert M. Parker, Jr.