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01.20.2008

Science Confirms Gold Plated Wine Bottles Are Best

From now on, I'm only buying wine if it comes in a gold plated or platinum plated bottle. I want my wine bottles encrusted with jewels, and preferably as expensive as possible. Perhaps we can convince Damien Hirst to come up with something called For The Love of Wine?

My newly expensive tastes are, of course, the result of some new neuroscience that has gotten a large amount of press in the past two weeks. I don't know what it is, exactly, that the mainstream media love about wine related science, but the recent experiments from some folks down at CalTech have gotten more coverage than any other wine story since the Resveratrol craze of 2007.

In case you didn't happen to catch it, the short story is that researchers have reported that subjects given two identical samples of wine report that they enjoy more whichever one they are told is the most expensive. Additionally, the researchers were able to show that when the users were tasting the wines that they thought were more expensive that the particular area of the brain associated with pleasure sensations was more active, which tells us that at the very least, the subjects weren't lying to themselves or the researchers.

Perhaps not surprisingly, these findings have been reported around the world as "higher prices make wines taste better." While a tempting summary to be sure, this is in fact NOT what this research has shown. The researchers actually are quite unsure as to whether or not the information that a wine is more expensive affects the taste or other sensations that a wine drinker perceives when actually tasting the wine. Rather, it seems, this information about cost affects the way that wine drinkers react to those sensations, think about them, and evaluate their overall sense of "pleasure" at drinking the wine, as well as whether the wine is "good" or not. The higher the price, it seems, the better we think the wine is, and the more we think we enjoy it, which are both independent of just exactly how the wine tastes.

It's important to understand the conditions under which these experiments are conducted. Because the researchers were having people taste wines while in an fMRI scanner (which means they were flat on their backs in a dark room inside a huge loud machine) the wines were "tasted" by having a small amount (1 milliliter, which is about 1/5 of a teaspoon) of wine injected into their mouths through a tube. And the reports of "better" or "worse" come from the subject pressing a button held in their hands while trying to remain absolutely still in the scanner. Not exactly the most comfortable wine drinking scenario.

So, assuming the results achieved by these tests are conclusive, it seems that while the price tag may not be able to change the taste of wine, this research suggests it certainly is capable of fooling us (or prompting us to fool ourselves) into thinking we're drinking something better than we are. Which leads me to my request for and emerald encrusted, gold-capped Alsatian Riesling....

Actually, it really leads to several more questions: If price is capable of programming our response to wine so well, why couldn't our fancy (and expensive) wine glasses be doing the same thing? Or some magnetic device on the neck of our wine bottle? That fancy decanter? The color of the label? Other researchers have shown that the appellation of the wine we drink at dinner will not only affect how much we enjoy the wine, but also how good we think the food is.

At the very least this research might be a good justification for price-blind (and potentially completely blind) tasting.

Finally, there's the ultimate philosophical question that lies at the heart of this whole thing -- the wine tasting equivalent of the tree falling in the forest when no one is around. Is there any real difference to us between a wine that is great and a wine that we THINK is great simply because it's expensive?

I don't recommend attempting to answer this question until the second bottle.

Thanks to Arthur at redwinebuzz.com for sending me the actual research paper for the study.

Comments (14)

Karen wrote:
01.21.08 at 4:06 AM

I recently challenged my aunt and uncle to compare the wines that they choose to drink on a regular basis to the wines I get from my wine club. They typically drink very cheap wine (3-10 dollars) and my wines average about 20. I said they would see the difference. WE ALL DID! They picked 4 wines to put up against two of mine and we did a blind taste of the 6 with 8 people. EVERYONE put my two wines in first or second place. What does this say about price?

Jeff wrote:
01.21.08 at 7:08 AM

Karen,

It's generally prevailing wisdom that $15 is a major cut-off point of wine in terms of quality. I would expect that you would see a marked difference between, say, $8 and $20.

However, I'm betting that if you put a wine that was $16 and $30 against each other you would not be able to so easily have the same outcome.

Jeff

Greg wrote:
01.21.08 at 8:32 AM

I think this study, whether or not its findings have been correctly reported, reaffirms an idea that most wine drinkers have about wine:

There is a contextual element to the enjoyment of wine. The flavor, in all likelihood, remains the same. When you go to France and have a bottle of wine overlooking the Seine in Paris, it may be a life-changingly wonderful experience. When that wine bottle is lugged back to California and is drunk under the fluorescent lights of your kitchen, it may disappoint. It could be a nice wine, but cannot live up to the French version of the experience.

That is not to say the wine changed; on the contrary, the taster changed. I think the same thing is at play in this study. Knowing that the wine was more expensive changed the attitude of the taster toward the wine - the increased pleasantness was due to the label alone and had little to do with what they were drinking.

(Thanks to Dr. Heymann for the example).

My own feeling is that these findings may have been different if experienced wine tasters were used. I think that people who drink wine a lot tend to have higher expectations of expensive wines and have the ability to tell two wines apart on sensory alone (an important point). Therefore, when a $5 wine is tasted and has and X liking score, the taster is happy. When that same wine is tasted with a $45 dollar label and the taster still has X as a liking score, the experience with that wine may be less pleasant as the wine did not live up to expectations.

I too think that the popular press has a fascination with wine research. I don't have a problem with that; I'm currently involved in wine research (I'm a UC Davis Master's student in Viticulture & Enology). Like you say here, they press often jumps to incorrect conclusions to make the headline more appealing.

Thanks for the story, this article has been a topic of discussion among my friends and fellow students.

Greg

01.21.08 at 10:48 AM

Thanks Alder, I'm with you completely on the "tree in the forest" attitude. If the people drinking the wine are finding pleasure in it, then the pleasure has to be considered as genuine, even if it is based on misinformation, prejudice, or even ignorance of the flaws present! We blogged this on our winery site as well... Very interesting, I think we are going to raise all of our prices immediately!

Tyler T wrote:
01.21.08 at 12:35 PM

It seems to me then that as producers we can now suggest that raising our prices really is a public service to improve everyone's enjoyment of wine. Right?

Arthur wrote:
01.21.08 at 2:03 PM

Alder,

The paper showed that in fact the parts of the brain responsible for processing/recognizing aromas, flavors and textures were shown (by fMRI data) to not be affected by the price of the wine and the authors pointed that out. That seems like a pretty clear answer to whether the suggested price affects the actual taste of the wine.

The authors of the study (who are mostly business and marketing academicians) concluded the paper with a proposition that there are at least two processes at play here: a bottom-up process of raw signal (aroma, flavor and texture) detection and a top-down, higher, more cognitive process which modulates our reaction to the raw signal.

This was the contention I had made in the comments of the “Power of the label” (http://www.vinography.com/archives/2007/08/the_power_of_the_label.html) posting and partly in comments to “Stop telling us what to taste” (http://www.vinography.com/archives/2007/08/stop_telling_us_what_to_taste.html.)

As to your closing question, I like Karen MacNeil’s point of view: “Liking a wine has nothing to do with whether it is good. Liking a wine has to do with liking that wine, period.”

Arthur wrote:
01.21.08 at 2:18 PM

Greg,

Curious what your thoughts are about the study from Rochested that linked pomace extract to some dental benfit.

That did not get much media play - possibly b/c it's too technical.

Christina wrote:
01.21.08 at 2:38 PM

It would be interesting if a study was done that could bring personal preference and wine-buying ethic into the equation. For instance, my husband and I can't stand the aged kool-aid my mother and her husband adore. They are close to full retirement and watch their pennies so spending $10 seems nuts to them. We've experienced some incredible good deals but have also allowed ourselves the indulgence of some spendier treats too. We had them over one night and we blind tasted two white wines, one their favorite brand of cheap wine the other a $30 Grgich Hills beauty. My husband and I preferred the Grgich, mom and hubby the el cheapo. I'm convinced that their wine experience and pocketbook has led to to have a certain expectation of wine. A more complex wine is not what they are expecting and they have not frame of reference for appreciating it. Needless to say I have a few bottles of "mom wine" tucked away for future dinners.

Alder wrote:
01.21.08 at 2:49 PM

Christina,

I agree that our palates are "trained." Many people prefer Kraft Macaroni and Cheese to the most carefully homemade gourmet version with beautiful aged cheddar. Which certainly means that you have to be careful whose opinion you ask when you want to know whether one wine is "Better" than another.

Joe Power wrote:
01.22.08 at 9:29 AM

There are three issues at work here, in my opinion. One is the typically lazy and sloppy work that is done by the media these days. Another is the well known concept of perceived value, which affects choices on everything from canned peas to jeans to automobiles. Lastly, is the fact that, as pointed out in the article above, it would be very difficult to properly discern quality under the conditions used in this test.

Put that all together and there is only one logical conclusion to be made; we wine drinkers are ignorant snobs who are easily tricked into thinking we like something just because it costs more. Well, duh!

Arthur wrote:
01.22.08 at 9:54 AM

Joe

You are correct. However, every research project asks a specific question. In this case, the idea of perceived value is already know to the investigators. They wanted to see if there were actual, organic, physiological processes underlying this phenomenon.

The study showed two things:

1. The areas of the brain immediately responsible for processing the raw olfactory and gustatory signals at their very purest WAS NOT AFFECTED by the suggested price of the wine.

2. An area of the brain associated with emotions, emotional attention and fixation, depression, despondency an pleasure (not exactly a very specific site as you can see) was consistently activated in people who reported increased pleasure from the wines they were tasting.

When you consider the study design, these subjects did not need to be wine experts, get more than 1 ml of wine in their mouths and it didn't matter if it came from a Riedel glass or a plastic tube.

Joe Power wrote:
01.22.08 at 10:25 AM

I see your point, however if you remove the usual sensory clues that tell a wine drinker whether the wine is any good, and then substitute those clues with the prices, the second finding you list would almost seem to be a given.

Arthur wrote:
01.22.08 at 11:10 AM

You are correct.
I think the investigators wanted to demonstrate: 1) that here is a real organic response involved in the phenomenon and 2) what areas are and are not involved.

01.25.08 at 8:14 PM

I propose the follow up study be one where they make the subjects pay for the more expensive wine and see if they still think it tastes better.

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