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.