February 25

All in your Head? In Vino Veritas



I love wine, an admission that should surprise none of my family or friends or the regular readers of this blog. I’m an oenophile, a lover of the grape, but I would consider myself the farthest thing removed from a wine snob. Sure I love a complex cab with lamb or beef, a big rip-snortin’ full-bodied zin with a juicy grilled steak, a buttery chard with lobster or scallops. And champagne, of course, to celebrate absolutely anything…or absolutely nothing. Champagne needs no excuse!

I love to find a bargain, a wine that I especially enjoy that is affordable enough for every day use. For instance, I’ve enjoyed many a $7 bottle of Rex Goliath (the 47 Pound Rooster) Central Coast pinot or cab over the years. And I enjoyed it every bit as much as a 1982 Bordeaux we babied in our cellar for nearly 20 years, a Cos d’Estornel that had lost a little of its former power, yet would currently sell for hundreds of dollars a bottle. If enjoyment is the goal, why not find a wine you really like that can enjoy a lot more often?

We’ve been lucky enough to taste some really fine wines over the years and for my part, I admit to enjoying them all. A ’63 vintage port and the magnum of Montevetrano we drank with friends in Campania on our anniversary in 2005 come to mind. But Mike and I have also always loved the inexpensive, simple, local ‘jug’ wines always readily available in trattorias, osterias, tabernas, and small cafes throughout the Mediterranean that wine snobs would sniff at and discount as inferior. They may not cost much, but they’re delicious all the same.

So it was with interest that I read an article appeared today in our local paper by Frank Greve of MclClatchy Newservice, titled Study: Wine’s price tag contributes to pleasure.

The study, conducted by Hilke Plassmann and colleagues at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena used MRI scanners to sense changes in a couple of areas of the brain associated with taste and another associated with the pleasantness of a sensation while subjects imbibed tiny sips of various wines injected through a plastic tube into their mouths. Researchers told the subjects the purported price of the wine they were tasting and discovered that the pleasantness associated with a wine increases with price. Though the taste perception centers remained unchanged, the more a subject thought a wine cost, the more pleasant the perceived sensation–even when it was the exact same wine.

Granted, a great part of the wine experience comes from other sensory cues. The nose, the color, the chance to swirl the sip around in your mouth. A big cab just tastes better in a fine piece of stemware with the soft lights glinting off the curve of the crystal than it does in a Dixie cup or injected through a plastic tube while you’re in an MRI tunnel.

Still, I had to wonder if I’d been one of the subjects in this test, would I have arrived at the same perception that equates quality, or more correctly pleasantness of sensation, with price? Most of us–and I include myself in this group–like to think we simply like what we like, but research suggests the truth might be otherwise. This single study, at any rate, indicates that the human brain may be swayed more by the perceived value in dollars than ‘sense’. Could it be that regardless of what our taste centers tell us, the more expensive we think a wine is, the better we enjoy it?

About the only way to find out would be to sacrifice ourselves for the good of science and assemble a group of friends to do a blind tasting (or seven) of various types of wine.

Here are the rules of the ‘in the interest of science’ wine tasting series that we could undertake to discover on our own if it’s price or taste that moves us.

1.) Stick to one grape variety at each tasting–cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, syrrah, merlot, cabernet franc–to make it a fair fight, since the tastes can be so different. Once you’ve worked your way through the reds, start on the whites, then the champagnes, then the dessert wines. (I told you a wine tasting or seven, right?)

2.) Include wines of all different price points: a bottle of Two Buck Chuck or the aforementioned Rex Goliath, a couple of midrange $15 to $20 bottles, a bottle in the $35 to $45 range, and one really expensive one, such as an Opus One cab (the jaw-dropping cost of which everyone in the tasting could split.)

3.) With all labels obscured in like manner so no one knows what’s what and pencils and pads at hand to record your innermost thoughts, begin: swirl, sniff, sip, and savor.

4.) Now unblind the bottles and see how your taste correlates with price. You may find some wonderful bargain wines to love.

Now repeat the whole evening, but this time engage the services of a non-tasting assistant to help you and your guests test price perception versus pleasure.

1.) For this experiment, you’ll need two bottles of each wine represented. The non-participating assistant will wrap the wines and label them with only a price–one bottle of a pair with the real price and the other with a price at the opposite end of the scale. A $7 wine will be labeled $7 (the real price) and, say, $80 or $90. And an $85 wine will be labeled $85 and maybe $15.

2.) Again, with the swirl, sniff, sip, savor routine, rate the wines simply for enjoyment on a scale of 1 (wouldn’t feed it to my step mother’s dog) to 10 (nectar of the gods) and see if for the same wine price made any difference in your perception.

By the time you finish all these tastings, you’ll be quite pickled, but when you sober up, send me your findings and I’ll share them with the readers. It won’t be scientific, but it might be enlightening.

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  1. I haven’t done your experiment, and probably won’t, because I don’t think I need to. As you remarked, you and Mike have also loved the inexpensive local wines that you get along the Mediterranean. We are lucky enough to have a little house in the Languedoc and we buy our wine from a local ‘cave’ which is extremely good and only costs €1.80 a litre. By extremely good I mean exactly that. We’ve been given some expensive wines and they’re really only as good as our cheap one. Sure there are better wines available from the cave and we can taste the difference, but the difference isn’t usually worth the price difference. We can also taste which other caves’ wines aren’t so good as the one we patronise….we’ve enjoyed researching. We bring back enough of the local stuff to keep us going while we’re at home in England and have a glass every evening with our supper, after all it is good for our HDL levels as well as being delicious !

    When friends come to dinner we put our wine in a glass decanter and no one ever realises how cheap it is….I might ask them to guess next time.


  2. I generally think I can tell the difference between a $5 bottle and a $15 bottle, but I’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between a $15 bottle and a $50 bottle. So I generally stick to the $15 wines!

  3. Oooo, sounds like fun!

    I used to attend a “wine class” where each week, you were to bring a bottle of whatever the varietal was for that tasting, in a plain brown bag “wine sleeve” – then the “corker” would take all the wine caps off and cork the bottles so no one could tell what was what. We tasted and compared notes and at the end of the class, the labels were revealed! It was so much fun and very educational.

    Like you and Dr. Mike – we enjoy a wide variety of wines and price ranges – one of our faves being Alexander Valley Silver Oak Cabernet, which for the current release runs about $60 a bottle – reserved for special occasions!

    For “everyday” we like the Alexander & Fitch Cab from the same region, made by the same folks who do “Two Buck Chuck” but this one is $4.99. Or Trader Joe’s new release, Velvet Moon Cab.

    So many wines, so little time! 😉 Personally I’ve tasted plenty of wines in the $30 and up category that I thought were not at all worthy of their price or hype. And some under $10 that were yummylicious!

  4. There is a book I am reading called “The Red Wine Diet” by Roger Corder. He details the research on the benefits of wine (and also the mediterranean diet). Basically he says that not all wines have the same health benefits. It depends on the type of grape and the how the wine is produced. Basically if the wine is sweet (not tannic) and mass produced,it probably doesn’t much health benefits.

  5. Excellent post! I LOVE wine, too. I’ve always found it enjoyable to find a really great wine for under $20. And there are plenty. Migraineur is right – I’m hard-pressed to tell the difference between my $15-$20 bottle and a $50 and over bottle.

  6. Great post! Last year I read Brian Wansink’s book, Mindless Eating. (Great read, by the way, hilarious at times.) The book is all about how external cues influence our opinions of the quality and quantity of our food. In one study, diners in identical dining rooms were given a complimentary glass of identical wine. In one room the wine was purportedly a new label from California; in the other, it was from North Dakota. (It was actually the same inexpensive wine in both rooms.) Everything else about the meal and the service was the same.

    The people in the California room had a higher opinion of their free glass of wine than did the folks in the North Dakota room, but in addition, they enjoyed the whole meal better, thought the food was better, lingered longer over the meal.

    I’m sure I would be completely fooled!

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