The latest Men’s Vogue has a rather interesting article (not online) by Jay McInerney on a small group of real estate moguls who like to drink very, very expensive wine. For these oenophiles, a 1982 Romanee-Conti is a young wine – even their champagne is typically several decades old – and a $500 bottle is borderline plonk. It’s not uncommon for these winos to consumer $30,000 worth of rotten grape juice at a single dinner.
Not surprisingly, these expensive wines are often highly praised, with descriptions that feature some very purple prose. And while I would certainly love to drink a 1945 Pol Roger, or a 1982 Burgundy, it’s been well documented that a significant percentage of such vintage bottles are actually counterfeit. And yet, I’d wager that even the fakes taste extremely delicious when poured from the proper bottle.
Consider this experiment, led by researchers at Cal-Tech: Twenty people sampled five Cabernet Sauvignons that were distinguished solely by their retail price, with bottles ranging from $5 to $90. Although the people were told that all five wines were different, the scientists weren’t telling the truth: there were only three different wines. This meant that the same wines would often reappear, but with different price labels. For example, the first wine offered during the tasting – it was a cheap bottle of Californian Cabernet – was labeled both as a $5 wine (it’s actual retail price) and as a $45 dollar wine, a 900 percent markup. All of the red wines were sipped inside an fMRI machine.
Not surprisingly, the subjects consistently reported that the more expensive wines tasted better. They preferred the $90 bottle to the $10 bottle, and thought the $45 Cabernet was far superior to the $5 plonk. By conducting the wine tasting inside an fMRI machine – the drinks were sipped via a network of plastic tubes – the scientists could see how the brains of the subjects responded to the different wines. While a variety of brain regions were activated during the experiment, only one brain region seemed to respond to the price of the wine, rather than the wine itself: the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). In general, more expensive wines made parts of the OFC more excited. The scientists argue that the activity of this brain region shifted the preferences of the wine tasters, so that the $90 Cabernet seemed to taste better than the $35 Cabernet, even though they were actually the same wine.
Of course, the wine preferences of the subjects were clearly nonsensical. Instead of acting like rational agents – getting the most utility for the lowest possible price – they were choosing to spend more money for an identical product. When the scientists repeated the experiment with members of the Stanford University wine club, they got the same results. In a blind tasting, these “semi-experts” were also misled by the made-up price tag.
What does this have to do with the oenophiles profiled in the McInerney article? I think it’s clear that a big part of the pleasure of consuming such outrageously expensive wines has to do with the price tag. (Just imagine how excited the OFC must get when tasting a $10,000 bottle.) I’m not saying these wines aren’t delicious or worthy of praise. But would they be as delicious if they didn’t cost more than a small car? I think not.