The Frontal Cortex

Expensive Wine

I have a feeling that this holiday season there will be even more drinking than usual, as people self-medicate with booze. Worried about your 401(k)? Have some egg nog. The good news is that there’s a new studyshowing, once again, that expensive wine doesn’t necessarily taste better, at least for people who aren’t wine experts.

Individuals who are unaware of the price do not derive more enjoyment from more expensive wine. In a sample of more than 6,000 blind tastings, we find that the correlation between price and overall rating is small and negative, suggesting that individuals on average enjoy more expensive wines slightly less. For individuals with wine training, however, we find indications of a positive relationship between price and enjoyment. Our results are robust to the inclusion of individual fixed effects, and are not driven by outliers: when omitting the top and bottom deciles of the price distribution, our qualitative results are strengthened, and the statistical significance is improved further. Our results indicate that both the prices of wines and wine recommendations by experts may be poor guides for non-expert wine consumers.

This builds on some research that I’ve written about before. Here’s how I describe the experiments in my forthcoming book:

Researchers at Cal-Tech and Stanford recently lifted the veil on this strange process. Their experiment was organized like a wine tasting. 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. In general, more expensive wines made this part of the prefrontal cortex 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 tage. “We don’t realize how powerful our expectations are,” says Antonio Rangel, a neuroeconomist at Cal-Tech who led the study. “They can really modulate every aspect of our experience. And if our expectations are based on false assumptions” – like the assumption that more expensive wine always taste better – “they can be very misleading.”

[snip]

After Rangel and his colleagues finished their brain imaging experiment, they asked the subjects to taste the five different wines again, only this time the scientists didn’t provide any price information. Although the subjects had just listed the $90 wine as the most pleasant, they now completely reversed their preferences. When the tasting was truly blind, when the subjects were no longer biased by their prefrontal cortex, the cheapest wine got the highest ratings. It wasn’t fancy, but it tasted the best.

Comments

  1. #1 Becca
    November 24, 2008

    Of course, an alternate explaination of these findings is that “absent any information about price, cheap wine tastes better through a straw”

  2. #2 Austin
    November 24, 2008

    Perhaps they also should have been followed up for heartburn the next day. An ‘ alternative’ measure of cheapness in my experience

  3. #3 Donna B.
    November 26, 2008

    Labeling also makes a difference. Put the same wine in a box and in a bottle with a classy label and most everyone will conclude the bottled wine tastes better.

  4. #4 wbs
    November 27, 2008

    I agree with Becca. Unless the wine was consumed out of appropriate glassware, the test is flawed. Easily 50% of the wine drinking experience comes from presentation and aroma.

  5. #5 lit3bolt
    November 27, 2008

    Yes, unless you go through the ritual of pouring, observing legs, huffing the wine through your nose, then finally slurping it in an effort to get the flavors to every bit of your tongue, the wine taste test is flawed.

    In fact, every liquid beverage should be treated the same way. I drink my Diet Coke chilled to a precise temperature in a brandy snifter, inhale the CO2 bubbling to the surface beforehand, then gulp it so the taste bursts in my mouth appropriately. Only peons and mouth-breathers drink Diet Coke in a straw.

  6. #6 Jeremy
    November 27, 2008

    I always love digging into the stats of studies like that… you find the most amusing things.

    Here’s the kicker:

    “To make sure that our results are not driven by wines at the extreme ends of the price distribution, we also run our regressions on a reduced sample, omitting the top and bottom deciles of the price distribution. Given the broad range of prices in the sample, this is an appropriate precaution. The remaining wines range in price from $6 to $15….”

    In other words, a full 80% of their wines fall within that tiny range. The difference between a $6 bottle of wine and a $15 bottle of wine is negligible, and in my mind totally invalidates this study.

    And then, delving further, I discover… This wasn’t really a scientific study.

    It was a scientific study done as research for a popular book, “The Wine Trials: Brown-bag blind tastings reveal the surprising wine values under $15.” http://fearlesscritic.com/

    That explains the fact that 80 percent of the study’s wines were between $6 and $15. Their choices of more expensive wines were merely to be used as foils, so they could say things like:

    “…when more than 500 blind tasters around the country sampled 6,000 glasses of wine ranging in price from $1.50 to $150, their preferences were inversely correlated with price. For example, Domaine Ste. Michelle, a $12 sparkling wine from Washington State, outscored Dom P�rignon, a $150 Champagne, while a six-dollar Vinho Verde from Portugal beat out a $40 California Chardonnay and a $50 1er Cru white Burgundy.”

    And yet they managed to market their ‘findings’ into the pages of Newsweek and the New York Times… while pontificating on the notion that much of wine snobbery was nothing but… marketing. Ah, the irony..

  7. #7 Chad
    November 27, 2008

    typo FYI:

    …Californian Cabernet – was labeled both as a $5 wine (it’s actual retail price) and as a….

    should be its, not it’s…

  8. #8 Proofreader
    November 28, 2008

    I hope you will hire a good editor for your “forthcoming book” who will catch embarrassing errors like “it’s (sic) actual retail price.”

    “It’s” is a contraction of “it is.” You obviously meant to use the possessive form of “it,” which has no apostrophe.

  9. #9 Jamie
    November 28, 2008

    I just want to reiterate two comments already made about wine quality….

    Certainly there’s something to this (our cultural expectations affect our experience of wine….I’d guess that to be true, sure), and lots of food writers would probably agree that price does not necessarily equal quality. There are plenty of good cheap wines available for those who aren’t pretentious.

    BUT….

    1. In the test people are drinking wine THROUGH A STRAW. A lot of taste is smell, and fancy alcohol folks make a big deal about drinking everything out of the proper glass. I’d guess it would be hard to evaluate wine if you are lying on an MRI table and drinking through a straw. If you are drinking $90 wine through a straw, you’re wasting it. For God’s sake, the first thing you do when you try wine is the sniff it and consider it WITHOUT putting it in your mouth at all.

    As I write this, I’m drinking Bourbon out of a short wide mouthed cup. I drink out of that cup because I want a face full of fumes when I take a sip. I wouldn’t want to drink my whiskey through a freakin’ straw.

    2. There are other issues to consider when evaluating wine besides what it tastes like on first sip. Good stuff stays nicely on the palate without leaving an acidic aftertaste (as anybody who’s taken a chef’s recommendation for a wine with a meal can tell you). It’s less likely to give you heartburn. I don’t really know WHY it works that way but it does. Some of it has to do with the amount of sugar in the wine. I used to have a job where I got to take home leftover wine from parties. It was cheap and god awful wine, but free. You had to keep a glass of water around to wash it down. I would have no idea how rough that stuff was if I took one little sip through a straw. I figure I’d say it was okay.

    Anyway….the study is pretty interesting as a study about perception but totally absurd if you mean it as a study about wine. Seriously.

    I’m looking back through the other comments, and I think typing this post was a waste of time. Did ANYBODY read this an not see the problems? Anybody?

  10. #10 Adam Villani
    November 28, 2008

    In addition to correcting the it’s – its problem, you may wish to use the correct spelling of Caltech. It’s not Cal-Tech, nor is it CalTech or Cal Tech. It’s just Caltech. “Cal-Tech” is never correct. I have no idea why this is so difficult for people to get right.

  11. #11 TheGreenMiles
    November 28, 2008

    In “Blink,” Malcolm Gladwell explores how Pepsi beats Coke in small-serving taste tests, but Coke outsells Pepsi, concluding that Pepsi’s sweetness helps it in a taste test but tends to be overwhelming over the course of a can or bottle. Basically, when it comes to taste, Pepsi is a sprinter, not a distance runner. I’m wondering if Jonah thinks the same principles may apply here — do cheap wines tend to be sweeter to compensate for lack of depth, which makes them a sprinter but not a distance runner?

  12. #12 John Mowat
    November 28, 2008

    Things with wine are complicated; however the main conclusions of the study are correct. To go into it a little more: most wines these days are OK and much better than no wine at all. Most wines, however, are not very good. When one finds a great wine it is probably going to be an expensive wine even though most expensive wines are no better or even worse than a lot of moderately priced wines. Try the following event. Invite your friends to a wine tasting, each bringing a wine that they like. Serve the wines with the bottles hidden in brown paper bags. After a thorough mixing of the bags write numbers on the outside so people can keep track of what they have tasted. Serve out of nice glasses in a setting with ambience and some good snacks. Rate the wines two ways. One by the usual quality rating 0 to 100. The second by the price you would be willing to pay for this wine. Later when the wines are all identified, divide the price you would be willing to pay by the actual price of the wine. Mostly, these second ratings will be under 1. If a wine rates high on both ratings, go out quick and buy it up. It will soon be unavailable. Now that wine is becoming more popular lots of people have good taste in wine.

  13. #13 John Shaw
    November 28, 2008

    Guys, it is grape juice! I had a blind taste test at my house and watched the most discerning wine snobs pick the Chuck Shaw over a $100 bottle. To all those who are poking holes in this study I have two comments for you. First: Have you seen any evidence to the contrary? I mean hard evidence. I’ve seen lots of scientific studies, not one supports anything you say. Second: Do a blind taste test for yourself. If you don’t cheat, you will simply not be able to tell the difference between a $5 bottle and a $100 bottle over a representative sample of wines. Not when you drink it or by how you feel the next day. Of course not cheating will be the hard part, because as a wine snob you have already grown accustomed to self deception.

  14. #14 Connie T. Rarry
    December 2, 2008

    I don’t drink.

  15. #15 Jamie
    December 8, 2008

    Checked back in and couldn’t resist….

    John Shaw…the “discerning wine snobs” you had over may have been snobs, but I’m not convinced they knew very much about wine.

    Have I read about scientific studies dealing with blind taste testing and wine quality? Yes, as a matter of fact I have. The one I’m thinking of was designed to compare the taste of trained culinary experts with those of lay people. They all were able to identify the good stuff until the tester started asking for more specific analysis. The experts were STILL able to pick out the good stuff, but the laypeople started second guessing and changing their answers. The kinds of things that connoisseurs say when they talk about food are not fiction. I don’t know that much about wine actually, but I don’t doubt that some people really do. It’s not a scam.

    Could I pick out the good stuff myself? Probably not. I’m not a wine expert. Could I tell the difference between expensive hand crafted beer and Bud Light? No doubt. As long as I got more than one sip and as long as I wasn’t required to drink through a tube.

    I have to sympathize with the point of view you are bringing to this…that expensive fancypants wine might be a waste of dough when there are plenty of cheaper brands than most people would fine acceptable or even better…but to claim that appreciation of wine craftsmanships is “self deception” makes you seem ignorant. People work hard at the art of making good wine, and it’s a little vexing to see you write off all that work as some sort of con.

    Again, if the original experiment is designed to show how the brain’s reward system responds to different kinds of combinations of expectation and reward, it’s pretty interesting. If you wanna claim it has anything to say about the upscale wine market (and remember that the samples in the survey did not even include any wines from the upscale market…I drank a $15 dollar of wine a couple of weeks ago and I’m a broke-ass graduate student), you are being facetious.

  16. #16 cam balkon
    March 12, 2009

    I think an alternate explaination of these findings is that absent any information about price. Unless the wine was consumed out of appropriate glassware, the test is flawed.

  17. #17 Soğutma Büyüsü
    May 1, 2010

    I think an alternate explaination of these findings is that absent any information about price. Unless the wine was consumed out of appropriate glassware, the test is flawed.

  18. 5
    Yes, unless you go through the ritual of pouring, observing legs, huffing the wine through your nose, then finally slurping it in an effort to get the flavors to every bit of your tongue, the wine taste test is flawed.

    In fact, every liquid beverage should be treated the same way. I drink my Diet Coke chilled to a precise temperature in a brandy snifter, inhale the CO2 bubbling to the surface beforehand, then gulp it so the taste bursts in my mouth appropriately. Only peons and mouth-breathers drink Diet Coke in a straw.

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