By Jonah Lehrer
A few months ago, the psychologist Richard Wiseman conducted a simple study about wine. He bought a wide variety of bottles at the local supermarket, from a $5 Bordeaux to a $50 champagne, and asked people to say which wine was more expensive. (All of the taste tests were conducted double-blind, with neither the experimenter nor subject aware of the actual price.) The results should upset wine snobs everywhere: The 600 plus participants could only pick the more expensive wine 53 percent of the time, which is basically random chance. (They actually performed below chance when it came to picking red wines. Bordeaux fared the worst, with a significant majority – 61 percent – picking the cheap plonk as the more expensive selection.)
On the one hand, this is slightly distressing news. Most wine consumers assume that there’s a linear relationship between the quality and the price of a wine, which is why we’re willing to splurge on old Burgundy or Napa cabernet or Chianti Classico. If expensive wines really don’t taste better, then the wine industry has no business model. It’s Yellow Tail all the way down.
And yet, this news also isn’t new: the lack of correlation between the price and perceived quality of a wine (at least when tasted blind) has been proven again and again. Wine critics might disagree, but at this point it’s a robust psychological fact. Here, for instance, is a carefully done 2008 study:
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. Our results indicate that both the prices of wines and wine recommendations by experts may be poor guides for non-expert wine consumers.
So does this mean we should all start swilling Two-Buck Chuck? I’m not so sure. The problem isn’t with wine, or with the crude nature of the tongue – it’s that we stupidly expect wine to be an objective pleasure, a taste we can quantify on a 100 point scale. We’ve somehow turned the most romantic of drinks into a commodity worthy of Consumer Reports.
But here’s the flaw with this approach: The taste of a wine, like the taste of everything, is not merely the sum of that alcoholic liquid in the glass. It cannot be deduced by beginning with our sensations and extrapolating upwards. This is because what we experience is not what we sense. Rather, experience is what happens when our senses are interpreted by our subjective brain, which brings to the moment its entire library of personal memories, wine shop factoids and idiosyncratic desires. As the philosopher Wilfrid Sellars pointed out, there is no reasonable way to divide sensory experience into what is “given to the mind” and what is “added by the mind.” (Sellars referred to this as the “Myth of the Given.”) When we take a sip of wine, for instance, we don’t taste the wine first, and the cheapness second. We taste everything all at once, in a single gulp of thiswineisplonk, or thiswineisexpensive. As a result, if we think a wine is cheap, it will taste cheap. And if we think we are tasting a grand cru, then we will taste a grand cru. Our senses are vague in their instructions, and we parse their inputs based upon whatever other knowledge we can summon to the surface.
Most of the time, we act as if this were a bad thing. We get all huffy when cheap Bordeaux wins the taste test, or when Consumer Reports loves Yellow Tail. But I think the subjectivity of wine is a great opportunity. Consider this study by neuroeconomists at Caltech, which I describe in How We Decide:
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.
You see what happened there? Even though their assumption about wine was false – the more expensive Cabernet didn’t taste better – that assumption still led to increased pleasure, both as measured in terms of self-reported preference and as a function of brain activity. Sure, that pleasure is a figment of our blinkered imagination, but what part of pleasure isn’t an imaginary figment? Instead of bemoaning this subjectivity, we should embrace it. We should realize that we can make our wines much more delicious, if only we take the time to learn about them. Because we don’t need to spend a fortune on old fruit juice – price is not the only way to raise expectations. (It’s also, you know, an expensive way to raise expectations.) Rather, we can also make our wines taste better by delving into the history of the varietal or the region or the pretty picture on the label. And that’s why I will always be one of those annoying people who insists on muttering about malolactic fermentation while pouring Chardonnay, or on explaining the genetic kinship between Primitivo and Zinfandel when all you want is a damn glass to go with your red-sauce pasta.
The reason I harass my dinner guests is that our stories have consequences, that our beliefs often matter more than the grapes. The question is what those stories are. If the only story we can tell about wine is its price, then our pleasure will always linked to cost, even though this link doesn’t exist in most taste tests. And that’s why it’s important to find some other narratives, to focus on aspects of wine that don’t require a big expense account. Knowledge is free.