Let’s say you are going over to a friend’s house for dinner and need to bring a bottle of wine. You aren’t much of a wine drinker and usually spend $8 – $10 on a bottle of wine, but you’d like to bring something decent to dinner. You think you’d like to bring a Pinot Noir and at the store you focus in on bottles in the $20 – $30 range. How to decide? Will the $30 bottle taste better than the $20 bottle? Will the $30 bottle taste better than the $10 bottle you usually buy?
The answer to this question is quite nuanced. Here’s what the science says . . .
In Blind Taste Tests Even Experts Have A Hard Time Distinguishing Wines
The seminal study on whether wine experts can really distinguish wine quality is An Examination of Judge Reliability at a major U.S. Wine Competition by Robert Hodgson describing an interesting experiment conducted over three years of a top wine competition. With the blessing of the wine competition, wine judges were provided with “replicate samples,” meaning that they were presented the same wine numerous times during their tasting. How did the judges do when served the same wine multiple times – did they score the wine the same? Not usually – their scores for the same wine were typically all over the board and typically varied by 4 or more points on a 100 point scale. “About 10 percent of the judges were able to replicate their score within a single medal group. Another 10 percent, on occasion, scored the same wine Bronze to Gold.”
In an interesting follow up study Mr. Hodgson examined the frequency of awards given to wines. He found that “of the 2,440 wines entered in more than three competitions, 47 percent received Gold medals, but 84 percent of these same wines also received no award in another competition. Thus, many wines that are viewed as extraordinarily good at some competitions are viewed as below average at others.”
A classic study from 1963 that has been replicated numerous times found that color has a big influence on how even experts judge wine. In the experiment researchers added tasteless food coloring to white table wine to simulate sauterne, sherry, rose, claret, and burgundy wines. Experts, drinking the same wine, but of different colors, perceived different tastes based on the color of the wine. For instance, they perceived the rose colored wine as being sweeter than the base white table wine in accordance with their expectations.
How do Non-Experts Fare?
If experts have a hard time judging wines accurately and consistently, then how does the non-oenophile do?
The answer can be found in a study titled “Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better? Evidence from a Large Sample of Blind Tastings.” In the study researchers examined evidence from 6,000 blind taste testings where the tasters did not know the price of the wine being sampled. The main finding of the paper is that “individuals who are unaware of the price do not, on average, derive more enjoyment from more expensive wine. In fact, unless they are experts, they enjoy more expensive wines slightly less.”
An interesting finding of this study, which has been verified in other studies, is that non-expert wine drinkers typically don’t like expensive wines as much as cheaper wines. The authors ask “is the difference between the ratings of experts and non-experts due to an acquired taste?”
Thus, even if a wine is highly-ranked or expensive, you may actually prefer the cheaper wine as experts may prefer different tasting wines.
What if We Know the Price of the Wine?
If we know the price of the wine we’re drinking our perception of taste changes and we think expensive wine tastes better.
At the University of Bonn in Germany 30 volunteers tasted wine while in an fMRI machine. The wine they were served was the same price (about $12) but they were told before tasting a fictitious price – $3, $6 or $18. “As expected, the subjects stated that the wine with the higher price tasted better than an apparently cheaper one.” These results were confirmed by MRI images as the parts of the brain responsible for “the reward and motivation system [was] activated more significantly with higher prices and apparently increased the taste experience in this way.”
“Ultimately, the reward and motivation system plays a trick on us,” explained a co-author of the study. “When prices are higher, it leads us to believe that a taste is present that is not only driven by the wine itself, because the products were objectively identical in all of the tastings.” So, because you expect the wine to be better, your brain’s reward system actually makes it taste better to you.
A similar study at Stanford found identical results – where the same wine was presented as being $5 or $45 a bottle, MRI results showed enhanced reward activity with the $45 price tag and the subjects reported preferring the wine labeled as more expensive.
A key lesson of these MRI studies is that if you serve an expensive bottle of wine you should tell your guests how much the wine costs. They’ll actually enjoy the wine more if they know it is expensive.
What Makes a Wine Taste Good
A good friend of mine has commented “the wine that tasted fabulous on a deck in Napa or Mendoza overlooking the vineyard never tastes quite the same in my backyard in Ladue, Missouri.” So true.
Taste is a complex experience, especially when tasting wine, which is a very complicated liquid from a taste perspective. As described in the Guardian,
For a drink made by fermenting fruit juice, wine is a remarkably sophisticated chemical cocktail. Dr Bryce Rankine, an Australian wine scientist, identified 27 distinct organic acids in wine, 23 varieties of alcohol in addition to the common ethanol, more than 80 esters and aldehydes, 16 sugars, plus a long list of assorted vitamins and minerals that wouldn’t look out of place on the ingredients list of a cereal pack. There are even harmless traces of lead and arsenic that come from the soil.
Our perceptions of the taste of wine is affected by smell, color, how the wine is presented, what type of glass we’re drinking from, the temperature of the wine, who we are drinking with, the weather, what we ate earlier in the day and the overall dining experience, among other factors. Even the music listen to while consuming wine affects our taste perceptions (it turns out Jimi Hendrix goes well with Cabernet Sauvignon). Thus, it makes sense that price would also play into how we perceive taste.
What makes expensive wine expensive? Here’s a great explanation from Wine Spectator:
Expensive wines are usually expensive for two reasons. First off, expensive wines typically cost more to make. The raw materials can vary quite a bit in cost—a high-yielding grape from an unknown vineyard fermented in a stainless steel tank won’t cost as much to make as a wine made from a low-yielding, marquee vineyard, fermented in brand-new oak barrels by a highly sought-after winemaking consultant.
Secondly, expensive wines are expensive because they can be. This is a phenomenon known as “perceived value,” in which how much a consumer is willing to pay affects the price of a good or service. This is particularly true when it comes to things that fall into the “luxury” category. The production costs simply aren’t the whole story when high-end perfumes or fashions are priced.
Here’s a related IFOD on goods where a higher price leads to greater demand.
Similarly, why do women wear high-heel shoes?
Wine requires some education to really understand what your tasting as the nuances of fruit, acidity, tannins, and aroma impact us all differently. We drink lots of wine and are blessed to be close to both Livermore and Napa valleys – an overabundance of excellent wine. That said we’ve developed a pretty accurate/ safe method for judging wine, especially if you’re buying for someone else (it won’t save you from whiffing on the nuanced categories above but on average you’ll wind up with something you’ll enjoy). $20+ good every day wine
$50+ very good really enjoyable wine
$80+ exceptional has the ability to change the quality of a meal
$100+ don’t spend this unless you really know what you like and are buying (aka already tasted it with some experienced supervision)
Happy drinking (errr tasting everyone)
I want to attend the wine tastings you are going to.
It is amazing how much context can influence our perceived enjoyment of wine. My favorite white Burgundy in a plastic cup at a swim meet seems to lose some of it’s magic, while almost any wine, shared with close friends, outside in nice weather probably goes a rung or two up the ladder. I have to question the results of the German study where they ask participants to rate wines with their heads stuck in a functional MRI machine. That might be worse than plastic cups!
Very cool write-up John. Thank you. I plan to share it with some of my wine loving friends, which is actually pretty much all of my friends.
I went to a wine tasting recently. A blind taste test was conducted on wine all above $100. We all knew they were above $100. Thirty of thirty thirty two picked the best as a $250 bottle which was $100 more than the next bottle. All wines were the same region same type. There was no music. Maybe a different study to examine
Good info. Notwithstanding the studies I cited, there is difference in quality of wine.