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According to the BBC,

Wine costing less than £5 a bottle can have the same effect on the palate as those priced up to six times as much, a psychological taste challenge suggests.

My skeptic sense is on red alert after such a statement: "can have"? "a challenge suggests"?

Photo credit: Robert S. Donovan/Creative Commons
Photo credit: Robert S. Donovan/Creative Commons

Let's get to the bottom of this, are there any quality papers on wine testing confirming or denying this piece of news?

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No sources, hence no answer, but: in France, only a pure grape will generally get an appellation (there are exceptions). Blend wines, though not inferior by any objective criterion, will in principle not get an appellation and hence sell for less money since the French will by pure reflex pay more for an appellation, regardless of quality. So when comparing blends to pure wines, there is indeed a noticeable difference in price that has no bearing on quality. –  Konrad Rudolph Apr 14 '11 at 12:26
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A really good wine is the one you really enjoy. –  Rusty Apr 14 '11 at 12:44
    
there is a study that suggests music can enhance wine taste –  Oliver_C Apr 14 '11 at 14:52
    
I can imagine a scenario where a ridiculously bad wine is so ridiculously bad that people will pay more to try how bad it is :) –  horatio Apr 14 '11 at 17:07
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@Konrad: I have a big counterexample to your statement about French wines not being blends: Bordeaux wines are all blends of specific types of grapes. –  Ken Bloom Apr 15 '11 at 21:05

6 Answers 6

up vote 45 down vote accepted

This ties in with The Wine Trials of Robin Goldstein:

In 17 brown-bag blind tastings around America, Goldstein and his colleagues served more than 6,000 glasses of 500 different wines, priced from $1.50 to $150, to more than 500 people. The results surprised even the experimenters: the correlation between price and preference was actually negative, suggesting that individuals on average enjoy more expensive wines slightly less than cheaper wines.

Goldstein suggests that the answer lies in what he calls the "wine placebo effect": the knowledge that a wine is expensive can actually influence its taste:

"It doesn't mean that wine aficionados and experts are con artists, nor does it mean that people don't legitimately sense pleasurable qualities in very expensive wine, even when they taste it blind. But it does mean that when we don't taste blind, it's almost impossible to know whether the pleasure of expensive wine is coming from its own taste, or from the taste of money."


This study seems to concur,

the sensation of pleasantness that people experience when tasting wine is linked directly to its price.

[The] results show that increasing the price of a wine increases subjective reports of flavor pleasantness as well as blood-oxygen-level-dependent activity in medial orbitofrontal cortex (mOFC), an area that is widely thought to encode for experienced pleasantness during experiential tasks.

Wine Tasting

The graph above shows the activity in the brain's pleasure center; there's more activity with wine subjects think costs $90 a bottle (top line) than the same wine priced at $10. The arrow shows the moment when the subjects started tasting the wine.

Wine Tasting

The chart above shows that people ranked taste of a $45 wine higher than the same wine priced at $5, and the same for a different wine marked $90 and $10.

(here is the abstract of the orignal study)


I have seen something similar done on a TV-show (can't remember which). The labels of cheap and expensive wines were swaped and 'ordinary' people rated the taste of the wine with the expensive label more highly.

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Awesome collection of studies. Nice one! –  Rory Alsop Apr 14 '11 at 12:23
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I'm pretty skeptical of these studies, and I'm a cheapskate. Cheap wines are optimised for service by the glass, on their own, poured from a freshly opened bottle, in a wide range of temperatures. By contrast, expensive wines, especially reds, require time to breath, and should be served at a particular temperature to bring out their flavour. –  Marcin Apr 14 '11 at 12:31
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I used to be in a wine club. We'd blindly serve 6 different wines on a theme - chianti's, dessert wines, etc. Almost without exception, price had no correlation on the group favorite. Far from scientific, but it does lend some support to the study. –  fred Apr 14 '11 at 13:22
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An additional thought: Most tastes can be described with either a positive or a negative adjective. If you expect a good wine, you might be more inclined to use the positive ones to describe exactly the same taste you'd assign a negative adjective with in a cheap wine. –  Lagerbaer Apr 14 '11 at 21:48
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@Marcin I think the paper mentioned here is clear enough. Just saying "I'm skeptical" doesn't mean much when it's said about peer-reviewed research with no specific criticisms of the research. The methods described in the paper are extremely rigorous. What is it specifically about the paper that you're skeptical about? –  tak Apr 16 '11 at 4:17

Vir Sanghvi, a popular editor in India, has written several articles on the subject. His personal opinion is that expectation plays a very big role, and that most people can't really differentiate between good and great wines. He gives several examples from real life and some experiments to justify this.

He also frequently cites one famous event - The Paris tasting of 1976 as the prime example of his stance. Before the tasting, the French were very critical of the quality of Californian wines. However, in the blind tasting, famous tasters were not able to distinguish between French and Californian wines, and many Californian wines scored better. (The moral is not that Californian wines are better, but that the same people who did not like them found them good when they did not know beforehand what they were tasting.)

While viewing the above page, a reference caught my eye. It describes a study of wine scoring and tasting. I can't find the original study, but the article gives some good summaries.

From the article,

After appropriate statistical massaging, Brochet's results prove that a lot of what wine connoisseurs say about wine is humbug: A side-by-side chart of best-to-worst rankings of 18 wines by a roster of experienced tasters showed about as much consistency as a table of random numbers.

From the study itself,

Tasting is [a form of] representation. Indeed, when our brain performs the task of 'recognizing' or 'comprehending,' it is manipulating representations. In reality, the taste of wine is a perceptual representation, because it manifests an interaction between consciousness and reality.

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This post would be so much better if it included quotes from the referenced sources! :-) –  Ebenezer Sklivvze Apr 14 '11 at 9:26
    
@Sklivvz : Good idea. Doing it right now. –  apoorv020 Apr 14 '11 at 9:29

Prompted by a recent news story, some thoughts on wine – specifically, on the evidence that the quality of wine and amount of pleasure one gets from drinking it has no intrinsic relationship to the wine’s price; only, to one’s perception of the price and/or quality of the wine, which can be influenced as much through labelling, marketing and price tag as much as the wine’s actual look, smell and taste.

Jonah Lehrer‘s written a lot about wine and how we experience and judge it:

  • A 2001 study by Frederic Brochet of the University of Bordeaux that showed wine experts getting fooled by a white wine tinted with food coloring.

  • Another study by the same author showing experts rating the same wine differently depending on whether the bottle looked cheap or expensive.

  • A study giving wine drinkers MRIs, demonstrating the actual experience of pleasure from a wine is correlated to the price level the drinker believes the wine is at.

  • There are also some articles in the New York Times which discuss other experiments that appear to back this up. Many of these articles cover the same studies: I also found an article and video at Stanford on the same topic: Does a Wine’s Pricetag Affect it’s Taste?

The Economist covers two studies published in The Journal of Wine Economics, concluding “The relationship between the price of a bottle of wine and its taste is weak”

A Swedish study found gender differences, but still concluded that people enjoy cheap wine as much as more expensive bottles. ” ..results suggest that hosts offering wine to guests can safely reveal the price: much is gained if the wine is expensive, and little is lost if it is cheap. Disclosing the high price before tasting the wine produces considerably higher ratings, although only from women. Disclosing the low price, by contrast, does not result in lower ratings…”

An Australian study found “Analysis revealed price and [Country of Origin] were both stronger contributors to perceptions of wine quality than taste”

Personally, I’m convinced. Or convinced enough that I don’t want to go around looking at the research too critically, or to look for conflicting evidence. I’ve given myself permission to buy and enjoy cheap wine, and it seems as though as long as I believe that that wine’s as likely to be good as more expensive wine, I’ll enjoy it just as much. It’s not in my economic interest to try to convince myself otherwise.

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I took the liberty of typing up your blog post in markdown (gist.github.com/3870d77d7f0fb5c8176f), removing the reference back to SE (it's possible to make changes to the gist). If you want I can edit your post so you can get around the link issue. We are also having a conversation about the link issue in meta: meta.skeptics.stackexchange.com/questions/367/… –  Kit Sunde Apr 16 '11 at 20:50
    
thanks Kit! that's awesome. If you want to go ahead & edit, please do. Cheers! –  geekgirl397 Apr 17 '11 at 17:03

A part of the answer has nothing to do with wines and taste and has to do with marketing concept known as "segmentation".

Joel Spolsky (who happens to be one of the two co-founders of Stack Exchange network :) had a VERY nice and detailed description of how segmentation works when applied to selling software:

http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/CamelsandRubberDuckies.html

However, the short version is:

"You can evaluate how much a given customer is likely to be willing to pay and then charge them that price without any major difference in the item being sold.

A second, related phenomena is using the cost of what you purchase as internal/external indicator of status. A well known example of this is "I am Rich" iPhone app - 8 people bought an app for $999 that did NOTHING (probably more would but Apple pulled the app).

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I don't think that a study can prove or disprove this. You can find out if there is a difference in taste (but a spectrometer should be able to prove the same).

The trouble when judgment is solely based on sensory inputs (such as in, "Which wine tastes better?") is that there are two strong biases present. The one is called mere exposure effect.

The mere exposure effect is a psychological phenomenon by which people tend to develop a preference for things or people that are more familiar to them than others. Repeated exposure increases familiarity.

I don't have any data for whether the majority of the population drinks cheap wine more often than expensive wine, but I think that it is reasonable to assume this. If the study represents the general population well, the results will be skewed towards the cheaper wines because of the mere exposure effect. This doesn't mean that cheaper wines really taste better. It is possible that the same population would have rated the wines in another way if it had been exposed to a different wine mix over the years.

I haven't seen a name for the second bias, but have observed it often, and there are several trends in our society which are based on it. It is probably best explained with sight. It is the fact that the less trained a person is to use a sense, the more likely they are to value very strong input impulses positive, while ignoring the weaker ones. This is the reason why small children instinctively prefer brightly colored objects. In adults, it can be observed in photography. Laymen are always very impressed by overdone HDR pictures, while photographers find these uninteresting and rate higher pictures which have a big amount of very subtle details. Similarly oversaturation: good photographs have the same saturation as the original scene, great photographs can be styled in a personal way which often includes a special level of saturation. But the brain always prefers the more saturated pictures. Not only are they perceived best by the people who don't know what saturation is, every photographer has ltaken a sober look at the results of yesterday's postproduction to detect that he pushed the slider way too high, because when you are on the slider, comparing two variants side-by-side, the more saturated one always appeals more.

In music, this phenomenon is also well known: it is the reason why there are catchy tunes. Have you ever noticed how simple catchy tunes are? It is also the reason why pop music sells much better than classical music, although classical music or involved music from other styles is considered higher quality by musical experts.

So I'd say that the cheap wines are the gustatory equivalent of a catchy tune: they are liked on the first sip, especially by non-experts, because of their assertive simplicity. And the more we drink them, the more we like them. This explains the negative correlation in the studies cited, too. On the other hand, the experts have been trained/have trained themselves concentrate more on taste. Then the overly strong stimuli seem too harsh, and the subtle details are missing from the picture, leading the experts to hate wines which the general public finds perfectly drinkable. As they are willing to pay more per unit of wine, better wines easily sell at higher prices.

This wasn't an argument to say that wines which cost more will always taste better to you, or even to an expert. It is not so much a case of "you get what you pay for", as a case of "you don't get what you don't pay for". The traditional manufacturing of wines involves very complex chemical reactions, which need lots of time. High production time is always associated with high production cost. Quickly manufactured wine takes lots of shortcuts, which don't produce such a variety of complex flavors (see McGee on food and cooking for an in-depth explanation). So it is economical suicide for the winery to sell complex wines at a low price. On the other hand, a winery selling non-complex wine at a high price is perfectly possible, and it won't be counteracted by the market's invisible hand, because neither taste prefereneces nor the willingness to pay correlate too well with wine complexity (or, for that matter, with each other), and, to a smaller degree, because of market imperfections like asymmetrical information.

So there isn't a price correspondence even for something objective like the chemical complexity of the wine. And because you are probably more interested in whether you can expect more expensive wine to taste better, you must accept an even weaker (or even negative) correlation.

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I think the question is somewhat misleading. Wine is not actually priced according to taste. Wine pricing has a lot to do with supply and demand and taste surely has some effect on the demand side but so have multiple other things.

If you are genuinely interested in wine economics an the development of wine prices you have a rather complex construct ahead of you. to give you a little glimpse I have a couple links that show a little about the topic:

aawe (american association of wine economics): http://www.wine-economics.org/

wine economics link list: http://www.wine-economics.de/


But to me it seems you are rather interested whether a cheap wine can taste as "good" as an expensive wine. I think this is a rather difficult question to answer from a skeptics standpoint. How would you answer the question whether the McDonalds BigMac tastes better than the Burger Kings Double Whooper from a skeptics standpoint?

The only things we can scientifically analyze is the chemical makeup of a wine. But there are no tangible rules in how the chemical makeup exactly translates to taste.

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I think it's pretty clear that inexpensive wines can be excellent, and expensive wines can be pretty bad (even when handled properly). With careful selection of wine, one could create a study showing almost any relationship one wishes between price and quality. –  Marcin Apr 14 '11 at 12:34

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