Research subjects think more expensive means better wine!

wineonbrain BREAKING: Behavioral economists at Caltech attached an EEG to the heads of 21 volunteers who knew not much about wine, fed them one milliliter of cabernet through a tube and the only thing they told them about the price, which wasn’t always accurate! Guess which one they always thought was better? The more expensive one, even when it was the same wine!

For a summary of this study, check out this BBC account, the best I’ve seen (with blog-worthy reader feedback too! And thanks to readers Grayman, Brian, Stephen and Terry for sending in versions of the story.).

Unfortunately using price as a proxy for quality happens all the time in the world of wine. That’s why, for example, Ace of Spades $300 nonvintage Champagne sells out when it tastes remarkably like the $50 version from the same producer. Hmm, maybe that’s why no samples of it were available during Vinexpo, a savvy crowd of trade tasters? Examples also abound of new producers who release wines at high prices in an attempt to signal quality that may or may not be there.

But, fortunately, price and quality are not always perfectly related. Just last month I poured two wines for participants at a tasting. One was quite a storied Napa producer and another was an unheralded producer from some dustbowl in Spain. They could see the bottles and some knew the Napa name. Which did they prefer? The Spanish one. And when I told them it was $15 vs $115, they rejoiced!

What do you say, is a higher priced wine always better? Share your thoughts and stories in the comments.

It’s too bad that the researchers’ next project is about pain–I was hoping they would repeat the wine quality test with Parker scores. I bet it would have an even higher correlation with perceived quality than price!

Image used with permission from DeLongWine.com

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13 Responses to “Research subjects think more expensive means better wine!”


  1. Oh yeah! Love the Parker idea. When I am buying wine even though the reps know I really don’t get into the parker scoring thing they seem to blurt it out involuntarily. This one was rated 90 by……sorry. I would love to know how many people cared enough about a point system. I guess it all depends who they are EKGing. If I was hooked up and someone said the words Parker and points I would be immediately skeptical. Speaking of Parker Have you read the new book out written by one his former employees?

    EvWg


  2. I was intrigued by this study when I first read about it yesterday. I already commented on your fellow wine Dr’s blog: http://goodwineunder20.blogspot.com/2008/01/blog-post.html
    It seems to confirm all our worst beliefs about the public’s perceptions of quality.

    But as more information about the methodology comes out, it just strikes me as being a poorly designed study. Only 21 inexperienced volunteers, fed 1 milliliter through a tube, and only told the “price”. So, a miniscule sample with zero wine-tasting experience gets no opportunity to look at the color or smell the bouquet, and barely enough (1 ML = 1/5 of a teaspoon) to taste! Of course they responded to the only substantial stimulus they had — price. I would also bet with you that the same would happen in your scenario of giving them Parker scores, or for that matter, any other supposedly objective measure.

    How about just showing them pretty labels?


  3. In my experience with expensive wine, I’m usually predisposed to disappointment. When I decide to splurge and spend $100+ on fermented grape juice, I expect some sort of miracle. I’ve had pricey bottles that seemed worth it, but for the most part, they don’t stack up to the price.

    I’m never happier than when I find a $10 bottle that’s really good. It happens a lot more than I would have expected. People have a tendency to apply positivity to expensive wines, regardless of quality.

    Parker likes the biggest wines out there. I think it’s due to the fact that he’s trying many many wines in a sitting and his tounge gets numb to the subtleties of lighter wines. As an individual who works in the wine and spirits industry, it’s shocking how many people can be swayed by a rating. I’ll recommend a wine that I know is a blockbuster, but if it’s on a shelf next to a 90-point Spectator wine, that’s the one that gets snapped up.


  4. I’m with you about the methodology, Mr. Taz. One milliliter? Come on. And as you point out, there are no aromas if it is dispensed through a tube (!) and we can perceive 1000 times more aromas than we can tastes.

    While I do think their conclusions are extremely valid–that experience and preconceptions play a huge role in perceived wine quality–something about this methodology doesn’t support it for me. FYI, here’s a link to a draft of the paper

    Yes, Sam I think everyone loves to find a bargain!

    EVWG – still haven’t read the Agostini book.


  5. It would be interesting to see the results of that same study done in other countries, for it makes a lot of sense that American’s would think the higher price “tastes” better because of their lack of confidence to trust their own palate and because wine isn’t any every day sort of drink in the US. I have been in scenarios where I did not like the pricey wine, but thought “how am I to say, after all people are paying high prices for it.” But, I must say, Spanish wines are a darn good value and are so very tasty…


  6. Hi Tyler,
    Well I see many people tasting wine yes there are those that are influenced by price and prestige these are the folks that pay $6500 for a bottle of Screaming Eagle, just so they can say they paid that much. I see those that buy for the points rating oh this is a 92!!! I see people that buy for the tasting room or for the “club”. I am a member or I like the attendant. So I cannot say anything is absolute. I do think wine purchasing is a subjective emotional driven act and the ego and motivation of the purchaser are the ultimate determining factor!


  7. Obviously, everyone has a unique palate. But I think the primary flaw in the study is not having a “control” group. They should have had a collection of people who are well educated wine consumers to see what their reaction was.

    I am not necessarily convinced that you wouldn’t see a similar bias.


  8. Caltechies have a history of high jinks and this seems to fit the tradition. I’m surprised that the pseudoscience passes the smell test. One ml or a 750th of a typical bottle through a tube would be better as an IV drip…It would be a lot funnier if the tasters were experts and only given the price point and a more generous pour in a large bowled tasting glass. It is however very easy to have the general public taste three wines and then quickly tell you their favorite although opinions will vary. When I have worked at a Wine Expo this is a common occurrence. When purchasing a wine for the first time we do not usually have the luxury of a small sample so we are then influenced by the price, a shelf talker rating which may not be the same vintage and/or a recommendation of the store’s staff. This last filter can be the most valuable. I always like to ask if they have tried the wine themselves. If they have I can ask if they would buy it again? Do they know of another choice that they particularly like in the same price range and type? I have enjoyed many new wines this way. I must point out that I regularly read the wine press and their ratings and select wines on that basis too. With all of the anti-Parker sentiment it is amazing to me that he exerts so much influence. I have yet to in all of my years of drinking wine to find two wines that were exactly alike. They are almost like fingerprints really. Verticals vary and so do horizontals. One of my favorites from Napa is Caymus which is a blend of grapes from many locations and 30,000 cases produced. Chuck Wagner’s tastes and mine must coincide because vintage after vintage I enjoy it. I only wish it was affordable for everyday pouring. So my quest is to find a Holy Grail of extracted red fruit with a rich mouthfeel and a long finish for around $15. Any suggestions?


  9. It just proves that pricing is an important part of branding and imaging. Marketers have long known that price carries with it a perceived level of value, and the trick is to set the price at the perfect place where your target market–whether bargain-hunters or epicureans—finds it irresistable.


  10. I’ve resolved my side of the problem with this.

    I don’t have the budget for expensive wine, and as a french canadian, people don’t know about Parker around here. So even if a salesman knew the score of a wine, it is not a convincing argument to a client.

    But the result is not surprising.


  11. I actually contacted the researchers and obtained a copy of both the raw data and final publication. The researchers used fMRI (functional MRI) to look which parts of the brain activated and which didn’t during the experiment.

    My first problem with the study has to do with the volume of wine presented – never mind the polyethylene tubing…. Next is that all you can determine about the wine in your mouth is its texture, sweetness, sour, salty, bitter and the ever-ephemeral umami characteristics. So I agree with above posters about the study design to a point.

    The question the study asked was: Will an indirect suggestion of quality (by way of retail price) affect any part of the brain? They correlated that with subject’s reported “Experienced Pleasantness”.

    The answer was that yes, there is a part of the brain that seemed to activate in concordance with subjects’ reports of enjoyment. That part of the brain is not terribly specific, nor does it have a singular function (as is the case for the vast majority of brain regions). It is rather generalized and is subdivided into other regions known as Broadman areas 24v [ventral] and 25. It has been linked to a number of functions and circuits: mood states, sadness, depression, despondency/suicidality, emotional attention and fixation on emotions and emotional memories, switching mood states, etc.

    Furthermore, the parts of the brain responsible for objectively registering and recognizing gustatory and olfactory information were not affected by disclosure of the wine’s price.

    The researchers concluded that there are two processes at play in the experiment: First is the raw sensory data and second is the “top-down” cognitive process related to expectations of what is about to come. The latter modulates [gives subjective interpretation, value and meaning] the first.

    This has the greatest implications for marketing and economics: If someone tells you directly something is good or implies it (by way of a Parker score or name of producer/brand or price point) AND you have no personal expertise about the product (as was the case with these subjects), then you will believe it is good.

    Personally, I feel this says a lot about our society and human nature and explains why we are fad and trend-oriented. If others like it, it must be good, if it says “Gucci” it must be good, it its expensive it must be good.


  12. this story was in the zurich newspaper on tuesday. I was also thinking 1 ml through a tube, yuk! I wonder if there is an influence by the fact they knew about the prices so they knew their judgement had to do something with the price. I think that might actually influence as well. …. but other than that, I think the results pretty much reflect the average consumer attitude. in our restaurant, the most inexpensive wine we pour by the glass is usually the one we hardly sell! greetings from zÜrich, switzerland, caroline


  13. This is not a surprise to me. I think most consumers believe that more expensive products are of a higher quality. But wine tasting can be very subjective and the perception of value could be more easily swayed than for other “hard” consumer items such as furniture, appliances, etc.


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