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harvey steiman at large

Price, Pleasure and the Power of Suggestion

Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jan 15, 2008 12:32pm ET


In a scientific study just reported, Caltech researchers measured brain waves in 21 test subjects as they sampled wines. The subjects' pleasure center got more excited when they thought they were drinking more expensive wines.

Wine marketers have known that for years, but the MRI evidence confirms it. People do think wine tastes better if they are told it's expensive stuff. In this test, the subjects sampled identical $10 Cabernet Sauvignons. When they were told it cost $90, the medial orbitofrontal cortex, whose activity reflects pleasure, got more blood and oxygen, a clear tipoff that the human being attached to that brain liked the high-priced experience better.

This, folks, is why we taste blind. If you don't know the price when you sample a wine, you can judge it on its merits. We like to think we aren't fooled by stuff like price, or fancy labels, but our brains say otherwise. The scientists say it's all about expectations.

"For example, knowledge of a beer's ingredients and brand can affect reported taste quality, and the reported enjoyment of a film is influenced by expectations about its quality," the researchers said. "Even more intriguingly, changing the price at which an energy drink is purchased can influence the ability to solve puzzles."

The brain is a malleable thing. It responds to suggestion in ways that are out of our control. Anything can get you thinking this one must be better than it really is. Even something as simple as a gold seal. Therein lies a story.

In the late 1970s, when I was food and wine editor of the San Francisco Examiner, I attended a luncheon put on by restaurateur Vic Bergeron, the original Trader Vic. He had been seduced by tales of pyramid power, the idea that objects kept under a pyramid-shaped structure would receive the benefit of the universe's power. Razor blades, pyramid believers thought, stayed sharper under a pyramid, for example.

Vic thought that wine might improve under a pyramid, so he built a few wooden structures in his restaurant and "aged" some wines under them for a month. At the luncheon, he offered assembled media types a comparison of identically labeled wines. Some bottles had a gold seal on them.

A few of us could taste no difference between the gold seal wines and the other bottles, but most of the assembled dutifully raised their hands to express a preference for the gold seal. Wouldn't you know? Those were the bottles that came out of a pyramid. He announced plans to offer pyramid-aged wines in his restaurants. At a premium, of course.

I bought two bottles of the same wine at the nearest wine shop and made sure they came out of the same case. I slapped a gold label on one of them and took them around the office, offering samples to everyone I could find. It was almost unanimous. Everyone liked the wine with the gold seal better.

It was the power of suggestion. I'd lay odds the Caltech researchers would get the same MRI results from gold seal vs. plain bottle as they did with price.

I wrote a column reporting my results. Bergeron responded by buying a quarter-page ad with a letter ridiculing me. I framed the ad and today it hangs proudly in my home office.

If you crunch the numbers on our blind tastings at Wine Spectator, the best scores tend to go to higher-priced wines. But plenty of high-priced wines are not as good as lower-priced wines. More importantly for us, plenty of modestly-priced wines taste just as good as higher-priced wines, or better. Smart wine drinkers aim for those. And the only way to know is to taste them blind.

Robert West
Tomball, Texas —  January 15, 2008 2:54pm ET
Your comments remind me of an old maxim in French that says, "La s¿ction supr¿ n'est pas d'exprimer ses sentiments. C'est de les faire soup¿ner." -The supreme seduction comes not from expressing one's feelings, it comes from making them suspected. Are we not seduced by the suggestion/hint of quality that comes from a gold seal or a high price?
Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  January 15, 2008 6:14pm ET
I would say that most of the wine samplers in the experiment know very little about wine in general and CA wines in particular. The number of grossly overpriced($100+) CA cabs that don't rate a 90 (even a 85) is overwhelming. True wine drinkers know gauging a wine's quality by its price is like gauging a wine by its back label. So what am I suppose to derive from a test taken from a bunch of MD 20/20 drinkers? Only that the $10 cab is better than the Mad Dog.
Robert Penner
Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada —  January 16, 2008 11:45pm ET
I fully agree with Wine Spectator's policy of tasting blind, as their reviews help me select bottles based on their intrinsic merit. I would like to point out, however, that this column also emphasizes the reason why I will NOT be tasting my best bottles of wine blind. If my enjoyment of a fine Bordeaux is enhanced by knowing that I paid a bundle for it, then I earned the extra placebo effect.I am also interested in the correlation of brain imaging results with subjects' perception. I would venture that the extra blood flow triggered by the higher price tag might represent the anticipation of the wine rather than the experience. I certainly believe that my disapointment in a wine that is not as good as I expected is increased by a higher price.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  January 17, 2008 1:16pm ET
Robert, you're absolutely right not to drink your own prized old bottles blind (unless you want to try two or three of them together to see which one you REALLY like best). Blind tasting is for evaluating wines, to get as unbiased a handle on them as possible.

It struck me, too, that knowing the price of the expensive wines might have increased the blood flow to the right parts of the brain based on high anticipation (which is a form of pleasure). One part of the study was that they contacted the subjects later and asked them which wines they liked best. It was always the more expensive one, lining up exactly with the blood-flow data.
Steven Mirassou
Livermore, CA —  January 17, 2008 1:25pm ET
Higher priced wines that are of suspect quality will also get more of the benefit of the doubt for the same reason. Especially, if the wine is tasted in a group setting.
Steven Mirassou
Livermore, CA —  January 17, 2008 1:28pm ET
Harvey-Does the Spectator's method of blind tasting include not knowing the appellation? I ask this in reference to tasting reports that are varietal in nature...the annual Cabernet report, for instance.
Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  January 17, 2008 5:51pm ET
It's funny, but my brain sets such high expectations for higher-priced wines that they are usually a disappointment when I get to try them! I'm glad you folks do blind tastings. It makes me feel much more confident in the results.
Joseph Kane
Austin —  February 27, 2008 3:50pm ET
I agree that tasting blind is a necessity. My brother in law is getting into blind tastings. I took him to a tasting of 7 world class chardonnays from recent vintages in California. We had the 2005 Martinelli Martinelli rd, 2005 Ridge Santa Cruz, 2005 Gary Farrell Russian RIver Selection, and on and on...The host slipped in a $7 dollar bottle of Fetzer 2006 Chard. About three people knew it. One of those three people mistook an incredible wine for the poor one (and proved despite a loud mouth his palate was poor). He was lambasting the wine and poured it out and said it was trash. Turned out, he liked the poor wine and tossed an incredibly made 95 point chard. His comments influenced two others to pour the wine out. It was a great lesson on peer pressure and on trusting your own palate. Blind and quiet is the way to go if tasting with others in my book.Also, HS I BEG BEG BEG BEG you to retaste the Shea Wadenswil Clone from 2005. I tasted this wine blind and then again non-blind and must say, I think you may have gotten it wrong. Please please retaste this wine. I am not proclaiming myself an expert, but as Laube has said many times, sometimes, maybe tasters just get a bottle wrong.

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