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.