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Silly Wine Studies and Slow News Days

Posted: Jan 15, 2008 12:31pm ET

Did any of you hear or read the story about a California Institute of Technology "study" that proved that people are influenced by the price when assessing the quality of a wine? In other words, the majority of the 21 people in the test preferred the expensive wine.

The only problem, according to the BBC and other news organizations, was that it was the same wine, but with different prices!

The BBC also wrote that "[R]esearchers also managed to pass off a $90 (£46) bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon as a $10 bottle and presented a $5 as one worth $45. Furthermore, the volunteers' brains were scanned to monitor the neural activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex - the area of the brain associated with decision-making and pleasure in terms of flavour. Higher ratings were given to the more expensive wines."

Is this so surprising? Slow news day, I guess! Even US networks picked up the story. It reminds me of a study we did at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism, which showed that older people tended to vote more conservatively – quantifying the obvious, I always thought. My buddies and I spent more time in the pub than getting any significant data, but the professors were happy. I think I got a B+ in the class.

I am not sure who the participants were in this bogus study, but I don’t think the person on the street would feel comfortable saying that an expensive wine is of less-good quality than an inexpensive one in a test. Perhaps the people in the study were wine-knowledgeable. Regardless, price does influence perceptions of the quality of a wine, as do labels. Those perceptions can be either good or bad, depending on the person.

The examples are endless. The most obvious to me right now is 2005 Bordeaux. For example, is a 2005 first-growth worth, in some cases, 15 times the price of some super second? For some people, yes. Others, no.

Outside of the wine world, too, there are numerous examples of high price (or, for that matter, low price) meaning high quality for the consumer. It's why so many luxury brands are still doing well, despite the downturn in the economy. Is a Prada turtleneck that much better than one from Crew?

A few comments from a British wine writer got under my skin as well. She said that she wasn’t surprised that the study was done in California, because American attitudes to wine can be very different to those of the British wine-buying public.

She apparently told the BBC that while the Americans love to spend and expensive wine is seen as a regular "reward" purchase, the British are always looking for a bargain. "We have an innate fear of being fleeced," she said.

Anyway, I wrote a comment on the BBC website, but it was never posted. It said:

"Let's not make gross generalizations about Americans' taste for wine, both in quality and in price, from some insignificant study of 21 people. I live in England, Italy and America, and the US market remains the most educated I know about wine. Furthermore, labels and price do influence the perception of the quality of wine in the bottle. It's why I continue to officially taste bottled wines as a senior editor of the Wine Spectator without knowing the price or label."

Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  January 15, 2008 1:10pm ET
I think this is a real phenomenon (e.g. being biased towards a wine because it is more expensive). That is exactly why critical review in a blind fashion is paramount, otherwise every first growth or Napa cult wine would score 100 points!
William Thomen
San Francisco —  January 15, 2008 6:19pm ET
You know those British, they always make gross generalizations ; ) Seriously, her comments sound like comments a politician would make to "play to the masses". I would expect a higher level of behavior from a wine writer.
Michael Yan
Edmonton, Alberta —  January 16, 2008 1:23am ET
The price of the wine is one of those unavoidable intangibles, such as the mood a person is in, or the company at dinner, which impacts upon our experience. I think we have all been in situations where we have brought out an expensive bottle that has been carefully cellared for years, and have either consciously or subconsciously willed ourselves to find it immensely enjoyable because for that price it had better be worth it. On the other hand, we ponder less about the $10 bottle picked up on the way to the barbecue, and are more likely to forget about it the next day.
James Suckling
 —  January 16, 2008 11:07am ET
Michael. So right my friend!
James Suckling
 —  January 16, 2008 11:25am ET
Michael. So right my friend!
Dennis E Perkins
January 16, 2008 12:52pm ET
I agree that there's a bit of the truism in the experiment, bit it still interests me in terms of the larger issue of nueromarketing and the way we buy and sell wine. I wonder if the same issue would arise if the subjests were tasting wines with false WS ratings?Anyway, I figure the more that average consumers know about how their brains (and resulting purchases) can be impacted by external factors, unrelated to quality, the better off we'll all be.
James Suckling
 —  January 16, 2008 1:06pm ET
Dennis. I am afraid the results would be the same with bogus Spec ratings...
Steve Wilkinson
CA —  January 16, 2008 1:35pm ET
The San Jose Mercury News ran an article on the study in today's paper. The participants "all identified themselves as occasional wine drinkers."
James Suckling
 —  January 16, 2008 1:44pm ET
Whatever that means! I wonder what we would be identified as! I would hate think! Seriously, an occasional wine drink is someone who probably knows very little about wine...don't you think?
Steve Wilkinson
CA —  January 16, 2008 4:51pm ET
James, the term is vague. A medical reference lists an "occasional" or "social" drinker" as someone whom consumes one or two drinks once or twice a week. If those few drinks a week are first growth Bordeauxs, then the drinker knows something about wine. However, that is probably not the case.
James Suckling
 —  January 16, 2008 7:44pm ET
Steve. Nice one. But a few drinks of first growth might qualify someone as a connoisseur as well!
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  January 16, 2008 11:37pm ET
I felt that Ms. Robinson took the study out of context. From my readings it appeared that the study was based on "the more expensive something is, the more your pleasure centers of your brain light up from the expectation". To which I would whole heartedly agree. If I were hooked up to that machine and someone told me a bottle was 500$, I'd probably light that thing up in anticipation. After tasting it and realizing it was plonk, it'd probably stay black for the rest of the evening (esp if I paid for the 500$ bottle)

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