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."