By Kathryn Westcott
Wine, we know, gets better with age - but now it appears it tastes better the more it costs.
In some quarters, wine has become a premium product
Researchers at the California Institute of Technology have shown that a person's enjoyment of wine can be heightened if they are simply told that it is an expensive one.
Twenty-one volunteers were asked to sample different bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon and rate the ones they preferred.
The only information they were given was the price of the wine - but in a number of cases, they were not told the real price. In one case, the volunteers were given two identical red wines to drink and were told that one cost much less than the other.
Most described the "higher priced" wine as much more enjoyable.
Researchers also managed to pass off a $90 (£46) bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon as a $10 bottle and presented a $5 as one worth $45.
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.
Antonio Rangel, who led the research team, told the BBC News website that the experiment showed how "expectation can affect the actual encoding of the pleasantness of the experience."
Not everyone will enjoy wine because of its price
Oliver Johnson, CEO of the UK-based Wine Society, says this response was common with certain prestige products such as clothing, cars and, nowadays, handbags.
"In this case, the volunteers appeared to have been associating the price of the wine with prestige - they were expecting it to be a good vintage, with a good label, even though they didn't have that information," said Mr Johnson.
He told the BBC News website that while for most people wine is not normally a luxury item - more of a "grocery product" - there are people who would happily pay over the odds for a bottle with a cult label.
"There are top clarets, for example, where the price is out of line with the quality. The quality is fabulous but we are not sure that this is reflected in the pricing."
He says this indicates that for many people wine is now a status symbol. "It's premium brand time in some places."
In October 2001, a number of City dealers paid up to £12,300 for a bottle for wine at a top London restaurant.
But Mr Johnson says that not everyone is going to enjoy a bottle of wine just because it has an expensive price tag.
British wine buyers apparently like a bargain
"It can work two ways," he says. "On the one hand some people will enjoy the wine simply because they know it is expensive, on the other, there are those who will be disappointed. They could get their hopes up by being told that the wine is expensive, only to have it dashed when it didn't match their expectations."
He says that no wine expert would have been fooled by the experiment.
"It's not difficult to get the price of wine about right. Less expensive wine is less interesting, the more money you pay, the more things are going on. Most people would have been able to tell the difference," he says.
Wine expert Jancis Robinson says she was not surprised to see that the research was carried out in California.
She argues that American attitudes to wine can be very different to those of the British wine-buying public.
"At least seven years ago, I was told by a sommelier at a top restaurant in California that he couldn't sell wine that was priced at under $100 at bottle," she says. "He was able to sell the same wine when he raised the price to more than $100."
She says 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 says.
Dr Martin Yeomans, a reader in experimental psychology at the University of Sussex told the BBC that what the experiment appeared to show was how expectation can drive the sensory experience, to generate pleasure.
"Expectation is a huge part of wine appreciation," he says. "This shows how expectation can be set up by everything that happens before the wine is put in the mouth - the characteristics, the price, the vintage.
"And if this is congruent, then the experience is better than if you had not been given any information."
He says that it also shows how we can be "kind of fooled". And, he says, it demonstrates how, by heightening people's expectation, they could be seduced into spending more than they need to on a product such as wine.
I can't imagine where the American restaurant might be that "can't sell wine for less than $100 a bottle", but I'll bet it's the only one of its kind! Everyone I know who buys wine shops for it at the Trader Joe's chain-- generally Charles Krug Vineyards, or "Two Buck Chuck" as he's fondly known. Most of us over here these days are broke, have no health care plans, will never be able to afford houses and are struggling to pay our overinflated rents.
Kage Baker, Pismo Beach, California USA
While in the merchant navy, I used to buy wine by the case in various countries such as Argentina, Brazil, South Africa & Chile. When buying wine in the shop, I frequently will buy a less expensive wine and have taste tests at a party and find that testers ask for the name of the wine so they can buy it and then later tell me that they were surprised at how reasonably priced it was! There are many uninformed people who think that the more they spend the better "it has to be". It is important to not lead the jury.
Jack Boak, Damariscotta USA
I generally buy wine based on the attractiveness of the label and also provided it is within an acceptable pricing band and type I am looking for. However, it is still very much pot luck...
Geoff Hodge, Madrid, Spain
Anyone who drinks wine with any regularity should have been burnt enough times by overpriced plonk to know price is no failsafe guide, so I'd say this test wouldn't have fooled them. Apart from price, many factors influence enjoyment, such as air quality, temperature, the food with which consumed, even altitude. As a result, ignoring price and giving pride of place to the individual organoleptic experience - i.e. simply if the wine does it for you - just can't be beaten.
Matthew Stott, Jerez de la Frontera (Andalusia, Spain)
No - I buy wine that tends to be older burgundies and these just happen (unfortunately) to be expensive.
Where possible it is better to go for smaller, less well know producers as the bigger, better known ones command higher prices.
Dave McFadyen, Sherfield English, Hampshire
The label is not of much concern to me, other than conveying basic information about grape variety and the like. I am astonished at the extent to which, for example, people are prepared to pay high prices for indifferent French wines with an attractive chateau label and a cork. I usually find much better quality from Chile, Argentina or Australia; their wines will also be lower priced and much more consistent.
Frank Cowell, London UK
I bought a $10 bottle of wine and was very concerned that it was a waste of $8.
Don Osborn, Eastlake, Colorado
As I drink wine every day with lunch and dinner there is no way I could buy it if it had an expensive label! If I ever win a lottery I might splurge.
Phil Linehan, Mexico City, Mexico
We try to buy wine that is exceptionally good for its price. Around here, it's possible to get a great, everyday 'house wine' for $6 or $7US per bottle (I'm thinking of a favorite Cotes du Ventoux, here, as one of several examples). We are able to buy wines - including imported wines - much more cheaply than people in other parts of the country. When shopping, I make the assumption that the more decorative the label, the more likely the wine is overpriced for its true value (avoid animals on the label at all costs!). If the wine is over $15US, we pretty much don't buy it without tasting it, or getting a strong recommendation from someone we trust.
With regards to the influence of price on perception: I think that if I am told the bottle cost a lot ($40), then even if I think it is not so interesting, I will make an effort to see what I might have been missing; so that is one possible contributor to the results in the survey.
BB, Berkeley, CA USA
I hardly ever strayed above the 5GBP mark when I lived in the UK, and am still shocked when I go back there how much the price and quality varies compared to here in Spain. Price is so closely connected to quality here you know exactly what to expect from the top end, and can be pleasantly surprised from the bottom end. 3.50¿ gets you a solid bottle, 10.00¿+ gets you something special. Label design is less important than region, but more important than year, as I never know which were good or bad.
Philip Quarterman, Madrid, Spain & Reading, UK
I never base my red wine selections on price. Some of my favourite pinot noirs and merlots are priced under $15(Can) a bottle. I have had numerous reds that were priced over $100 - $200 a bottle and have been no more impressed with the taste than my cheap bottles. The golden rule for all wine drinkers - If you like it, buy it and forget the cost (or lack thereof!)
Mike, Calgary, Canada
I have an idea in my head of what I normally pay to get a decent bottle of wine, and if I want something more special (eg at Christmas), I add a bit to that - say 20%. But above this point my enjoyment actually decreases, since I don't really believe that, say, a £100 bottle of wine tastes ten times better than a £10 one, so I just end up feeling slightly ripped off!
Although expensive wine is in most of the cases very enjoyable, the quality difference between a medium priced wine and an expensive wine is not always reflected in the price difference. Some wines are indeed overpriced.
This again proves that for a lot of people price and not quality plays a role. As long as people use price as the only criterion we'll continue to live in a superficial society.
Paul J.Van Coillie, Antwerp Belgium
I have friends/colleagues who buy wine literally because of the high price. I've tasted theirs, and buy my own wine (usually when its on offer and less than £4 a bottle in my local supermarket)! and mine is just as, and if not, better, than the brands they drink. I would rather a friend bring two bottles of decent, fairly priced wine to dinner at our house, than spending a small fortune on one bottle that none of us will particularly enjoy. You CAN tell a very cheap wine because it frankly tastes like pickling water, but you can buy very nice wine for less than a fiver a bottle in pretty much every supermarket. I'll stick to Hardy's Crest Shiraz thank you, £7.99 per bottle going for £3.99 at Tesco!
It's an easy trap to fall into - but our eyes have been opened by a great sommelier at a local restaurant who gives you blind tastings of wines without telling you the price, country or grape, to challenge your taste buds. This way, we've tried Lebanese reds (at 12.00 a bottle) Greek whites (at 15.00) and fabulous desert wines (at 60.00) with no preconceptions. I can heartily recommend it!
Mrs H, Ashford, Middx
Stella Artois have known this for years!!
Dave, Reading, UK
No, its a question of your palate and what appeals ,here in France I have tasted wonderful; local produced wines at under 2 euros a bottle and expensive wines that are terrible .,it all depends on weather , care of the vines and soil one field may yield a good grape the next fields may not . no need to be a snob about wine drink (in moderation) what you enjoy and don't eat peanuts with it spoils the taste.
Susan Hill, France
Out of a state of 40 million people, a nation of 300 million people, and a world of billions of people, how accurately can you really generalize a study of 21 volunteers to the general population???
Ted Bogart, North Carolina, USA
No. I do not. First of all, not ALL Americans only buy expensive wine. Maybe the rich of California, but certainly not the masses of Americans. I think that California has been getting a bad reputation for upping the price on wines simply because they come from California, but I have had red wines that were just as delicious from wine regions of New York, Virginia, and Washington State. I like a wine simply because I like it. Presently, I am really into Australian and Chilean wines. I can usually get a good bottle around 10.00 US dollars in the States. (I was recently in Mexico and the price of wine there was outrageous - nearly $25.00 for the same wines!!!) I am convinced that 'good wine' does not have to cost a lot. However, if you want 'super great wine' you may have to cough up a few more bucks!!! Todd
Todd Marshall, Rome, New York
I actually find greater satisfaction finding a cheap wine that tastes expensive - rather than have my palate misled by the cost of an expensive bottle.
Would the results have been the same if they had done the test on wine experts? That would have been a better test.
Greg, Exeter, Devon
I don't drink wine personally, but I do know many people who drink very expensive wines regularly. In the few I have sampled, I often find that the pricier ones are better, but typically a bottle that costs ten times as much is only ever close to being twice as good.
I personally believe the findings of this experiment simply because I inadvertently conducted similar. At our wedding, I relabelled over one hundred bottled of cheapish wine with customised labels detailing our marriage and most remarked at how good it was...including some I know would avoid the particular brand in the super market or wine merchants.
I thing expensive wine has itself joined in with the brand-lust that commercialisation and capitalism has force-fed us...thankfully though it is at least one that 'chavs' (cheap and vulgar types) are by definition, excluded from!
Gary johnson, San Diego, California
I agree with Mr Johnson - anyone with a reasonable sense of taste and smell will not be fooled by the price. If the quality of the wine is not obvious by the first taste, it certainly will be by the end of the first glass. At the same time, if there are people out there willing to be fleeced and enjoy plonk, that is fine by me.
David Thomas, Paisley, Scotland
I think this article is reinforcing the stereotype that wine is too subtle for Americans, notoriously prone to excessive displays of wealth. I'd like to remind the writer that in both the 1976 and 2006 "Judgment of Paris" wine tasting events, Californian wines performed spectacularly. Many of these wines are in fact available for reasonable prices. My native state of Virginia is also famous for its wines, and I've never had to pay an exorbitant price for one with subtlety and charm.
If the same scientific study were performed in any region of the world, it would have a similar result.
Shayan Ghajar, Chantilly, USA
I am not surprised by this at all. Oddly I don't go for price but what the label looks like. If the label is eye-catching I'll look at that above everything. I enjoy a nice glass of wine and great food but honestly I cannot taste a difference in a $10 bottle versus a more expensive.
Garret, Austin, USA
There is a common misperception about price and quality. After spending a variety of prices on a wine, I have determined that for around $20 a bottle, you don't get much more the more you spend. It is like Gucci or Prada. Quality is all perceived.
Jonathan, Milwaukee, USA
The article is interesting. It mainly demonstrates that if you know little about wine, then be happy with the lower priced wines. To me the best, or most expensive wines taste about the same as the medium and lower priced wines, with a few exceptions. I am happy with the lower priced wines and do not plan on wasting $$ learning to appreciate only the expensive wines.
Rodney, Bailtimore, USA
As a wine collector myself who has lived in two of the most important wine producing regions of the world, Bordeaux and Northern California, I am also not surprised by the results of the experiment. American wine buyers are well known as the biggest wine buying suckers on the planet.
My wine buying and tasting experiences were often very disappointing until I started reading Wine Spectator Magazine and Wine Advocate as well as books by Robert Parker. My own personal tastes more frequently conform to WS's opinions but not always and at least I feel I have the best odds of getting wine I will enjoy when I follow this kind of professional advice I trust. Advice from wine merchants has proven completely unreliable.
I was very fortunate to amass a nice collection of mostly classified Bordeaux while the prices were low, collecting the best vintages from the 1980s and 1990 which are now at or near readiness to drink. The real challenge for me now is to buy wines at modest prices I also enjoy. This is a matter usually of trial and error starting with professional advice. There are some very fine values coming from Australia and of course excellent Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc coming from New Zealand. I've been burned by Chile too often and for my money, high quality French and California wines are now far too expensive. I consider buying wine serious business, drinking wine exactly the opposite. Learning how to use wine to its maximum enjoyment such as pairing each one optimally with foods which compliment their flavors and aromas is also critical to getting the most for my wine buying dollars.
Mark, New Jersey, USA
Never. California wine stores are awash with wine. You better know what you want because the "wall of labels" is not only confusing but dizzying in front of you. Nothing hardly stands out any more.
Only by tasting, having a professional helping you, you can find something expensive which is worth it. Otherwise we all buy a bottle for under $ 15.00.
Riitta Carufel, San Diego USA
This research only serves to illustrate how gullible some people are. It never fails to amaze me how the shelves displaying half price wines in my local supermarket are often empty, yet equally good wine lies untouched even when the price is identical to the so-called half price stuff.
It's equally obvious that we're being fleeced with all sorts of Chardonnays, Semillons, Merlots and the like being offered at half price (isn't always £3.99 instead of £7.99?) whilst Chateauneuf Du Pape is never half price (sorry, personal beef).
This is only going to get worse, since, what the US does today, the UK does tomorrow. I bet the French, Italians and Spanish have no such problem.
Richard Sinclair, Edinburgh
As a consumer of fine wine I find this experiment interesting.
First of all, what should expensive wine taste like? This can be subjective in most cases. But as it was mentioned in the article, a good wine is usually denoted in its complexity of taste.
If this is not understood by the consumer then they can be fooled to believe anything using auto-suggestion.
Secondly, auto suggestion plays a factor
Adam Sylla, Muswell Hill
If the marketing people have done their job right, the price and the look of a bottle will appeal to certain groups and the taste of the wine will match expectations. This will save them some time navigating through the confusing array of wines now available. Far from preferring wine because it is expensive, I am more likely to be disappointed by an expensive bottle, as the improvement in flavour - if any - may not be sufficient to justify the price.
Emma, London, UK
I would be very interested to know whether the people conducting the tests allowed the wines to breath properly. Fine wines usually take between 1 and 3 hours to breath. Before the wines have breathed fully, the fruit will not appear and tannins will predominate. Therefore, a freshly opened bottle of expensive wine will taste similarly ordinary when compared to a cheap bottle of wine. Also, and to make matters harder to manage, very good wines will tend to have a short drinking window after they have breathed before they start to go off.
A very good bottle of wine that has breathed properly will always taste much better than lesser wines. That's easy to prove. I await the invitation to prove the point!
Felix Marks, London, UK
My own experience runs counter to these results. A friend of mine hosts wine-tasting parties with bottles ranging from ~$10 to over $500, and almost never is the most favored bottle among the most expensive ones. We talk about the wines and the prices before we sample them, and even so, the crowd favorite is usually one of the less expensive bottles, or at most in the middle of the price-range. I've tried some $400+ wines that I didn't like at all, and couldn't distinguish from an $8 bottle. I've had some excellent wines that were ~$80 - $150, but even those were not that much better than some good $15 - $30 wines. The whole experience leaves me truly baffled as to why anyone would ever pay hundreds of dollars for a single bottle of wine, and how those wines are priced so high.
Fred Werner, Oakland, California, USA