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what’s in a wine glass?

grapesFiguring that out can be tricky, even embarrassing, for casual tasters and experts alike.

And that raises the question: Should we spring for the expensive labels or settle for box wine?

In the most recent of these experiments, British psychologist Richard Wiseman asked 578 visitors to the Edinburgh Science Fair to taste eight pairs of wine, evenly divided between red and white. In each pair, one wine cost significantly more than the other. Yet, overall, the tasters correctly identified the wines by price barely half the time — in effect, a random outcome. They did best with a pair of pinot grigios, priced respectively at $6.50 and $14.25, identifying the more expensive bottle 59% of the time. They fared worst with red Bordeaux, correctly nailing the pricier pour only 39% of the time. Yet the price gap between these two wines was the most extreme among the pairings: $5.70 for the cheapo bottle versus $24.50 for the higher-end version. That outcome must have been embarrassing to the Brits, who practically invented the Bordeaux wine trade. But not as embarrassing as what happened to a Bordeaux winemaker who told me of a blind tasting in which he failed to identify his own wine.

The confounding message of Wiseman’s survey is that you may pay more for wine, but enjoy it less. In the US, that view is bolstered by a survey of more than 6,000 blind tastings published in 2008 by the American Association of Wine Economists. Summing up the results, lead researcher Evan Goldstein wrote, “Our main finding is that individuals who are unaware of price do not, on average, derive more enjoyment from more expensive wine. In fact, unless they are experts, they enjoy more expensive wine slightly less.”

In yet another 2008 experiment, the subjects were asked to taste five differently priced cabernet sauvignons, then rate them for “pleasantness and intensity” on a six point scale. As each wine was tasted, it was identified by its price: $5, $10, $35, $45 and $90 per bottle. Armed with that knowledge, the tasters gave their lowest ratings to the $5 and $10 wines. Their highest rating went to the $45 and $90 wines. This result diverged from the outcome of Wiseman’s and Goldstein’s experiments — or so it seemed.

But the volunteers had been tricked! They had been offered only three different wines, not five. The $5 wine doubled as the $45 wine, while the $10 wine also played the role of the $90 wine. Yet none of 20 subjects deduced that they were tasting only three wines. And, strikingly, the pleasure part of their brain, as monitored by the MRI, showed maximum activity when the supposedly most expensive wines were sipped and minimum activity for the lowest-priced wines. Price alone was influencing pleasure.

Tellingly, when the Caltech volunteers were later retested, this time without being told the prices of the wines being tasted, they preferred the least expensive wines.

For good reason, sommeliers aren’t likely to be sympathetic to blind tasting experiments in which cheap wines triumph over expensive vintages. After all, if they can’t believe in a hierarchy of wines, with the top tier priced at hundreds or even thousands of dollars, how they can convince diners to buy them?

So it’s a little shocking — and somewhat refreshing — to talk to ex-sommelier Joshua Wesson, co-founder of the low-priced Best Cellars wine shops, who agrees with the scientists, that “there is no direct relationship between the price you pay and the pleasure you receive from a well-made bottle of wine.”

Perhaps the key is that, as with art, it’s not so much about price as it is about context. As Tim Gaiser, education director of the Court of Master Sommeliers, says, “The three variables in wine are the person, the wine itself, and the context. And context is huge.”

In the context of a wicker picnic basket to be opened on the beach, an inexpensive, fruity wine is all that you need, all that you may want. In the context of a special dinner, perhaps marking a big birthday, ordering an expensive bottle of wine may bring you more pleasure simply by splurging. When it comes to wine, your head may matter more than your taste buds.


Kathleen Finnegan

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