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Cheap wine tastes better if you sell it more expensive: science explains why

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Manish Saini
Manish works as a Journalist and writer at Revyuh.com. He has studied Political Science and graduated from Delhi University. He is a Political engineer, fascinated by politics, and traditional businesses. He is also attached to many NGO's in the country and helping poor children to get the basic education. Email: Manish (at) revyuh (dot) com

Several studies conclude that, a wine with a high price tastes much better

It may sound like a legend, but it’s based on true events: In 2002, one of New York’s most prestigious restaurants served a group of Wall Street workers its most expensive bottle of wine, a $ 2,000 1989 Mouton Rothschild. The group tasted it with pleasure, and even a self-proclaimed official wine taster praised it after taking a sip. What they did not know was that they had accidentally received the cheapest bottle on the menu, a Pinot Noir valued at $ 18.

Cheap is expensive, they say, and you may not fully believe this story, but research on psychology and neuroscience seems to point out that these kinds of mistakes are constantly being made (although wine experts do not fall for these traps). In fact, one of the first studies that deliberately tampered with wine found that a cheap glass becomes much more palatable when participants are assured that its price is higher. The experiment was carried out during a public event at the University of Basel in Switzerland, and a wine tasting was held to entertain the participants.

Each participant (140 in total throughout the day) sat down to taste the wines at a particular table, for 15 minutes, and without being able to communicate with other people so that their opinions were not influenced. Six small glasses were placed and each participant was asked to taste all of them. After each sip, they had to rate the wine according to its intensity and taste. Half of the glasses contained three different wines with no price information, while the remainder contained three different wines rated low, medium and high prices, with the label affixed for the public to see.

Of course the price information was misleading and it was mislabeled. However, when the price of the wine was hidden, no differences in taste or liking were found, whereas in cases where the label noted that the wine was (deceptively) expensive, the liking ratings increased. For example, when cheap wine was labeled to appear higher in price and exceeded that of mid-priced wine, participants tended to enjoy cheap wine more.

Therefore, the truth may be in wine, but subjective experience also has something to do with it, according to the authors themselves, reports ‘Science Alert’. Beyond sheer enjoyment, this study is the first to assess the perceived intensity of blind tastings in a real-world setting, and suggests that most drinkers cannot determine many differences. We let ourselves be carried away by what the label tells us.

These results largely coincide with previous studies, which have found that manipulating wine prices can change its palatability, while the intensity of the wine remains relatively constant with its price. In 2008, a group of researchers used functional MRI to scan the brains of wine tasting participants, also misleadingly labeled. When the price of wine was increased, the participants reportedly enjoyed the taste more, although the intensity ratings remained the same.

In 2017, a follow-up to the same research was able to confirm these results. By scanning the brains of the wines that were tasted, the researchers found that increasing the price of the product once again improved subjective reports of taste without changing its perceived intensity. Furthermore, this deceptive price increased activity in the brain’s medial orbitofrontal cortex, which is believed to encode a pleasant experience. 

“The reward and motivation system is activated more significantly with higher prices and apparently increases the taste experience in this way,” explained sources from the study itself.

These studies serve to understand how much marketing can influence our brain and perceptions of what is pleasant. And there is something else, unlike previous research, the Basel authors concluded that lowering the price of an expensive wine did not change the overall ratings among ordinary people. It was only when its price was deceptively increased that people seemed to taste or prefer it more.

Reducing the price of an expensive wine does not change the general qualifications among ordinary people. It is only when its price is deceptively increased that people seem to taste or prefer it more.

According to the researchers themselves, the results had to do with the environment: that is, the tasting experience was influenced not only by the smell or color of the wine, but also by the noise of the event, which according to them could have influenced their other senses, possibly reducing or nullifying the effects of the price information. 

“These signals could have potentially reduced the impact of price information on wine ratings, as participants did not just pay attention to the price information presented,” they suggest.

And they point out that the Wall Street workers who asked for a $ 2,000 bottle and ended up drinking one of 18 are a clear example of this, as their table was in a ‘festive atmosphere’. Luck undoubtedly went to the young couple who ordered the $ 18 bottle and ended up having a Mouton Rothschild without knowing it. Although maybe, based on the tests, they didn’t notice much of a difference either.

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