All in your Head? In Vino Veritas
I love wine, an admission that should surprise none of my family or friends or the regular readers of this blog. I’m an oenophile, a lover of the grape, but I would consider myself the farthest thing removed from a wine snob. Sure I love a complex cab with lamb or beef, a big rip-snortin’ full-bodied zin with a juicy grilled steak, a buttery chard with lobster or scallops. And champagne, of course, to celebrate absolutely anything…or absolutely nothing. Champagne needs no excuse!
I love to find a bargain, a wine that I especially enjoy that is affordable enough for every day use. For instance, I’ve enjoyed many a $7 bottle of Rex Goliath (the 47 Pound Rooster) Central Coast pinot or cab over the years. And I enjoyed it every bit as much as a 1982 Bordeaux we babied in our cellar for nearly 20 years, a Cos d’Estornel that had lost a little of its former power, yet would currently sell for hundreds of dollars a bottle. If enjoyment is the goal, why not find a wine you really like that can enjoy a lot more often?
We’ve been lucky enough to taste some really fine wines over the years and for my part, I admit to enjoying them all. A ’63 vintage port and the magnum of Montevetrano we drank with friends in Campania on our anniversary in 2005 come to mind. But Mike and I have also always loved the inexpensive, simple, local ‘jug’ wines always readily available in trattorias, osterias, tabernas, and small cafes throughout the Mediterranean that wine snobs would sniff at and discount as inferior. They may not cost much, but they’re delicious all the same.
So it was with interest that I read an article appeared today in our local paper by Frank Greve of MclClatchy Newservice, titled Study: Wine’s price tag contributes to pleasure.
The study, conducted by Hilke Plassmann and colleagues at California Institute of Technology in Pasadena used MRI scanners to sense changes in a couple of areas of the brain associated with taste and another associated with the pleasantness of a sensation while subjects imbibed tiny sips of various wines injected through a plastic tube into their mouths. Researchers told the subjects the purported price of the wine they were tasting and discovered that the pleasantness associated with a wine increases with price. Though the taste perception centers remained unchanged, the more a subject thought a wine cost, the more pleasant the perceived sensation–even when it was the exact same wine.
Granted, a great part of the wine experience comes from other sensory cues. The nose, the color, the chance to swirl the sip around in your mouth. A big cab just tastes better in a fine piece of stemware with the soft lights glinting off the curve of the crystal than it does in a Dixie cup or injected through a plastic tube while you’re in an MRI tunnel.
Still, I had to wonder if I’d been one of the subjects in this test, would I have arrived at the same perception that equates quality, or more correctly pleasantness of sensation, with price? Most of us–and I include myself in this group–like to think we simply like what we like, but research suggests the truth might be otherwise. This single study, at any rate, indicates that the human brain may be swayed more by the perceived value in dollars than ‘sense’. Could it be that regardless of what our taste centers tell us, the more expensive we think a wine is, the better we enjoy it?
About the only way to find out would be to sacrifice ourselves for the good of science and assemble a group of friends to do a blind tasting (or seven) of various types of wine.
Here are the rules of the ‘in the interest of science’ wine tasting series that we could undertake to discover on our own if it’s price or taste that moves us.
1.) Stick to one grape variety at each tasting–cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir, syrrah, merlot, cabernet franc–to make it a fair fight, since the tastes can be so different. Once you’ve worked your way through the reds, start on the whites, then the champagnes, then the dessert wines. (I told you a wine tasting or seven, right?)
2.) Include wines of all different price points: a bottle of Two Buck Chuck or the aforementioned Rex Goliath, a couple of midrange $15 to $20 bottles, a bottle in the $35 to $45 range, and one really expensive one, such as an Opus One cab (the jaw-dropping cost of which everyone in the tasting could split.)
3.) With all labels obscured in like manner so no one knows what’s what and pencils and pads at hand to record your innermost thoughts, begin: swirl, sniff, sip, and savor.
4.) Now unblind the bottles and see how your taste correlates with price. You may find some wonderful bargain wines to love.
Now repeat the whole evening, but this time engage the services of a non-tasting assistant to help you and your guests test price perception versus pleasure.
1.) For this experiment, you’ll need two bottles of each wine represented. The non-participating assistant will wrap the wines and label them with only a price–one bottle of a pair with the real price and the other with a price at the opposite end of the scale. A $7 wine will be labeled $7 (the real price) and, say, $80 or $90. And an $85 wine will be labeled $85 and maybe $15.
2.) Again, with the swirl, sniff, sip, savor routine, rate the wines simply for enjoyment on a scale of 1 (wouldn’t feed it to my step mother’s dog) to 10 (nectar of the gods) and see if for the same wine price made any difference in your perception.
By the time you finish all these tastings, you’ll be quite pickled, but when you sober up, send me your findings and I’ll share them with the readers. It won’t be scientific, but it might be enlightening.