Can cheap wine taste great?

by on May 1, 2015 at 1:01 am in Education, Food and Drink | Permalink

And not just if you are drunk:

When consumers taste cheap wine and rate it highly because they believe it is expensive, is it because prejudice has blinded them to the actual taste, or has prejudice actually changed their brain function, causing them to experience the cheap wine in the same physical way as the expensive wine? Research in the Journal of Marketing Research has shown that preconceived beliefs may create a placebo effect so strong that the actual chemistry of the brain changes.

Related experiments were run with milkshakes, by Hilke Plassmann and Bernd Weber.  There is more here, of considerable interest, hat tip goes to Samir Varma.  Do any of you know of an ungated copy?

This new article asks how much placebos are affected by your DNA.

1 wine lover May 1, 2015 at 1:10 am

I read a similar study a few years ago that found if participants could see the labels critical appraisal was strongly affected by price signalling communicated through product design (graphics-bottle shape etc), whereas without the labels most found it difficult to judge the difference between cheap & expensive. Not surprisingly it also found that if you take the prices of the bottles consumers could still identify the price points.

2 Mark Thorson May 1, 2015 at 1:42 am

Has someone done the same research on journal articles? Would professors and grad students rate an article differently if it was published in a prestigous journal? Of course they would. No good reason to bother running the experiment, except to drive home a message everybody already knows.

3 wiki May 1, 2015 at 8:12 am

None of these studies take into account the complexity of identifying good wine. The labels may be a signal of what factors to focus on.

Consider this example, it’s obvious that music from different famous composers is different but many experienced listeners would have difficulty identifying little snippets chosen carefully from different eras. But give them a useful clue (say which century or period it’s from) and then they can tell.

So of course, there may be a placebo effect, but there may also be the difficulty that it takes time for one to become accustomed to the nature of a wine. This might not show up well in a short blind test but might well appear over a long meal. In the same way, customers might like a speaker that’s tipped too high in a short A/B but will eventually come to find that peak annoying with daily listening.

We do know that even in those tests, some drinkers can routinely tell the difference between wines easily. The question is how strong the power is for those listeners who seem to fail the test or not beat the test at 95% confidence levels. None of the wine tests I’ve seen have been calibrated to show that tasters were given the maximum training to distinguish different wines in short periods of time.

4 TMC May 1, 2015 at 2:32 am

” is it because prejudice has blinded them to the actual taste, or has prejudice actually changed their brain ”

Given that taste is subjective, why would there be any change in the brain?

5 dan1111 May 1, 2015 at 3:10 am

Agreed. The above sentences are premised on the expensive wine tasting objectively better. I see no reason for that assumption.

6 josh May 1, 2015 at 8:46 am

They are also premised on a certain metaphysics implicit in the idea that the concept of taste is *nothing but* the chemistry of the brain.

7 dirk May 1, 2015 at 2:59 am

A complex wine is complex because it takes a different amount of time for the signals from different taste buds to hit the brain. Even if you aren’t a *taster*, you can tell the difference between a complex wine and a flat one simply because of this timing difference.

Really, really hard to believe the placebo effect in wine tasting lasts longer than these, likely flawed, experiments.

8 dan1111 May 1, 2015 at 3:09 am

Peer-reviewed research has shown that professional wine tasters couldn’t really tell the difference between low-end and high-end wine in blinded tests. It is hard to see how such work could be methodologically flawed, given its design.

The very cheapest wine does taste bad. However, does the average bottle costing $1000 taste better than the average bottle costing, say, $8? I am skeptical.

9 carlolspln May 1, 2015 at 4:48 am

The $1K bottle will taste different than than the $8 wine.

The question is how much you value it.

You can taste the difference.

ps “Peer-reviewed research has shown that professional wine tasters couldn’t really tell the difference between low-end and high-end wine in blinded tests” [snip] Link?

10 Hilke May 1, 2015 at 5:49 am

In these experiments people actually can’t taste the differences. I have done about 10 years of taste research in the lab and field and people are not great at this. Novices seem to be even better than pseudo experts (i.e., wine club members, people who have done 1-3 wine courses, often referred to as intermediates). I have a nice study on the way on this topic – you will have to stay tuned 🙂

11 RoyL May 1, 2015 at 6:03 am

That makes sense, amateurs are less likely to look for something when they don’t like it, they are less likely to carefully analyze their taste. Over analysis destroys aesthetic judgement. If you have to think about whether you like it you are losing your ability to judge it on a good bad scale. This of course is different from comparing two things you do like, which can be very profitable and the essence of connoisseurship.

For example, I know almost nothing specific about wine but I know what I like. Red, dry, lots of tannins, etc… I have had $5 bottles I loved, and well north of hundred that I loathed. But I would make a horrible sommelier or wine reviewer because I find analyzing wine very uninteresting and I only care about what I like.

12 carlolspln May 1, 2015 at 6:34 am

Whoa, put down the clipboard!

When you taste a wine blind, you run an algorithm to identify what you’re drinking

1) what grape variety is this? [colour the 1st clue]
2) where is it from?
3) what’s your assessment of fruit quality? [wine is made in the vineyard]
4) any obvious faults in winemaking [this has improved enormously over the last 15-20 yrs]

When you integrate the above & come up with an answer, you can then estimate the price point of the wine, based upon rough market knowledge.

Obviously, this requires experience, energy/engagement* and good recall of wines from different regions.

But its straightforward, & works considerably better than just guessing.

When are you going to test me in your lab? 😉

* just like the bomb & drug sniffer Labradors

13 Jan May 1, 2015 at 6:51 am

There have been a few experiments on this, including amateurs and experts. No, people can’t really tell the difference between a very expensive and a relatively cheap wine.

14 MOFO. May 1, 2015 at 9:42 am

But is that because people cant tell good wines from bad or because relatively cheap wines taste just about as good as extremely expensive ones?

15 Lord Action May 1, 2015 at 9:53 am

“But is that because people cant tell good wines from bad or because relatively cheap wines taste just about as good as extremely expensive ones?”

This is the real question.

It astounds me that, based on this thread, there are still people out there who think that wine is something other than BS designed to extract your money. “Experts” can’t tell the difference between red and white when they wear a blindfold, much less tell an ’87 vintage and an ’86 or a grand cru from an $8 bottle.

I’m wondering if the same is true of foodies, which strike me as over-due for a debunking.

16 Charlie May 1, 2015 at 3:56 pm

There’s a growing myth about these wine tasting experiments. I consistently see people report experiments done on novices to be done on experts. For instance, the red wine vs white wine died red was done on undergraduates not experts.

In general, when you hear an experimental result you should assume it was done on undergrads until you have more info.

17 josh May 1, 2015 at 8:48 am

Don’t all of those wine magazines do their ratings in a blind taste test? Aren’t all of the wine competitions judged blind? I’m calling shenanigans.

18 Hilke May 1, 2015 at 5:58 am

There is no evidence of that in the data and also no indication of any other experiments I have read /reviewed on this topic. Knowing the methodology and how the brain and taste system works, eventual differences based on complexity are a question of msecs and thus the time intervall these studie are looking at is long enough to capture this if your idea would apply.
The paper that oprginally looks at functional imaging results (the cited one looks at differences in brain structure see my comment below) was published in 2008 oin PNAS. You can download it here:

19 JWatts May 1, 2015 at 10:32 am

“eventual differences based on complexity are a question of msecs ”

I wouldn’t know with regards to wine, but this is not correct with regard to spicy foods. With some dishes, the hot won’t kick in until several seconds after the initial taste. It’s very clearly not in the range of low order milliseconds.

20 dearieme May 1, 2015 at 4:58 am

Everything is affected by your DNA.

21 Hilke May 1, 2015 at 6:02 am

One important comment, the press release was published form the journal without consulting the authors. There are several misleading information in it.
Here goes the corrected version:
When consumers taste inexpensive wine and rate it highly because they believe it is expensive, is it because their expectations have blinded them to the actual taste, or do their expectations created by marketers actually change more basic processes in their brain, causing them to experience identical wines with a small price tag worse than those with a high price tag? Research in the Journal of Marketing Research has shown that preconceived beliefs may create over time a placebo effect that can be predicted by differences in brain structures of consumers.
“Studies have shown that people enjoy identical products such as wine or chocolate more if they have a higher price tag,” write authors Hilke Plassmann (INSEAD) and Bernd Weber (University of Bonn). “However, almost no research has examined the neural and psychological processes required for such marketing placebo effects to occur.”
Participants in one of the studies were told they would consume five wines ($90, $45, $35, $10, $5) while their brains were scanned using an MRI. In reality, subjects consumed only three different wines, two of them with two different prices. Another experiment used labels to generate positive (“organic”) or negative (“light”) expectations of the pleasantness of a milkshake. Some consumed identical milkshakes but thought they would be either organic or regular; others consumed identical milkshakes but thought they would be either light or regular.
Participants showed significant effect of price and health claim prejudices in how they rated the taste. Interestingly, these biases in their ratings could be linked to individual differences in their brain structures. The authors could further link the differences in brain structures to differences in personality traits: They were able to show that people who were strong reward-seekers or who were low in physical self-awareness were also more susceptible to having their experience shaped by prejudices about the product.
“Understanding the underlying mechanisms of this placebo effect provides marketers with powerful tools. Marketing actions can change the very biological processes underlying a purchasing decision, making the effect very powerful indeed,” the authors conclude.
Another blog post with a video is here:

22 Scoop May 1, 2015 at 8:23 am

Did you guys study — or have you heard of anyone else who has studied — whether knowing (and fully accepting) this type of finding increases the enjoyment that people get from cheap wine (because they know it’s indistinguishable from expensive wine), decreases the enjoyment they get from expensive wine (because it’s indistinguishable from cheap wine) or has no tendency to lessen this placebo effect in whatever part of the brain drives it?

Did any of the judges from the Battle of New Jersey (or was it Princeton?) become less enthusiastic about Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1976 because they knew they couldn’t distinguish it in a blind tasting from McMansion Morristown Soprano 2013?

23 uair01 May 2, 2015 at 5:58 am

Just anecdotal evidence: after reading about these experiments I’ve started buying wine in the 7 euro price range. Significantly better that the cheaper bottles. Above 7 euro the difference is less striking. (I’m just a bloody barbarian, I admit it.)

24 MG May 1, 2015 at 6:16 am

To be filed under “there is no great widening in the consumption gap “..

25 Nancy Lebovitz May 1, 2015 at 6:46 am

Alternatively, cheap wine is still pretty good, but you have to convince people it’s expensive to get them to pay enough attention to notice it’s pretty good.

Price signalling as a substitute for meditation?

26 Metis May 1, 2015 at 7:14 am

As long as you like the taste of the wine, the price should not matter.

27 Urso May 1, 2015 at 2:52 pm

I think it’s the other way around

28 liberalarts May 1, 2015 at 7:22 am

Given diminishing marginal utility, which wine is “good” based on how much wine a person drinks. If cheap wine is plentiful and you drink a lot of wine, then the novelty would wear off for those flavors, etc. As note above in the comments, expensive wine is different, and that may be better for those whose marginal utilities are pushed down for the ordinary, cheaper wines. A person who is more of a wine novice may rate that same expensive wine lower, because he still has a higher marginal utility for the cheaper, less complex wines.

29 Scoop May 1, 2015 at 8:12 am

Your assertion that expensive wine is “different” misses the point. A lot of well-designed studies suggest this simply is not the case, that all the characteristics of complexity and age that we believe to identify such wines basically exist only in our heads. Otherwise, people (particularly those who make a living tasting wine) would be able to tell $20 bottles from $500 bottles, which they have always failed to do in studies I have read.

30 Jordan S. May 1, 2015 at 9:12 am


31 Scoop May 1, 2015 at 11:05 am

Search this blog. Tyler has linked to at least one other, and possibly several. Also search “judgement of paris” which was the first of these, a long time ago (and actually used some pretty good Ca. wines) and “judgement of Princeton” (which pitted wines from NJ against top wines from France).

also search “distinguish red white wine” because I’ve definitely read of experiments that most people can’t even tell red from white if they’re dyed the same color.

32 Charles May 1, 2015 at 4:21 pm

The red wine vs died white wine was done on undergrads.

33 Urso May 1, 2015 at 5:33 pm

And what were the undergrads majoring in?

34 Charles May 1, 2015 at 8:18 pm

That’s a good point. They were Oenology majors. So basically these students were being taught certain wines taste a certain way and should be described a certain way. They’re trying to learn to get the “right” answer. It’s possible other undergrads with truly zero wine knowledge would do better.

35 rayward May 1, 2015 at 7:30 am

Each person experiences the world through her own unique lens. Calling it prejudice implies that it can be overcome, as if everyone can see the world through the same lens. No they can’t. Academics can no more “control” the influences of experience than boys can control their hormones. There’s a reason why people rarely find something other than what they are looking for. Life’s experiences act as a filter for what we see and, more importantly, for what we don’t see. Even those who study the influence of experiences on human behavior (e.g., evolutionary psychology) can’t avoid their own, an irony that even they don’t recognize. As for fine wines, my best friends and I once enjoyed a very expensive bottle of Bordeaux from Chateau Lynch-Bages while staying in a beautiful old restored chateau in the Rhone (wine) region in Provence. It was the closest I will ever come to the divine. That was well over 20 years ago. Whenever I wish to repeat the experience, I buy a bottle of Bordeaux from Chateau Lynch-Bages and I am instantly taken back to Provence. It’s my filter for a much better world.

36 Pshrnk May 1, 2015 at 9:55 am

“than boys can control their hormones.” ??? Really? I guess you haven’t noticed that testosterone replacement therapy has become very lucrative. Did you miss the Bruce Jenner interview with Diane Sawyer?

37 Albigensian May 1, 2015 at 10:24 am

Well, everything is subjective except when it isn’t.

One may be able to avoid questions of which product is “better” or “worse” by first testing to see if test subjects (or anyone) can reliably distinguish between two products in double-blind tests.

For this to work, the products must be approximately similar: i.e., it’s not so tough to distinguish between sparkling wine and still wine, yet it is not difficult to find both costly and cheap versions of practically any wine variety.

If even “experts” can’t reliably distinguish between the two then one must conclude that questions of “better/worse” are moot, as there is no objective difference.

As always, one’s mind set, and the setting in which one consumes the product, may make a huge difference: perhaps even the legendary Moose Turd Pie can be made to taste good with the right presentation.

38 Daniel Klein May 1, 2015 at 8:12 am

“Socialist bread may well taste sweeter to them than capitalist bread simply because it is socialist bread, and it would do so even if they found mice in it.”

Joseph Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, p. 190-91.

39 prior_approval May 1, 2015 at 11:12 am

Or to reword it a bit – ‘“Capitalist bread may well taste sweeter to them than socalist bread simply because it is capitalist bread, and it would do so even if they found sawdust in it.”

This isn’t even theoretical – ‘There may be more fiber in your food than you realized. Burger King, McDonald’s and other fast food companies list in the ingredients of several of their foods, microcrystalline cellulose (MCC) or “powdered cellulose” as components of their menu items. Or, in plain English, wood pulp.

The emulsion-stabilizing, cling-improving, anti-caking substance operates under multiple aliases, ranging from powdered cellulose to cellulose powder to methylcellulose to cellulose gum. The entrance of this non-absorbable fiber into fast food ingredients has been stealthy, yet widespread: The compound can now be found in buns, cheeses, sauces, cakes, shakes, rolls, fries, onion rings, smoothies, meats—basically everything.

The cost effectiveness of this filler has pushed many chains to use progressively less chicken in their “chicken” and cream in their “ice cream.” McDonald’s ranks highest on the list with cellulose integrated into 14 of their menu items including their renowned fish fillets, chicken strips and biscuits, with Burger King ranking second on the list with 13 menu items containing cellulose. Moreover, many cellulose-laden ingredients (such as honey mustard, bbq sauce, and cheese blends) can be found in multiple items throughout the menu making the filler difficult to avoid.’

Still beats melamine, of course. Though in that case, it is hard to figure out if it the socialists or capitalists who find it no problem to add to food.

40 kb May 1, 2015 at 8:54 am

the same biases go for stereos, jewelry, anything subjective. btw: I bought a bottle of generic white wine at the Nurburgring 24hr race in 1967 for the then equivalent of $.25; one of the best whites I ever tasted.

41 IVV May 1, 2015 at 9:44 am

I was in the wine industry for a number of years, and tasted a lot of wine. It’s pretty easy to tell some things apart from one wine to the next. You’re not going to confuse a California Chardonnay and a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, for example.

However, it tells you nothing about the price point. Some wines are expensive to be expensive. That tells you nothing about their taste profile. You really can’t use taste to calculate price, unless you’re (magically) good enough to identify the exact brand.

But yes, the most important point is to find wine that you like. Forget price. Just what you enjoy. And once hit around $8-10 a bottle, it’s virtually all signaling from there, and no guarantee of a better-tasting product.

Just approach things with an open mind, be critical and think about what you’re tasting, when, and with what pairings, and you’ll figure out what’s best for the occasion.

42 Mike Smitka May 1, 2015 at 10:08 am

One very different issue is that “brand” wine is a tradable good. Whether or not it is better than an inexpensive wine is not an issue, but rather that it can be resold.

That matters in other markets, such as for violins. An anonymous instrument may be very good, but if you are a budding professional, you shy away from it because if your careers blooms, you need to buy an excellent one. I have spent time talking about this issue with a violin broker, not every instrument made by Stradivarius is great, but all can be resold. Some string players advertise the provence of their instruments, so they also plan on the placebo affect.

43 Mike Smitka May 1, 2015 at 10:10 am

“play on” not plan on….

44 Tony B May 1, 2015 at 1:15 pm

Only experts can tell fake diamonds from real ones. Does that make people who buy real diamonds pretentious poseurs?

If you’re blindfolded, you probably can’t tell the difference between a cheap chair and an expensive chair. Does the price matter?

Expensive wine is not expensive because it’s “better” in some absolute sense, but because it’s distinctive and rare. Why wine, of all luxury goods out there, would be subject to this sort of legitimacy test, is beyond me. It’s particularly silly because inexpensive wine is designed to appeal to inexperienced palates. When you drink wine every day, your perception of it changes, so the wines experienced drinkers enjoy are not at all like the ones novice drinkers enjoy.

And context matters. Just like optical illusions that make different colors look the same, or the same colors look different, it’s very easy to confuse the palate when the wine is presented in a way you’re not accustomed to.

The reporting of these studies takes a complex experience with a lot of factors and spins the story so as to appeal to an anti-snob prejudice. They don’t even begin to address the reasons that people pay more for some wines than others.

45 Jeff R. May 1, 2015 at 2:29 pm

No, it just makes them fools with too much money. It’s calling synthetic diamonds ‘fake’ that makes a person a pretentious poseur.

46 Noumenon72 May 1, 2015 at 7:35 pm

I’ve always considered people who buy real diamonds instead of cubic zirconia to be pretentious poseurs.

47 US May 1, 2015 at 6:23 pm

I can’t believe no-one in this thread has linked to this one yet:

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