It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

It's flowering in Napa vineyards.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Do Expensive Wines Taste Better?

What is your failsafe method of choosing which wine to buy? Prettiest label? Research has confirmed that if you react positively to the subliminal messages of label design, then you will likely react accordingly to what’s contained within. That is, it will taste acceptable to you and will confirm that your purchasing technique is valid. Or do you have a trusted wine store employee that, after various trial-and-error recommendations, finally understands your palate and recommends accordingly? There is no research needed to confirm the effectiveness of that routine.

But how about price? Given two bottles with indistinguishable differences—same grape and vintage, similar provenance—would you opt for the more expensive one? Is that because you believe worth equates with price? Or is it because expensive wines simply taste better? Well, I’m loath to admit it, but there seems to be research that supports that notion. This is how the researchers at California Institute of Technology explain it: “The neural encoding of the quality of an experience is actually modulated by a variable such as price.” In other words, the higher the price, the better it tastes. This may well be a corollary to what I feel is the most cunningly conceived slogan in marketing history: The L'Oreal Principle. That is, disregard the price, Honey, “You’re worth it.”

However, Antonio Rangel and his associates at the Institute who conducted the study, threw a knuckleball at the twenty, non-expert Caltech volunteers who signed up for the experiment. While simultaneously undergoing functional MRI’s of their brain activity, the volunteers (thought they) tasted five different Cabernets that were identified by price alone: $5, $10, $35, $45, and $90. However, two of the five were provided at both high and low prices. The $90 wine was also provided as a $10 wine, and the $45 wine was represented as a $5 wine. As such, they really only tasted three wines. The conclusion from this devious study? In every instance, according to the brain scans, the volunteers enjoyed the expensive wines more than the cheaper ones.

Sidebar: I don’t know about you, but I cannot remotely envision participating in such an experiment. Flat on my back, I’m immobilized inside an “enhanced interrogations” tube, with a web of wiry probes attached to my head and plastic feeding tubes taped to my mouth, while intermittent, deafening sounds bang at my ears. And all the while I’m being quizzed, “So, Mr. Barras, what did you think of that last Cabernet?” Are you kidding me? Are you bleeping kidding me? Not for Lafite, not for Latour! Well, on second thought, maybe Latour.

Back to the story: Curious about how an increased level of “expertise” might factor into the results, Rangel presented the same experiment, sans the brain imaging, to the Stanford Wine Club. Quite interestingly, he reports, “ We basically found the same results within this group of semi-experts.” That is, the expensive wines definitely tasted better to that elite group of Cardinal oenophiles. However, notwithstanding the rigorous, scientific discipline employed, I have an inkling that the wine-savvy, Club members probably said something like, “Riedel glasses or nothing. We ain’t gettin’ into the tube.”

So, what’s the net of all this? Never taste wines while lying on your back? Cabernet is good at any price? A plastic tube is as good as Riedel stemware? Always buy the mid-priced wine? MRI’s and Cabernet are not the best pairing? Or, do expensive wines, in fact, taste better?


  1. believe that there is a correlation between price and quality, however, I am sure that the quality saturates with price, but never having tasted a wine for more than $100/bottle, I will never know. In fact, there is considerable overlap between $40/bottle and say $70/bottle wines or else being the same. Another difference might be that the more expensive wines are from especially selected grapes grown in pricey locations with small harvests, and just taste better because of the right soil, etc. In any event, we will be in California at the end of summer and if you care to suggest a few Napa/Sonoma wineries we will try them. Our favorite winery, Waugh, is having a big party in Healdsburg and we plan to go.

  2. Hi Tom, saw a comment you left over at Vinography....interesting blog. The whole taste vs price thing is interesting. When we run corporate events we bring four bottles of the same varietal and have them guess price points some times great expensive wines do well and other times the mass marketed Mondavi and Gallo selections do well. I think a lot of it depends on expectations and also helps to explain why the huge Napa wineries sell so much wine in person at their tasting rooms......the whole experience matters along with wine quality. I will say people tend to have more sophisticated palates based on drinking more wine