Judging whether a wine is good, mediocre or just plain bad is not always easy. After all, it's a subjective process and personal tastes come into play.
There have been plenty of taste tests where consumers have rated a cheap wine highly because they mistakenly believed it was expensive. Some researchers wanted to find out whether it was simply a case of price prejudice or whether something in the brains of the taste testers made them think it was good.
"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 and Bernd Weber. "However, almost no research has examined the neural and psychological processes required for such marketing placebo effects to occur."
So Plassmann and Weber have examined it and have concluded that preconceived beliefs may in fact create a placebo effect so strong that it makes actual changes to the brain's chemistry.
In a series of experiments, subjects were told they would taste 5 wines, costing from $5 to $90 a bottle. In reality, they were tasting only 3 different wines at 2 different prices. During the experiment their brains were scanned using an MRI.
Plassmann and Weber found the subjects showed significant effects of price and taste prejudices, both in how they rated the taste as well as in their brain activity. The MRI readings, however, showed different people reacted in different ways, based in large part on their personalities.
For example, people who were strong reward-seekers or who were low in physical self-awareness were also more likely to be swayed by their price prejudices.
"Understanding the underlying mechanisms of this placebo effect provides marketers with powerful tools,” the authors conclude. “Marketing actions can change the very biological processes underlying a purchasing decision, making the effect very powerful indeed."
How not to get played
How can we as consumers protect ourselves from buying a bad wine at a high price? Wine experts suggest increasing your education about wine and learning what you like and don't like, is a first step.
Wine Enthusiast magazine, for example, recommends tasting wine in the proper environment. There's a lot more than price prejudice, it says, that can influence your judgment.
“A noisy or crowded room makes concentration difficult,” the magazine says. “Cooking smells, perfume and even pet odor can destroy your ability to get a clear sense of a wine’s aromas. A glass that is too small, the wrong shape, or smells of detergent or dust, can also affect the wine’s flavor.”
If you're still not sure you can tell a good wine from a not-so-good one, food and travel writer Tara O'Leary walks you through four things to look for in this video.