DOES EXPENSIVE HAVE A TASTE?
Do we enjoy an expensive wine because it tastes good or because we know it costs a lot? The recent sale of a $168,OOO bottle of wine from Australian winery Penfolds makes the question an interesting one. Dubbed “2OO4 Block 42,” the single vineyard wine (which is the world’s most expensive sold directly from a winery) is from what the winery claims are the oldest continuously producing Cabernet Sauvignon vines in the world. So does the wine taste good enough to justify the price? Research shows that people’s enjoyment of wine is in fact influenced by how much it costs. Caltech neuro-economist Antonio Rangel and colleagues scanned people in a functional MRI machine while they tasted Cabernet Sauvignons that were marked higher or lower than their actual retail price. Tasters reported liking the exact same wine better when they thought it cost more than they did when it had been marked down, and their brains followed suit: The orbitofrontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with experiencing pleasure, was more active when they thought the wine was costlier. One explanation is that consuming wine doesn’t just affect your taste receptors, but is also affected by social context. “Maybe the idea that you’re having the most expensive bottle of wine in the history of mankind, for a certain type of person, may make them feel very special, and that in itself could generate pleasure,” said Rangel. Another possibility is that the brain uses the wine’s price to anticipate whether or not it will taste good. People can have a hard time judging if they truly like a wine, so they might use price to help decide. The brain learns to make the connection between price and taste. Interestingly, when Rangel’s team conducted blind tastings with people who weren’t connoisseurs, they reported liking the cheapest wines the most. When the researchers did this with people from the Stanford wine club, they found the same thing. “I suspect though that if you go to sommeliers – people with very educated palates – the illusion breaks down,” Rangel said.