If someone orders a $500 bottle of wine, they probably expect it to taste quite good. It’s those very expectations that might factor into their opinion of how it tastes--researchers have found that people rate more expensive wines as being more enjoyable.

Knowing that studies have suggested the perceived quality of a product and its price may have a positive correlation, researchers from CalTech and Stanford decided to specifically explore this phenomenon with wine. To do so, they recruited 20 participants to taste different priced wines. That might not have been entirely as fun as it sounds--since they also wanted to know what sort of neural mechanisms were involved in the process, the researchers did a functional MRI while the subjects consumed the wine. This meant the participants had to lie still throughout process and and use computerized pumps to sample the wine.

Although the participants were told they were tasting five different types of Cabernet Sauvignon, they were actually only trying three different types. The researchers administered the samples, giving the subjects a $5 bottle of wine and telling them the actual price, then giving it again but saying it was $45. They did the same with a $90 bottle of wine, telling its real price and then saying it was from a $10 bottle. Then, a third bottle that was $35 was given, using its actual price.   

The experiment indicated that price was very influential in the participants’ preferences and wines that were believed to be more expensive were perceived to taste better. Their research also demonstrated that a specific part of the brain is involved in the processing this information. More blood and oxygen was sent to the medial orbitofrontal cortex, an area in the brain associated with encoding pleasantness, when the price of the wine was increased.

Expectations about a wine extend beyond price; according to a study published in the journal Appetite, critics’ ratings may also influence how people experience wine. To find out whether reviews could sway opinions on a wine, researchers recruited 136 people to sample a wine reviewed by wine critic Robert Parker. Parker’s olfactory senses are acclaimed; his nose is said to be insured for $1 million (or, approximately 1/7 of the amount of coverage Tom Jones’ chest hair is alleged to receive). A positive review from Parker can send a wine flying off the shelves. He gave the wine the participants sampled (a 2006 Clos de Los Siete Mendoza) very high marks, 92 out of a possible 100 points. 

Participants were randomly assigned to five groups--one that was told of Parker’s positive rating prior to tasting, one that was told it received an average rating of 72 beforehand, a control group that was given no information, and two groups that received the scores after tasting but before rating.

The participants then ranked the wine on a scale of 1-10 and also indicated the price they would pay for a bottle. The study found that information about a wine’s rating can influence people’s sensory experience--when information regarding rating was given prior to tasting, participants who were told the wine had 72 points rated the it more negatively than those who were told it had a score of 92. There was not a significant difference in the group that received the information after sampling the wine.  Knowledge of ratings before tasting also influenced the price they were willing to pay; the people who were told of the wine’s high rank prior to tasting were willing to pay the most for it.  

There are limitations and critiques of these findings but they highlight how drinking wine can mean being under the influence of more than just what’s inside the bottle.