Monday, January 14, 2008

Do you buy wine just because it has an expensive label?

Researchers at California Institute of Technology have shown that a person's enjoyment of wine can be heightened if they are simply told that it is an expensive one...What do you think? Do you buy wine just because it has an expensive label? Do you buy anything else just because it has an expensive label?

By Kathryn Westcott
BBC News 14/January/2008

Twenty-one volunteers were asked to sample different bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon and rate the ones they preferred.

The only information they were given was the price of the wine - but in a number of cases, they were not told the real price. In one case, the volunteers were given two identical red wines to drink and were told that one cost much less than the other.

Most described the "higher priced" wine as much more enjoyable.

Researchers also managed to pass off a $90 (£46) bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon as a $10 bottle and presented a $5 as one worth $45.

The volunteers' brains were scanned to monitor the neural activity in the medial orbitofrontal cortex - the area of the brain associated with decision-making and pleasure in terms of flavour. Higher ratings were given to the more "expensive" wines.

Antonio Rangel, who led the research team, told the BBC News website that the experiment showed how "expectation can affect the actual encoding of the pleasantness of the experience."

Oliver Johnson, CEO of the UK-based Wine Society, says this response was common with certain prestige products such as clothing, cars and, nowadays, handbags.

"In this case, the volunteers appeared to have been associating the price of the wine with prestige - they were expecting it to be a good vintage, with a good label, even though they didn't have that information," said Mr Johnson.

He told the BBC News website that while for most people wine is not normally a luxury item - more of a "grocery product" - there are people who would happily pay over the odds for a bottle with a cult label.

"There are top clarets, for example, where the price is out of line with the quality. The quality is fabulous but we are not sure that this is reflected in the pricing."

He says this indicates that for many people wine is now a status symbol. "It's premium brand time in some places."

In October 2001, a number of City dealers paid up to £12,300 for a bottle for wine at a top London restaurant.

But Mr Johnson says that not everyone is going to enjoy a bottle of wine just because it has an expensive price tag.

"It can work two ways," he says. "On the one hand some people will enjoy the wine simply because they know it is expensive, on the other, there are those who will be disappointed. They could get their hopes up by being told that the wine is expensive, only to have it dashed when it didn't match their expectations."

He says that no wine expert would have been fooled by the experiment.

"It's not difficult to get the price of wine about right. Less expensive wine is less interesting, the more money you pay, the more things are going on. Most people would have been able to tell the difference," he says.

Wine expert Jancis Robinson says she was not surprised to see that the research was carried out in California.

She argues that American attitudes to wine can be very different to those of the British wine-buying public.

"At least seven years ago, I was told by a sommelier at a top restaurant in California that he couldn't sell wine that was priced at under $100 at bottle," she says. "He was able to sell the same wine when he raised the price to more than $100."

She says that while the Americans love to spend and expensive wine is seen as a regular "reward" purchase, the British are always looking for a bargain.

"We have an innate fear of being fleeced," she says.

Dr Martin Yeomans, a reader in experimental psychology at the University of Sussex told the BBC that what the experiment appeared to show was how expectation can drive the sensory experience, to generate pleasure.

"Expectation is a huge part of wine appreciation," he says. "This shows how expectation can be set up by everything that happens before the wine is put in the mouth - the characteristics, the price, the vintage.

"And if this is congruent, then the experience is better than if you had not been given any information."

He says that it also shows how we can be "kind of fooled". And, he says, it demonstrates how, by heightening people's expectation, they could be seduced into spending more than they need to on a product such as wine.