Good news for wine lovers on a budget; new research shows pricier bottles don’t always translate as “better-tasting.” According to a recent study, a phenomenon called the “marketing placebo effect” can often skew how you perceive two identical wines, based simply on their varying price tags.
The study, led at the University of Bonn’s Life and Brain Center in Germany, involved 30 participants -- half of them men, half women, all around 30 years old -- and one variety of mid-range (12 €, or roughly $14) red wine. Participants were first shown a higher price, had a taste of the wine, then were scanned via MRI to record brain activity. After tasting, participants rated the wine on a nine-point scale. Then they moved on to a second tasting of the exact same wine but this time it was shown as having a lower price. Participants voted the higher priced wine as tasting better.
For some of the tastings, participants were also given an credit of 45 €, roughly $52, to “spend” on the wines. After sampling a wine, its price would be deducted from their credit. However, researchers didn’t find this factor to play much of a role -- higher-priced wines were rated as tasting better whether they were purchased or entirely gratis!
Looking at brain activity, researchers found two areas -- the medial pre-frontal cortex and the ventral striatum -- to be activated upon seeing the higher price. These two parts of the brain are primarily involved in forming expectations based on prices, and reward and motivation systems respectively.
“The reward and motivation system is activated more significantly with higher prices and apparently increases the taste experience in this way,” said Professor Bernd Weber, Acting Director of the Center for Economics and Neuroscience at the university. "The exciting question now is whether it is possible to train the reward system to make it less receptive to such placebo marketing effects." Until then, you can feel better about reaching past that $80 Merlot for a less expensive alternative.
We'd say it's time to celebrate! Watch how to use red wine in the classic technique for poached pears: