May 7, 2008
Wine’s Pleasures: Are They All in Your Head?
By ERIC ASIMOV
THE mind of the wine consumer is a woolly place, packed with odd and arcane information fascinating to few. Like the pants pocket of a 7-year-old boy, it’s full of bits of string, bottle caps and shiny rocks collected while making the daily rounds of wine shops, restaurants, periodicals and the wine-soaked back alleys of the Internet. It’s harmless stuff, really, except to those within earshot when a wine lover finds it necessary to elaborate on the nose, legs and body of a new infatuation.
Yet in recent months American wine drinkers have taken their turn as pop culture’s punching bags. In press accounts of two studies on wine psychology, consumers have been portrayed as dupes and twits, subject to the manipulations of marketers, critics and charlatan producers who have cloaked wine in mystique and sham sophistication in hopes of better separating the public from its money.
One of the studies was devised by Robin Goldstein, a food writer, to try to isolate consumers from outside influence so they could simply judge wine by what’s in the glass. He had 500 volunteers sample and rate 540 unidentified wines priced from $1.50 to $150 a bottle. The results are described in a new book, “The Wine Trials,” to be published this month by Fearless Critic Media.
The book wraps the results in a discussion of marketing manipulations and statistical validity, but a brief article in the April 7 issue of Newsweek magazine, naturally, seized on the book’s populist triumphs: a $10 bottle of bubbly from Washington state outscored Dom Pérignon, which sells for $150 a bottle, while Two-Buck Chuck, the cheap Charles Shaw California cabernet sauvignon, topped a $55 bottle of Napa Valley cabernet.
“Their results might rattle a few wine snobs, but the average oenophile can rejoice: 100 wines under $15 consistently outperformed their upscale cousins,” the article exulted.
Two caveats are in order here. First, it turns out that the results of the tastings are more nuanced than the Newsweek article let on. In fact, the book shows that what appeals to novice wine drinkers is significantly different from what appeals to wine experts, which the book defines as those who have had some sort of training or professional experience with wine. The experts, by the way, preferred the Dom Pérignon.
Second, there is, of course, no such thing as the “average oenophile,” as Newsweek put it. Most people in the wine trade understand that consumers have any number of reasons for their buying decisions, whatever their psychological and financial state. Some are reassured by easy-to-understand labels with friendly animals. Others want only naturally produced wines or bottles with a modest carbon footprint. Some are status-seekers and score-chasers, while others are contrarians, or only drink red wine.
But assuming for the moment that it’s true that most drinkers prefer the cheap stuff, why does anyone bother buying $55 cabernet? One answer is provided by a second experiment, in which presumably sober researchers at the California Institute of Technology and the Stanford Business School demonstrated that the more expensive consumers think a wine is, the more pleasure they are apt to take in it.
The researchers scanned the brains of 21 volunteer wine novices as they administered tiny tastes of wine, measuring sensations in the medial orbitofrontal cortex, the part of the brain where flavor responses apparently register. The subjects were told only the price of the wines. Without their knowledge, they tasted one wine twice, and were given two different prices for that wine. Invariably they preferred the one they thought was more expensive.
“Forget those blurbs about bouquets, body and berries,” one newspaper account crowed. “A meticulous new study found that the more people think a wine cost, the more they like it. And the less they think it cost, the less they like it.”
Big surprise. Sommeliers all over know that the hardest wine to sell in a restaurant is the cheapest bottle on the list. “Yeah, clients don’t want to be embarrassed in front of a date, so they don’t order the cheapest wines,” said Fred Dexheimer, the wine director of the BLT restaurant group. The fact is, the correlation between price and quality is so powerful that it affects not just our perception of wine but of all consumer goods.
“It’s not just about wine, it’s about everything!” said Prof. Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of the book “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions” (HarperCollins, $25.95), which examines how people make all sorts of real life decisions. Regardless of the situation, Professor Ariely found, suggestion has a powerful effect on perception and belief.
In one experiment, volunteers who received mild electric shocks were given placebo pills to relieve the pain. They were told that the pills cost either 10 cents or $2.50. The participants believed that both kinds of pills helped relieve pain, but the seemingly more expensive pills had a much greater effect.
“If you expect not to get something as good, lo and behold, it’s not as good,” Professor Ariely said. “We think of it as an objective reality. We don’t see how much is created by our mind.”
Even so, wine drinkers tend to be the punch line. People are unlikely to be ridiculed for buying $300 jeans that are washed, bleached and beaten over rocks instead of $60 jeans that will last a decade. But wine buyers who prefer the $20 bottle over a $10 bottle? All that stuff about aromas and complexity? Forget it!
Are wine consumers really easily manipulated victims, the flip side of the stereotype of wine drinkers as pretentious snobs? What have they done to be singled out from other consumers who might equally be portrayed as knuckling under to hype and salesmanship, like connoisseurs of clothes, handbags or shoes, car aficionados or golf fanatics, food or film lovers?
The answer rests, I think, both in the insecure and uncomfortable attitudes that Americans hold toward wine and in the difficulty of bringing some sort of objective and universal criteria to the fleeting and obscure realms of aroma, taste and texture.
The consumption of wine has been growing steadily in the United States rising to 283 million cases in 2006 from almost 189 million cases in 1993, according to the Adams Wine Handbook, which tracks consumption.
Yet drinking more hasn’t made Americans more comfortable with wine. People with little interest in wine tend to see it as somehow foreign and threatening. Even among the curious, fears abound, of being embarrassed or appearing unsophisticated, of choosing the wrong wine, or of liking the wrong one. Every year books come out purporting to help the winephobic avoid embarrassment, impress their bosses or learn shortcuts to wine knowledge. But I sense no decrease in the number of people whose questions to me are prefaced by a sheepish, “I don’t know anything about wine, though I really should.”
Meanwhile, consumers face an impenetrable swamp of winespeak: Wine Spectator recently evaluated one Argentine red as, “Dark and rich, with lots of fig bread, mocha, ganache, prune and loam notes. Stays fine-grained on the finish, with lingering sage and toast hints.”
To hack through it all, consumers embrace scores, an easy shorthand that unfortunately requires that every wine be judged on the same seemingly objective scale, regardless of the subjective nature of taste. Anybody can understand that a wine rated 90 beats an 89, right?
Yet the rating system has bred an attitude toward wine that ignores context, which is perhaps more important a consideration to the enjoyment of wine than anything else. The proverbial little red wine, so delicious in a Tuscan village with your sweetie, never tastes the same back home in New Jersey. Meanwhile, the big California cabernet, which you enjoyed so much with your work buddies at a steakhouse, ties tucked between buttons, doesn’t have that triumphant lift with a bowl of spaghetti.
This is one problem with trying to judge wine in the sort of clinical vacuum sought by studies like the one in “The Wine Trials.” In the end, I don’t think you can ever eliminate context. The trick is to distinguish between the harmful or disingenuous — the marketing come-ons, the point chasing, what the guy next to you thinks — from the beneficial: the food, the company, the environment. Even in a blind tasting situation, wine is evaluated in the company of other wines, which is a different sort of context but a context nonetheless. Perhaps they’ve chosen the best wines to be sipped and spat out, but not the best wines for dinner.
Ultimately, context may be the most underrated aspect of enjoying wine. Tyler Colman, a wine writer and blogger (drvino.com), whose first book, “Wine Politics,” will shortly be published by the University of California Press, has a second book coming out this fall, “A Year of Wine” (Simon & Schuster), that focuses on context.
“The mood and the food and the context really matters,” he said. “It’s the neglected pairing.”
Just as understanding when to dress up and when to dress down is intuitive for many people, so, too, does it become instinctive over time for wine lovers to know which is the proper bottle to open. But that requires experience of many different wines. Eventually the novelty of great wines, or expensive wines, can wear off.
“Sometimes a great Beaujolais is a better choice than La Tâche,” said Nathan Vandergrift, a statistical researcher at the University of California at Irvine, who has seen the wine business as a retailer, an importer and distributor, and most recently as a blogger at the Vulgar Little Monkey Translucency Report. Mr. Vandergrift has had plenty of Beaujolais, and a fair amount of La Tâche, one of the most highly sought wines in the world.
Would that we all could achieve that sense of freedom and zen-like serenity, where we’ve had our fill of all else and can simply choose the right wine because it’s the right wine.