Two Buck Chuck has nothing to worry about: Reports not fit for wine blogosphere

You heard it here first. But it may already be too late.

Be warned the press releases that come from yet another scientific study involving wine on humans. Here's how AP phrased it when they first filed the news brief on this recent American study now making the rounds: "Apparently, raising the price really does make the wine taste better."

Actually the point of this study is that it really DOESN'T, but that there are reasons why it would appear to happen.

More importantly: "Raising the price does make the wine taste better." Taste better? To whom?

I'll tell you who. Volunteers who didn't pay for the wine, that's who. Surely this is not a real-world scenario. Had the money required to pay for these wines come out of their own pockets, I think the folks tasting would've reacted differently. Perhaps a little more skeptical and contemplative when the chips are down. That's just my theory.

Science being science, this kind of study demands random "volunteers" so winos with wallets were not invited. Now, I ask you, what about the world of enjoying fine wine is based on volunteering? Nothing. That's because most people work for their wine. And that's why this experiment and any like it are limited in how they depict the truths in wine consumption -- Two Buck Chuck has nothing to worry about.

Statements circulating in the press like "while many studies have looked at how marketing affects behavior, this is the first to show that it has a direct effect on the brain" mischaracterizes what's going on. There's no buying behaviour in this experiment, so how can marketing actually be involved?

Shouldn't the statement have been (which I might add merits some credit to the scientists, who are Antonio Rangel and his colleagues at the California Institute of Technology): "While many studies have looked at how marketing affects PERCEPTION OF PLEASURE, this is the first to show that it has a direct effect on the brain."

My point is that perception of pleasure and behaviour are obviously not the same thing. In fact, the disconnect between perception of pleasure and behaviour is a big deal for me, and, I think, anyone else who wants to live in a civilized society.

But wait. It gets even worse than that. The copy used in reports of the study suggests that volunteers selected their preferences based on results shown by the MRI scanner hooked up to their brain.

We've left the real world of wine blogging entirely. Since when is looking at brain scans useful in relaying information about wine? Maybe once or twice on Chateau Petrogasm but that's a site whose usefulness I question on a daily basis.

What I say: Of course the anticipation of drinking expensive wine is going to affect my body in different way than the anticipation of drinking plonk-priced wine. Is that the scoop we are being fed by the press -- as if it is some wine marketing revelation?

I think the press should stop selling this study to winos and wine marketers. It's merely a test on brain functions. This seems obvious to me now, but it didn't at first when the story came out. So since you're here, I'll explain what I have made sense of.

The study sets up a bogus taste test by placing wines of different prices in front of tasters. But some wine samples are identical and marked with a different price tags (there were three separate wines: a $90 Cabernet correctly listed and then listed at $10; a $45 Cab correctly listed and listed at $5; and a $35 Cab correctly listed). MRI "pleasure" activity and participant wine selections are consistent, which is I guess why the study is being called a clear success. But the hoo-ha in the news is being generated by the fact that the big pricetag wines are the ones being favoured.

Everyone comes back two weeks later to repeat the experiment using the same wines but without the prices marked. It's unclear in the press reports what happened here (Were there five or three samples? Were they hooked up to MRIs again?) but what incredible results emerge this time!

"They liked the wines originally marked $5 and $45 best," says one report. But the $5 and $45 samples were actually taken from a single solitary wine -- a five-dollar bottle. (Now that's something interesting to wine marketers!) So if and when participants' brain activity is allowed to be filtered into real-life actions and words (instead of being prematurely stopped in the lab), are pricetags really affecting their ability to identify good wine? In other words, is this experiment proving that humans evaluate quality based on cost? I say no.

Not even. What I might say however, is that this experiment demonstrates that pricetags affect one's ability to identify equality, i.e. identify that the wines marked with different pricetags were actually the same wine. Which is a whole different ballgame, and I think one which has already been played. (I play it all the time, sampling a little bit of wine from my usual glass and a little bit from one those Eisch breathable glasses, which claim to make the wine taste different... but I can't tell.)

The real intrigue here lie in the brain scans, which I'll leave to BlogMD, despite the name of this blog.


Brooklynguy said...

right on brother!! i agree with your whole take on this. i'm sorry, but this is not an instance of replicating natural conditions n a laboratory. its almost as if they knew the results they were hoping to see when designing the experiment. i propose another study that uses your idea: give participants $100, say, and allow them to spend it however they please: one one bottle of wine, 2 bottles, six bottles, etc, all the same wine, but they wouldn't know that. compare their reactions.

Edward said...


Where do they find these volunteers who clearly know nothing of wine!

I've mentioned before how MRI can show blood flow etc. But I still contend it would be hard to focus on the wine in question with the thought that your head is in a cage to keep it from moving, and your body is surrounded by a tonne of swirling liquid helium, at the same time the machine is making a noise lounder than a jack hammer. . .

Marcus said...

Bguy, we are skeptics, aren't we? Thanks for sending your rallying cry.

Edward, of course that mention of BlogMD in the last line of the post should've pointed to you -- great point about the cumbersome nature of the MRI. Did they use new technology or what then?

P.S. Anyone else been getting these "Have you had an MRI/MRA in the last five years?" spam emails -- I had one in the summer of 2006 but I don't remember ingesting that colorant ink or whatever. Should've ingested something else, it's now clear!

Joe said...

Shlock science, but it sells the papers. But it raises an important point, we should all taste blind more often!

Brooklynguy said...

that is the truth, ruth (or joe, in this case). blind tasting should be required in order to maintain one's license as a blogger.

RougeAndBlanc said...

The excerpt ot the study doesn't tell us how experienced the tasters are; or if these tasters are pre-screened to have a more uniform tasting ability.
On the other hand, it is only natural for anybody to have more brain activity in associated with a higher-ticket item. (At least you would pay attention. right?)

Joe said...

good point Andrew - I concentrate more when I expect something to be good, even if I don't know the price i.e. sommelier's choice at a fancy restaurant