There are little more than 200 master sommeliers in the entire world. These are the people who really know a lot about wine—people who can literally taste a wine blindfolded and deduce where it was grown, what winery produced it, and what year it was bottled. (You can check out the recent documentary Somm for a fascinating dive into this subculture.)
Turns out there's a reason there are so few of them. Studies have shown that for the majority of us, enjoyment of wine is likely more dependent on environmental factors than actual, objective quality.
Last month, the popular radio show Science Friday profiled Dr. Brian Wansink, a consumer behavior scientist and director of Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab. Wansink has been studying how social cues, labels, and other external factors influence consumers’ enjoyment of wine.
His conclusion? Environment seems to be everything.
“We are very suggestible,” said Wansink, in a video produced by Science Friday. “How we interpret the taste of something largely has to do with what we think it’s going to taste like.”
For example, Wansink and his fellow researchers replaced the label on a cheap, $2 wine with one claiming the wine is either a California cabernet (read: high quality) or an extractive wine from North Dakota (read: low quality). Not surprisingly, test subjects overwhelmingly preferred the California wine, despite the two being one and the same. They were also more critical of the meal that came with the North Dakota–labeled bottle.
Wansink found people’s impressions of various wines were influenced even more strongly by social cues, like the nod of a sommelier, the wincing of a tablemate, or the suggestion of an “earthy aroma.”
But it’s not just a matter of how well test subjects rate a given wine. The experience—or rather, the deception—extends far deeper into the brain. In a separate study, subjects were given two glasses of identical wine, and told that one came from a $5 bottle, and the other from a $45 bottle. As they drank, their brains were scanned by an MRI machine. The images revealed the subjects experienced objectively more pleasure from the pricier wine.
As the video explains, there is very little chemical difference between wines. It’s not surprising, then, that so much of what constitutes “enjoyment” is actually down to the broader experience of consuming your vino.
But we're fine with that: Wine is so much better with food and company, anyway.
Hero image: Flickr user "lhanaphotography" (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)