July 18, 2014



[T]he Columbia University neuroscientist Daniel] Salzman first became interested in wine when he was a graduate student at Stanford University studying neuroscience (Ph.D.) and psychiatry (M.D.). "I was corrupted by some people who were very serious about wine," he told me. Together, they would host wine tastings and travel to vineyards. Over time, as his interest in wine grew, he began to think about the connections between his tastings and the work he was doing on the ways in which emotion colors the way our brains process information. "We study how cognitive and emotional processes can affect perception," he said. "And in the case of something like wine, you have the perfect example: even before you open a bottle to experience the wine itself, you already have an arbitrary visual stimulus--the bottle and the label--that comes with non-arbitrary emotional associations, good and bad." And those emotional associations will, in turn, affect what we taste.

The experiment I participated in is a case in point. Salzman doesn't let us see the bottles, but he tells us a story about them. One wine, he says, is more expensive than the other. It is from a vineyard that embraces a traditional, artisanal approach to winemaking, run by a father-and-son pair. They use only organic products. Their grapes grow on a steep hill alongside peaches and cherry trees. The particular grapes in this bottle, though, come from a producer that no longer exists--one of Salzman's personal favorites from the eighties. And then there's the "other" wine. It's correctly made, we learn, but without the same artisanal qualities. More commercial, more streamlined, more typical.

I can't speak for everyone present, but at this stage in the evening my task transitions from a simple "which wine do I like more" to a "which is the artisanal." Of course, I assume that the one I like more will be the more expensive, more carefully crafted one. I smell and taste conscientiously, smell and taste again, and scribble down my responses. I don't particularly like either wine, I admit, but I choose Wine B as the winner. I give it a seven (honestly, it's more of a three or four to my taste) and reward Wine A with a four (more of a one or two, but I don't want to be mean). Naturally, I rate Wine B as the more expensive one when I hand in my card.

Expectations, argued the neuroscientists Lauren Atlas and Tor Wager in a recent review, can influence our experience in two interrelated ways. There is the conscious influence, or those things we are knowingly aware of: I've had this wine before and liked or hated it; I've been to this vineyard; I love this grape; the color reminds me of a wine I had earlier that was delicious. As our experience grows, so do our expectations. Every time we have a wine, we taste everything we know about it and other related wines. Then there are the unconscious factors: the weather is getting on our nerves, or our dining companion is; we've loved or hated this restaurant before; I'm mad at my boss over something he said this morning; the music is too loud, and the room is too cold. These can all affect taste, too, even though they are unrelated to the wine itself.

One of the things wine researchers like to do, in fact, is manipulate some small factor of the environment or the wine to see how perceptions of taste are affected. If we are compelled by the description of the vineyard, its owners, or its history, we are likely to pay more for a bottle. Salzman admits, after we've handed in our scores, that that's the reason he gave us so much background on the wines beforehand.

Information about the vineyard at least tells us something about the wine, but even factors that don't, like price, can have an influence. More expensive wines are often rated higher on taste than cheaper ones--but only if tasters are told the price ahead of time. In one recent study, the Caltech neuroscientist Hilke Plassman found that people's expectations of a wine's price affected their enjoyment on a neural level: not only did they report greater subjective enjoyment but they showed increased activity in an area of the brain that has frequently been associated with the experience of pleasantness. The same goes for the color and shape of a wine's label: some labels make us think that a wine is more valuable (and, hence, more tasty), while others don't. Even your ability to pronounce a winery's name can influence your appreciation of its product--the more difficult the name is to pronounce, the more you'll like the wine. In 1999, psychologists from the University of Leicester found that the type of music playing in a store could influence which wines were purchased: when French music was playing, people bought French wines; when German music was turned on, German wines outsold the rest. The customers remained oblivious.

Posted by at July 18, 2014 7:34 PM

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