Taste Bias & the $90 Wine

(Last Updated On: January 15, 2022)

taste bias - red wineScience Fact:  Consider taste bias: wine snobs are a favorite target of psychology researchers. After all, how sweet is it to show that someone who emotes about “terroir” and “cherry notes” can’t distinguish Margaux from Two Buck Chuck in a blind tasting?

But taste bias is more than snobbery. When people taste wines that are priced at $10 and $90 per bottle, the $90 wine tastes better, even though the sneaky researchers have poured identical wine into the two bottles. And the testers are not just saying it tastes better — brain wave scans show that the $90 wine activates the pleasure center of the brain. In other words, taste bias isn’t just snobbery, it also reflects what people are feeling.

How can this be? Here’s a clue: when you test people who know a lot about wine, they are less biased by the price or the name of the vineyard. The people with the greatest taste bias are casual wine drinkers, not true aficionados.

What appears to happen is that when a complicated decision needs to be made, our brains pull in all sorts of collateral information. The price or label or Wine Spectator rating may be irrelevant to the taste, but our minds seize on them for clues as to what it feels. So when we enjoy wine we are enjoying a total experience that goes far beyond its taste.

Wine isn’t the only beverage subject to taste bias. The US Standards of Identity define vodka as “neutral spirits distilled or treated after distillation with charcoal or other materials so as to be without distinctive character, aroma, taste, or color.” In other words, tasteless grain alcohol. But a glance at the prices on a liquor store shelf reveals that there are lots of people who believe they can taste the difference between, say, Stoli Elit and Smirnoff.

Organic food is another target for the taste bias snob police. When food is labeled organic, people report that it tastes better.

But we can also use taste bias to our advantage. The more we know about a product, the more pleasure we derive from it. So we don’t have to get that pleasure center buzz by depleting our bankroll — we can learn about grape types and different growing areas, compare wines by color, “legs” and aroma, and people who enjoy wine believe that this kind of education makes taste bias work in their favor by providing bonuses in enjoyment.

Science Speculation: With a little imagination, we can extend taste bias far afield, into the realm of politics. Consider nuclear power generation, or global warming. Those are two topics that are complex and highly technical. It is simply not practical for a non-specialist, even a scientist, to acquire a deep and nuanced understanding of areas like this. Our eyes glaze over after the third table of data and we look for a way to encapsulate what we know, so we can file it away as something that’s “understood.”

And how do we choose what to think about such complicated topics? Through a form of taste bias: we consult sources we respect: public figures, media, friends and family. The fact that those folks may know less about the subject than we do doesn’t matter. Our brains pull together all the inputs on the subject and they tilt our perception. The price of the wine does not reliably predict its taste, but it’s a piece of data we have, so our minds use it. And what your Congressman says about atmospheric CO2 may be in left field, but our brains use that for input when deciding what to think about that subject.

It makes sense. Understanding the details of nuclear energy is unlikely to save your life, but bonding with friends and sharing their political positions can benefit you in many ways. So oversimplifying, with the help of taste bias, is not maladaptive — it’s a rational response to our human need to simplify the complex world around us, while at the same time building rapport with our closest friends.

Have you ever tested your taste bias with a blind tasting? How did you feel about the process and its results?

You taste what you see: Do organic labels bias taste perceptions?
You taste what you see: Organic labels favorably bias taste perceptions
Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better?
Evidence from a Large Sample of Blind Tastings
Should we buy expensive wine?
Is There Really A Taste Difference Between Cheap and Expensive Wines?
Study: $90 wine tastes better than the same wine at $10
Expensive Wines Perceived As Tasting Better, Says Study
The Psychology of Wine Tasting
Cheap Wine vs. Expensive Wine: Can You Really Tell The Difference?
US Standards of Identity for Vodka



Taste Bias & the $90 Wine — 6 Comments

  1. Very good Art: members of my family consider that if the wine has a fancy well known name on the label and is priced accordingly, then it has to taste delicious. Personally, I reckon I can differentiate between a £4 Plonk (Vin Blanc from the Tommie’s argot from WWI)from a decent label of maybe 5 to 10 years old, if the plonk is pretty average. In short, more often or not I can probably tell the difference between expensive and cheap. However, spending summer in the Charente not that far from Bordeaux, we make a yearly trip to St.Emilion to stock up on claret at about £5 euro per bottle (2010/2011 and sometimes older), not from the town itself (prenez garde the town centre prices) but from the huge Co-operative at Puisseguin, a few kilometres away. The bottles here would probably sell for £8 or more in UK, and I am so used to it and its very good value that I have grown to prefer it to the more unfamiliar taste of a very good wine, expensive wine. Once a year we take as much home in the car as we can for the winter (c. 60 cases), although this year we grounded so much on the way home that a plastic cover under the fuel tank got torn 20 K from Calais, and had to be ripped off.

    I reckon taste and whether it is rated good or bad, is what you are brought up to think. Native Chinese that I have met in Europe for the first time cannot understand how we can possibly eat cheese. Good taste is so often, but not always related to high cost and thus exclusivity. Fashion, lord help us, has something to do with it and also more fundamental imperatives. In earlier more primitive societies, ample female figures were preferred, (less chance of death in childbirth) whereas as now the thinner form is preferred, thin hips and wide shoulders presumably due to the fact that women are taking a much more dominant role in running commercial, professional and political concerns: QED.

    • Nick, I love the image of your car being so loaded down with wine that it could barely navigate the roads! You make a good point that familiarity biases, or perhaps we should say, informs our taste and can affect our preferences and pleasures.

  2. Nola and I had lunch at a local eatery in Grosse Pointe and found this notice at our table describing a featured wine: “The wine is full of blueberry fruit, hints of fennel and licorice; almond and cherry pit notes and a nose of crushed stone. The palate is soft but rich and the structure is well defined yet supple.” Crushed stone, huh? Are they trying to enhance my taste experience if I buy a glassful? Oh, and guess what: this restaurant is a diner…

    • Unfortunately, some issues in life have to be handled one way or another, and our human tendency to oversimplify everything, and rely only on those voices close to us means we are vulnerable to “spin” and the power of the press, as well as people’s also-natural tendency to pay attention to the loudest voice in the room at any time, or the most flamboyant speaker. We are also vulnerable to hucksters who wish to take advantage of our natural tendencies so they can profit at our expense, as well as those who seek power and need our vote to get it or retain it.

      Your example of nuclear power generation as an issue that is unlikely to save our life is applicable to many, but not all … ask the people who lived (past tense) near Chernobyl, or who now live on the edge of Fukushima, or for that matter San Onofre. For those people it can indeed be a life-or-death matter whether they understand the threat of living near an active nuclear reactor, and the political football concerning whether such methods of power generation are undesirable or not becomes more real, and less abstract.

      Another powerful agency which can rely on people’s natural tendency to want to oversimplify complex issues is organized religion. By feeding a simple and reassuring message to those who wish a pre-packaged answer for everything, it can lead to people adopting a lifestyle of being kind to each other, and supportive of those in need. But it can also lead to those in authority taking advantage of their ability to get people’s buy-in to their ideas, to influence their behavior in ways that may not benefit the flock … whether it be by use of church finances to manipulate elections, or by pressure applied to vulnerable people to take advantage of them under the cloak of authority.

      Politics and Government are areas where an attempt is made to compensate for our tendency to oversimplify, by electing officials who might be more knowledgable than the average person, or more skilled, or more dedicated to finding answers. Unfortunately there are other opposing human tendencies which undermine those benefits because of those officials’ vulnerability to greed and desire for power … leading to decisions that don’t benefit anyone but the person in charge. If we elected our officials from the group of people who personally know (and can observe over time) … more of a clan structure of politics … it might work, but in this era where our elected officials are complete strangers to us whom we cannot observe directly, it’s impossible to know if you are electing someone with feet of clay and too-flexible principles.

      This doesn’t even address those people who act as spokesmen for complex issues because they enjoy the spotlight, and who then try to promulgate their ill-formed opinions onto the populace because they enjoy the feeling of being an “expert” though they have done nothing to earn the title.

      The only defense against all those vulnerabilities is to resist the human temptation to let others do the thinking for you just so you can fit into a social group. Whether you choose to use your hard-won knowledge to influence others to consider things more carefully is an individual choice … because people who do that are seldom popular, and tend to make people uncomfortable because they challenge their precariously formed opinions about everything.

  3. Dick, that’s a good call — the Vance Packard book was ahead of its time & timeless at the same time.

  4. great article! …remind me of reading Vance Packard’s book, the Hidden Persuaders, many years ago.