Cheap wine tastes better when you’re told it’s an expensive brand – scientists say

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  • A recent study investigated whether the price of wine influences how people perceive its taste
  • Researchers offered cheap wines to participants labelled at a higher price
  • They found that participants thought the 'expensive' cheap wines tasted better 

Picture the following scenario: A group of workers order the most expensive bottle of wine in a restaurant, and a couple in the same restaurant order the cheapest bottle on the menu. After pouring the wine, the host, along with the group, sip away on the plonk valued at a meagre $18, blissfully unaware – while the couple who order the "cheap wine" unknowingly indulge in a bottle of wine valued at $2 000. 

This scenario actually happened at a restaurant called Balthazar in New York, and a growing body of research suggests that such mistakes are common.

A recent study was the first to manipulate the price of wine in a realistic setting in order to see how participants would perceive the taste of cheap wine when they were told it was expensive.

Rating the ‘pleasantness’ of wine

The study was conducted during an event hosted by the University of Basel in Switzerland where the psychology department offered wine-tasting to entertain guests. 

A total of 140 participants participated in the tastings, during which they were presented with six glasses of wine. They were asked not to interact with other participants, so that their views on the wines were not influenced by others.

“Participants tasted three different low-, mid-, and high-priced wines with open, deceptive, or no price information and rated them for taste intensity and pleasantness,” the researchers explained. 

For each participant, at least one of the glasses of wine was labelled deceptively, with the price being either four times higher or four times lower than the actual retail price. After sipping on each glass, participants were asked to rate the pleasantness of the wine, rinse their mouths with water and move on to the next wine.

The budget wine verdict

There were no big perceived differences in pleasantness ratings when the prices of the wines were hidden, however, when the price was deceptively increased, the pleasantness ratings increased. For example, when cheaper wine was priced higher than a mid-priced wine, the cheaper wine was rated higher. 

The experiment also involved participants rating the intensity of wine.

“In our community sample, intensity of taste ratings for open, deceptive and blind price information reflected retail prices, thus more expensive wines were rated as more intense in taste,” the researchers stated. 

“However, while pleasantness ratings did not differ for open and no price information, deceptive up-pricing of low-price wine significantly influenced ratings for pleasantness, whereas deceptive down-pricing of high-price wine had no effect on pleasantness ratings.”

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