In the land of the free and the home of the brave, is preference for a bottle of wine based on anything but our free will?

Though we may resist thoughts of our own individual gullibility, and no matter how often we may intone some variation of the “trust your own palate” mantra, we must still accept the well-documented commercial popularity of animal or pop art labels, or the persuasive power of ratings points. And let’s not forget that the advertisement industry does not spend billions of dollars unless they get something greater in return.

Recent research into the placebo effect—what is also commonly called the power of suggestion—throws a jaundiced hue onto our notion of free will, commercial and otherwise, as it relates to wine.

Let’s start with the paper “Marketing Actions Can Modulate Neural Representations of Experienced Pleasantness”, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. To generalize, it centered on two questions: 1) Does knowing only the variety (Cabernet Sauvignon) and the price points of a series of wines affect a subject’s perception of sensory quality? 2) More important to the researchers, can this perception of sensory quality, based solely on variety and price point, be doubly confirmed by a MRI map of the subject’s brain pleasure center(s)?

Both questions were seemingly affirmed by the experiment, and the results quickly metastasized across the Internet. In the words of co-author and Stanford professor Baba Shiv:

What we document is that price is not just about inferences of quality, but it can actually affect real quality.

MRIThere are (at least) three serious flaws in the experiment. 1) Though all the subjects were “screened for liking, and at least occasionally drinking, red wine,” all 11 were under-thirty males, right-handed and healthy. No distinction is made as to ethnicity or socio-economic background. 2) The wines sampled, all Cabernet Sauvignons, were not named. 3) The subjects were required to lay prone in a MRI machine and sip through straws. Further, “[s]ubjects were instructed to sample the liquid on each trial while it was in their mouth (for a period of 10 seconds), to evaluate its pleasantness during this time, and to swallow only when instructed.”

Of the three flaws, most notable were the unnamed Cabernets and the method of administration. (To be sure, that the subjects were all under-thirty males, right-handed and healthy, an indication of the need for uniform results, nevertheless speaks to the traditional sexist deference within science generally to the economic importance of that demographic. As with HIV and cancer research, males remain the preferred subjects. But that is another story.) Because the Cabernets were unnamed suggests that the researchers were not interested in exposing specific wine producers to scrutiny. I can easily imagine “reverse engineering” an experiment constructed around the proposition of the marginal significance of a wine’s price point with respect to quality, especially of Cabernets.

Of the method of administration briefly quoted above, laboratory protocols are all well and good; but when it comes to wine, I can only encourage readers to picture themselves prone, in a high-tech medical-imaging chamber, sipping Cabernet through a straw, precisely ten seconds per sip. To be told when one may swallow, as the subjects were, hints at both an awful institutional power and a troubling willful submission of the subjects to the same.

Here, any knowledge gained into the placebo effect that does not also consider an experiment’s structure, particularly its built-in institutional power differential, its accessibility to technology, its unknown funding sources, is suspect. In short, submission to the demands of a commercially-driven experiment itself performs the power of suggestion.

A second example, posted in digest form on ETH Life, builds indirectly upon the previous research example. This paper, titled “Wine Tasting: Expectations Influence Sense Of Taste,” first published in Appetite Feb. 2009, tells us: “Wine tastes different to those who are given information on the product before a wine tasting.”

In this test (one presumes a test is one step below an experiment, but above a poll), Robert Parker’s rating system is the foil. A full 163 subjects (called “test people” in the report) tasted a highly rated (92) Argentine wine. The results were predictable: Yes, the rating played a part in pleasure reported. And a big “ho-hum” emanated from the blogosphere.

What is surprising about ETH Life’s publicly available condensation (the full report will cost you $20) is the absence of any hint of clinical data or of demographic breakdown—neither of age, sex, or even nationality. Indeed, that the wine was created by Michel Rolland goes unmentioned in the posted abstract. Even stranger is absence of any mention of well-informed reviewers, or of aggregate sites such as CellarTracker, where reviews of are written in the cold light of day and in the case of this particular wine (Clos de la Siete 2006) as diverse (74-93 points) as the test people’s evaluations.

Again, we learn little of the placebo effect simply because there is no baseline value of the wine itself. If we might easily find an online wine review resource that mirrors the results of the “Expectations Influence Sense of Taste” paper then we have only a methodological distinction without a difference.

Both examples briefly outlined above are part of what I call advertorial science. Neither study is durable science, or definitive. For real-world implications of the placebo effect, we will simply have to wait for thoroughly independent research of this principle as it relates to wine.

– Ken Payton works in a small Santa Cruz winery. He blogs at Reign of Terroir.

4 Responses

  1. Arthur


    Good work.

    When one does functional brain imaging long enough, one of the realizations that come about is that there is no such thing as free will. All we are, do, think, feel, etc are a consequence of the function and dysfunction of our brains.

    As someone who looks a functional brain imaging day in and day out, I see a lot of design flaws with this Plassmann et al study (I did when it was first publicized). I must, then, introduce a more profound limitation of this study than the three you list:

    Never mind cohort selection. They did not discuss exclusion/inclusion criteria which addressed: ADHD, PTSD, Depression and other conditions know to involve the mOFC – the very area whose activity the measured in this study and whose activity was the core of their conclusions.

    How can their results be valid, when they are 1) measuring activity in a single region (the brain is about concert, not about solo) and 2) one whose activity is affected in a number of highly prevalent disorders???

    What I found utterly disturbing (when this story was made public a year or two ago) is how everyone hyping up the story missed one critical point that the authors themselves made:

    “Importantly, we did not find evidence for an effect of prices on areas of the primary taste areas such as the insula cortex, the ventroposterior medial nucleus of the thalamus, or the prabrachial nuclei of the pons. ….. the *flavor expectancies generated by the change in prices do not impact more basic sensory representations*.”

    What this means is that ‘experienced pleasantness” can be (and IS by many tasters) separated from the raw sensory data. This has profound implications for wine analysis and judging. To wit, it means that those who refuse to look at wine assessment from a criteria=based, objective rather than that of their personal preference simply *DON’T WANT TO TRY* and their reasons of “wine is subjective” are simply *a convenient excuse for their intellectual laziness”.

  2. Ken Payton

    Excellent points, Arthur. I think we can put this ‘study’ to bed. As mentioned in my piece, this experiment is advertorial science. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the ad industry seized upon it as though it was evidence of a way of getting at the ‘truth’ of what is, in fact, an entirely fictitious ‘rational actor’.

  3. Food Tech

    I think that the study is right on. It really exposes the wine snobs. I had an instructor at UC Davis that said “wine tasting is 10% science, 10% art and 80% pretension.” He also told us a story of a graduate student that did an experiment at a wine tasting that included some big time wine experts. She merely added some red food coloring to a glass of chardonnay for tasting. I believe that none of the participants knew it was a chardonnay. They thought it was a funny tasting red.