Let me make it clear – I am not claiming that homemade wine is bad wine, or even that the vast majority of homemade wine is necessarily inferior to almost all commercial wines. I am simply stating that most people expect homemade wine to be inferior to commercial wine, and that expectation is often sufficient to seal the fate of the wine, regardless of its actual quality.
Why is this?
Would you like some scientific evidence regarding how people’s expectations about wine quality influence their wine evaluations? Before I discuss this scientific research, I would like you to first look at the drawing of the young attractive woman below…
Old Lady or Young Woman? Oops! I am so sorry! I placed the wrong picture. My apologies, because, this is, of course, a picture of an old haggard woman! You can see the old lady now, can’t you?
Of course, the visual stimuli in this picture did not miraculously change while you were reading; what changed was your expectation of what you were going to see. Because you were first prepared to see a young woman, you organized the stimuli into a young-woman perception. Yet when I then mentioned the old woman, your brain was then busy activating elderly images from memory, preparing you to see an old woman.
This is an example of how expectations influence what you perceive in the world.
Even Wine Experts Taste What They Expect To Taste
Many scientific studies indicate that the expectations we bring to a situation significantly influence how we perceive people, things, and yes, even wine. These expectations, known as perceptual sets, create a tendency to interpret sensory information in a particular way to match our expectations. Wine experts are as susceptible to perceptual sets as any everyday wine drinker, as the following experiments demonstrate.
At the University of Bordeaux, researcher Frederic Brochet asked 57 wine experts to evaluate what looked like two glasses of red and white wine.
What the experts did not realize was that the two wines were actually the same white wine; one had simply been tinted red with food coloring. None of the experts detected Brochet’s deception. Instead, they tended to describe the “red” wine in language typically used to describe red wines, praising its “jamminess” or mentioning its “crushed red fruit.”
In another experiment conducted by Brochet, he selected a middling Bordeaux wine and served it in two different bottles:
One bottle had a fancy “Grand-Cru” label; the other bottle had an ordinary “Vin de table” (ordinary table wine) label. Despite the fact that the wine experts tasted the exact same wine in these two different bottles, they gave nearly opposite ratings.
They judged the “Grand Cru” wine as “agreeable, woody, complex, balanced and rounded.”
They judged the “Vin du Table” wine as “weak, short, light, flat and faulty.”
Forty of these experts said the wine with the fancy label was worth drinking. Only 12 said the cheap wine was worth drinking. In commenting on the ease by which he was able to shape the wine perceptions of these recognized experts in these two different studies, Brochet noted that expectations of what wine will taste like “can be much more powerful in determining how you taste a wine than the actual physical qualities of the wine itself.” The next time that a self-proclaimed “wine expert” slams your wine preferences or perceptions, tell her/him about this study, and forgive yourself if you smirk while doing so.
Wine Expectations Activate Different Brain Regions
Former President Richard Nixon understood how expectations shaped people’s reality when it came to wine. As a cost-saving measure during White House parties, Nixon would occasionally instruct waiters to refill empty bottles of fine and expensive wine with cheaper and lower-quality brands. Nixon was counting on the expensive bottle’s label creating a perceptual set of fine taste in his guests.
Brain scan studies have backed up Nixon’s wine-serving strategy.
In one study, when people tasted $5 wine but were told that it cost $45, the area of their brains responsible for pleasant experiences became more active. They also rated the wine tastier than when they drank the same wine but were told its true $5 price.
These results demonstrate a very important psychological fact:
your expectations will influence your taste experience by literally activating certain brain areas associated with either pleasant or unpleasant emotions. When those brain areas are activated due to your expectations about what you are about to taste, you are already far down the path to a sensory judgment before your nose and tongue have sent one iota of information to your brain.
In essence, your brain is already preparing you to either like or dislike what you are about to taste before your nose or mouth has a chance to provide input.
Music and Wine Judgment
It may or may not be unsurprising for you to learn that music can shape your experiences with wine. In a study conducted by psychologist Adrian North at Heriot-Watt University in Scotland, he asked 250 college students to drink and evaluate either a glass of Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon (a red wine) or Chardonnay (a white wine). While tasting this wine, music—that had been previously judged by others as having a particular style—was being played in the background.
- One-fifth of study participants sampled either the red or white wine while listening to music of Carmina Burana by Carl Orff (previously rated as “powerful and heavy” music).
- Another fifth of the participants drank their wine while listening to music (Waltz of the Flowers) from Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker’ (previously rated as “subtle and refined” music).
- Another fifth listened to Just Can’t Get Enough by Nouvelle Vague (rated as “zingy and refreshing” music).
- Another fifth drank the wine while listening to Breakdown by Michael Brook (previously rated as “mellow and soft” music).
- There was also a control group who drank the red or white wine with no music at all.
After all groups had tasted their wines under these different musical conditions, North asked them to rate how much they felt their wine was powerful and heavy, subtle and refined, mellow and soft, and zingy and refreshing.
Findings indicated that the music had a significant effect on the participants’ perception of the wines; wines were perceived as having the qualities of the music that people were listening to at the time.
In other words, wines were given the highest ratings for being “powerful and heavy” by those participants who drank them while listening to the “powerful and heavy” music of Carmina Burana. This experiment indicated that the music actually shifted the participants’ wine perception in the direction of the mood expressed by the music by an average of 37%. The results of this study suggest that music has the ability to activate certain memories and create certain expectations in wine drinkers’ minds regarding what they are about to experience, thereby impacting what they might purchase when out shopping. And by shopping, I mean wine shopping.
Consumer psychologists have found that they can shape the wine buying of consumers by what sort of music they pipe into a store where wine is sold. In another study conducted by North and his colleagues, they played either French music (think accordians, “Ooh la- la!”) or German music (think brass instruments and lederhosen, “Oom- pah-pah!”) in a supermarket and found that playing French music resulted in French wine outselling German wine by five bottles to one, whereas playing German music resulted in German wine outselling French wine by two bottles to one.
A similar study played either classical music or top 40-music in a commercial wine cellar. The researchers predicted that the classical music would be more likely than the top-40 music to activate consumers’ thoughts and memories about sophistication and affluence. True to this hypothesis, consumers purchased more expensive wine when classical music was playing in the wine cellar than when top-40 music was playing.
Perhaps the results of this research may help you select the music for your next dinner party.
If you have an inexpensive, middling red wine but want your guests to perceive it as being more pricey and robust, some Mozart or Vivaldi might be good background music to trigger their refined, sophisticated memory perceptions. This wine-enhancing music strategy can even enhance your own wine perceptions. Remember, what you are essentially doing when playing different music styles is prompting different memory associations you have with these different music styles. So, now that you are privy to how music can influence your thoughts and judgments in the here-and-now, use this knowledge to put yourself in the proper wine-appreciating mood.
Wine Expectations Influence Food Evaluation
Allow me to conclude this article by describing two final studies suggesting that your wine expectations can also influence how you evaluate the food you eat and even how much you enjoy your entire dining experience. In the first study, at an end-of-year wine and cheese reception at Cornell University, consumer psychologist Brian Wansink randomly led attendees to one of two tables on opposite sides of a large room.
At one of the tables, people were individually shown an inexpensive bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon wine …that was labeled as being from California. Those led to the other table were shown the same Cabernet Sauvignon wine …that had instead been labeled as being from North Dakota. Both labels had been professionally designed and included a logo of a fictional winery named, “Noah’s Winery.”
After being shown either the wine from “California” or “North Dakota,” each person rated how tasty they expected the wine to be on a 9-point scale (1 = not very tasty; 9 = very tasty). Then they tasted the wine and a small piece of unlabeled mild goat cheese. As predicted, those who sampled the “California” wine expected it to taste better than those who were shown the “North Dakota” wine. Not only that, but the “California” wine group also rated the cheese they were eating as better tasting than did the “North Dakota” wine group!
These results suggest that, regardless of any actual difference in the wines two people drink, if one person thinks that the wine she is drinking is of high quality, she will not only evaluate it more highly after smelling and tasting it compared to the person who thinks this same wine is of dubious quality, but she will also rate her accompanying food as being of higher quality than the other person.
Based on these results, Wansink moved his next study into an actual restaurant on the campus of the University of Illinois using a $2.99 Charles Shaw Cabernet labeled as either from “California” or “North Dakota.” The results speak for themselves. Diners who thought they were drinking North Dakota wine ate 19% less of their food and spent 12 less minutes lingering at their table than the diners who thought they were drinking California wine.
These findings reinforce the idea that, prior to smelling and tasting a wine, our expectations about its quality will not only shape whether we like or dislike it, our expectations will also shape how we perceive many other things in that same setting.
Implications For Home Winemakers
Sounds pretty bleak for home vintners, doesn’t it?
The cold hard truth is that, until social perceptions on where wine is made and who made it is changed, home winemakers (especially those outside of California) are going to have a tough time removing that worried expression from people’s faces when they hand them a glass of their homemade wine.
Due to this unfortunate social reality, home winemakers need to bolster the expectations of their wine prior to people actually tasting it.
Of course, the first thing that amateur winemakers need to do is become knowledgeable about winemaking so that their wine doesn’t end up tasting like “Old So-and-So’s” wine that everyone poured down the sink.
With the physical quality of your wine attended to, one additional thing that you can do is to “gussy” up your wine. Dress it up! Make a professional-looking label for your wine bottle. Scientific studies suggest that doing so will very likely result in your wine inside being perceived as better tasting. Maybe this is not fair, but it is true, based on what we have just reviewed.
Implications for Wine Tasters
The take-away message for all of us wine lovers is that we should always be aware that our expectations about what is in the bottle we are about to open will very likely shape how we perceive the wine’s aroma and taste, and therefore how we assess its overall quality, regardless of its actual quality.
This being so, challenge yourself to be open to a new taste experience whenever you approach a wine, whether it be homemade or from “Foo-Foo” France. Your relationship with the wine should be focused on your sensual perceptions of it, not necessarily on your expectations before the bottle is even uncorked.
But, of course, you might also want to select a certain style of music to play in the background to set the proper mood for your wine!
The Inquisitive Vintner