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A wine's high price adds to its pleasure, study finds

WASHINGTON — The results of recent wine tastings conducted inside an MRI brain-scanning device have left high-end wineries with a bitter aftertaste but given consumers a new way to save money.

First, the savings tip: Remove the price sticker on the wine you bought. Put on a new one that quadruples the price. Or octuples it. And leave it on when you serve the wine, uncouth as that sounds.

Forget those blurbs about bouquets, body and berries. A meticulous new study found that the more people think a wine cost, the more they like it. And the less they think it cost, the less they like it. What's more, the study found that the link between cost and enjoyment may be hard-wired in the brain.

"It's not the taste of the wine that changes" when its price goes up, said lead author Hilke Plassmann, a neuroeconomist at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "Rather, it's how pleasant people interpret the taste to be."

Plassmann and her co-researchers, who specialize in how the brain makes economic decisions, say it works like this:

While several parts of the brain assess a wine's taste, a separate part — the medial orbitofrontal cortex — interprets the pleasantness of the sensation. When the perceived price of the wine goes up, there's no change in the taste-registering parts. But there's lots more excitement in the part of the brain that decides how much you like it.

Appealing labels, good reviews and brand names can produce the same effect as price, Plassmann said, and the process applies to a lot of products besides wine, especially heavily advertised ones.

Her group's findings, published in the Jan. 22 issue of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, reflect an exotic study of brain activity in 20 Cal Tech students.

While lying immobilized in an MRI scanner, each student sipped a random series of 1-milliliter (a fifth of a teaspoon) samples of cabernet sauvignon that were delivered through the scanner's wall via a straw-like syringe.

They were told that the experiment would trace brain activity during the tasting process. For identification purposes, they were told, the wines would be distinguished on the basis of price simultaneously with each sip: $5, $10, $35, $45 and $90 a bottle.

Actually, the $5 and $45 wines were identical, as were the $10 and $90 wines.

In the $5-$45 comparison, which used a $5 wine, the tasters liked the wine nearly twice as much when they thought it cost $45. In the $10-$90 comparison, which used a $90 wine, they liked the wine half as much when they thought it cost $10.

In a follow-up tasting eight weeks later, conducted without price cues, the 20 subjects' variations in satisfaction disappeared.

The students were all novice wine drinkers. However, members of the Stanford University Business School's Wine Circle, who get together regularly to taste wines, had the same tendencies in a similar experiment: The more they thought the wine cost, the more they liked it, and vice versa. That test's results are preliminary and unpublished.

Wine professionals — such as vintners, wine critics and sommeliers — probably are more discerning, Plassmann said.

Her finding that price trumps palate is fodder for both makers and debunkers of wine's mystique. Among them are:

* Kathleen Talbert, a public relations consultant to top-tier wineries including movie director Francis Ford Coppola's Rubicon Estate vineyard in Rutherford, Calif., where the 2003 Estate CASK Cabernet costs $80. According to Talbert, sipping half-thimblefuls through a syringe, without a role for the nose, while lying in an MRI machine is a "wacky" way to taste wine.

* Patrick McElligott, the manager of the Oregon Wine Tasting Room in McMinnville. For 27 years he's urged patrons to taste wines without knowing their prices. Plassmann's experiment, he said, explained why "not knowing price makes many people nervous."

* Joe Riley, a fine-wine manager at Ace Beverage in Washington, D.C., a leading retailer. Riley said the research explained why many restaurants raise the prices of their cheapest wines to make them sell better.

* Fred Franzia, the owner of Bronco Wine Co. in Ceres, Calif., the blender of the snobbery-defying Charles Shaw ("Two Buck Chuck") wine family. Franzia said the study showed that "the consumer still has a lot to learn about how to trust their own judgment."

* Luke Baxter, a co-president of Stanford's Wine Circle. He e-mailed: "A big implication that will please wine drinkers (including myself) is that `treating yourself' to an expensive bottle of wine really does pay off. The fact that you're paying more, and have selected a `special' wine, means you're actually more likely to enjoy it."

* John Brecher, wine critic for The Wall Street Journal. "You would have gotten the same results if you'd said (Robert) Parker had rated the wine an 87 or a 95," Brecher said. Numeric wine ratings by Parker and others are widely revered.

* Brian Wansink, a Cornell University marketing professor. His claim to fame in winedom is his finding that subjects ate 12 percent more food and lingered 10 minutes longer at the table when they thought that they were drinking "California" wine vs. "North Dakota" wine. (Actually, both groups were drinking the same wine.) Plassmann's findings didn't surprise Wansink a bit.

* Jeff Peterson, a co-owner of Pointe of View Winery in Burlington, N.D., where the rhubarb wine is a tourist favorite. Peterson said he'd like to stick Wansink into an MRI machine and leave him there.

McClatchy Newspapers 2008