What price for nirvana? | AspenTimes.com

What price for nirvana?

Kelly J. Hayes

What impact does the price of a wine have on how much you enjoy it?

We all make budgetary decisions when we purchase a wine, but a recent study completed at Caltech in Pasadena, Calif., of all places, indicated that our enjoyment of wine is directly linked to what we perceive the price of the wine to be. That is to say, if we believe one wine costs more than another wine, we are more likely to say we enjoy the spendy one best.

Here’s the background.

An economist named Antonio Rangel at the Caltech Brain Imaging Center led a study in which 20 volunteers were given what they were told were five different cabernet sauvignons to taste. In reality, they were poured just three different wines with retail prices of $5, $35 and $90 per bottle. The $90 wine was poured twice and the tasters were told that one sample was a $10 wine while the other was listed at the correct $90 price. The least-expensive wine also was poured twice with one sample listed as the appropriate $5 price and the second listed as a $45 bottling.

Needless to say (or the story likely would have never seen the light of the acclaimed Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences website), the volunteers all preferred the $5 bottle when they thought it was a $45 wine and, of course, enjoyed the $90 wine more when they tasted it under its actual price than when they thought it was “just” a $10 wine.

To take it further, each of the respondents was subjected to a “Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging scan” ” an FMRI in Caltech talk ” that showed the medial orbitofrontal cortex, the part of the brain that responds to warm and fuzzies, got, well, warm and fuzzy when they drank the wines listed as the most expensive.

I know, you’re saying “not me, not me.” We all like to think our taste buds are above being bought by the highest bidder. Especially when we are fooled or lied to by researchers who are looking for an outcome to what, let’s face it, was an attempt to justify the boosting of wine prices.

So what determines what a wine costs anyway? To begin with, wine is, and always has been, a product governed by the rules of capitalism. The cost of a bottle of wine is directly proportionate to what someone will pay for it. The market dictates price.

But beyond that, there are a number of factors that go into what a winemaker decides to charge per bottle for their wine. Begin with the cost of land. Prime property in Napa goes for a whole lot more than Lodi acreage, hence a premium must be applied based on location.

Then the decision is made as to what varietal the wine will be. High-yielding zinfandel vines mean more juice than carefully selected, handpicked cabernet sauvignon. That means more zin for less money and less cab for more money.

Next there are decisions to be made as to who will make the wine, how they will make it, and what they will charge for their services. French or American oak? How long does the wine age? Time is money, and more time in a barrel costs money that will be passed on to the consumer in the end.

And once all of these and myriad other factors are in place, there is the cost of marketing the wine and the shrewd decisions made by wineries as to how they “position” their wines in the marketplace. The label, the shape of the bottle, where the wine is sold, all figure into the public perception of the wine’s value.

The bottom line is, the guys at Caltech are probably right. The cost of a wine, especially when all other factors are hidden from the taster in a laboratory environment, can be a factor in how the orbitofrontal cortex likes the wine.

But unless you are drinking your wine blind at Caltech, I contend that there are many, many other factors that will trump price in determining how much you enjoy your glass of wine.

Drink cheap and drink often.


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