A Cheap Way To Make Expensive Wine

Grow the best grapes

Making good wine is expensive, but not in the way you might think. Oh sure, the things that top growers do to improve the quality of their harvest add to the cost. They analyze the soil and amend it to enhance their crop. They prune and train their vines, even to the point of plucking off individual leaves so that sunlight falls on the vine in just the right way, to keep their vines healthy and ensure that they bear the best fruit possible. They harvest in the early morning, when it’s still dark, and rush them to the winery so that the grapes are at their peak during crush.

Spare no expense to make the best wine

Winemakers then dote over the wine. They select just the right yeast. They adjust the sugar and acid levels to balance the wine. The may inoculate with malolactic bacteria to soften the wine, introduce tiny, controlled amounts of oxygen so that wine ages in just the right way, and so on.

Or just tell them it costs more

But scientists at the California Institute of Technology have found a simpler way: just raise the price. They asked volunteers to taste five different wines and told them the price of each one. What they didn’t tell them was that there were only three different wines. They had the volunteers taste a $90 bottle of wine twice, telling them it was a different $10 bottle of wine the second time. Similarly, a $5 bottle of wine reappeared as a $45 bottle. Functional MRIs showed that people liked the “more expensive” wine better – that is, the pleasure center of the brain showed more intense activity when they tasted the same wine, but believed it was more expensive.

Oh, and when they repeated the experiment without telling the volunteers how much the wine cost, the $5 bottle was rated highest.

Further reading

The National Academy of Sciences published the study. Here is a link to the abstract:

Abstract of the CIT study

Unfortunately, you must subscribe or buy one-time access to read the full article.

Update – 11/28/2008

Another study indicates that a higher price can “improve” a painkiller’s effectiveness.

Update – 4/19/2010 Quick and easy blind tasting

Tasting blind lets you see a wine the way it really is. Here’s how to run a quick and easy blind tasting at home.

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2 thoughts on “A Cheap Way To Make Expensive Wine

  1. Mark Holm

    Yes, I read that too.. but I would wounder what these people actually like to drink and what their taste is. I’m sure that is the way with wine novices or casual wine drinkers.. but experienced wine drinkers I believe to be different story. A friend of mine did a similar experiment for a marketing class back in the late 80s. In his test, taste did matter over cost for those who considered themselves serious about wine – while casual wine drinkers were more influenced by price and sweetness (not dessert wines).

  2. Erroll Post author

    Hi Mark,

    You may be right. What I take away from this study is that home winemakers should serve their best wines with pride. That means taking the time to completely remove old labels from reused bottles and making new good looking ones for your wine. And don’t be tentative or embarrassed when pouring because perception can become reality.


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