Science Has Not Really Spoken (On The Study Of Big Flavor Wines)

Vinted on April 15, 2015 binned in commentary, wine news

Ok, geeks; REMAIN CALM.

globe and mail


That’s the message we need to repeat to our geeky wine selves after reading the article “Science has spoken: Big wine doesn’t mean more flavour” by Beppi Crosariol in The Globe and Mail.

In case you missed it, the scoop is that a rather cleverly executed experiment involving 26 “relatively inexperienced wine consumers” who tasted wine and had their noggins MRI scanned revealed that those tasters had a bit more brain activity happening when the wines that they tasted were lighter-bodied and lower in alcohol.

To the tape:

“Contrary to prevailing wine-industry wisdom that most consumers prefer brawn to finesse, the scanner revealed startling images. There was greater activity in the taste-processing regions while the subjects drank the lighter wines. The implication: Lower alcohol encourages stronger attention to aroma and flavour nuances.”

Is this finding interesting? Hell yes.

Is it definitive enough that we can draw any serious conclusions from it? HELL NO!

Also, even if we did draw conclusions from this study, I am not sure those conclusions are where are focus should actually be trained…

Twenty-six participants does not a safe conclusion make. Aside from the fact that the study would need to be repeated to have any scientific weight behind it, the Globe and Mail article brushes casually over one very important aspect of the study involving how the participants rated their enjoyment of the wines:

“Curiously, the average rating for wines in each pair was the same. In other words, participants reported enjoying the light and strong wines equally. It was only under the scanner that the subconscious betrayed a different story.”

So… this would mark only about the one trillionth example of the human brain outsmarting itself and twisting its perception of the sensory inputs we absorb all around us. The question we might logically to ask next is this:

Which one wins – the brain activity or our decision to tell ourselves that we like the bigger wine anyway?

Answer: it doesn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter because our collective tastes when it comes to the highly regulated product of alcoholic beverages will more likely be defined by what’s available to us. To illustrate this, come walk with me on a short journey of speculative reasoning, one step leading to the other more or less in logical sequence:

  1. Certain critics with a preference for stronger wines gain popularity ->
  2. It becomes easier at retail to sell wines with accolades vs. those without them ->
  3. The “bigger” wines sell better ->
  4. It becomes easier to import/distribute/purchase bigger wines than lighter ones ->
  5. Consumers are exposed to fewer lighter wines and more “bigger” wines ->
  6. Through limited/shrinking choice at retail and on premise, consumers convince themselves that they “like” bigger wines (without necessarily questioning if there are alternatives) ->
  7. Repeat cycle at step 2.

The question isn’t whether or not people will like different wine styles, or which are inherently superior/more interesting/better/whatever. The real question is, what are you going to do to help break the cycle?






  • Richard Sowalsky

    Neither greater brain activity during consumption nor stronger attention to aroma and flavor nuances necessarily has any correlation to preference. If the aromas being attended to are vegetal or sulfurous, or the tastes bitter or unduly acidic, greater attention may not be a positive. it is interesting to note that so-called “super-tasters” tend to choose blander food and drink because their more sensitive sensory systems are in a sense assaulted by stronger tastes, making the more robust foods and beverages less preferred.

    • 1WineDude

      Richard – even more reasons why we shouldn’t draw too many conclusions prematurely from this study.

  • Dwight Albers

    Wonder if the enhanced brain activity was due to the lower alcohol, whereas the higher alcohol wines muted the brain activity? I’m a firm believer in drinking what you like, not what Robert Parker et al, your wine geek neighbor, or the overzealous salesman in the wine shop tells you you should like. I did a Cabernet Franc tasting last night with roughly a dozen friends. All 6 wines were well made wines by highly regarded winemakers and respected wineries. The larger, richer mouthfeel wines were preferred. Those less preferred by my group may very well be more highly preferred in a different demographic. That’s what’s so fun about wine. Maybe I should rent a portable MRI scanner for my next tasting or party…..

    • 1WineDude

      Dwight, just make sure you get your results printed in a scientific journal so that the media can attach outlandish claims to the results! :-)

  • firstvine

    These small studies are the bane of my existence. Six people studied here, a dozen there, no real controls, etc. OK, I guess I don’t really object to the studies as much as I do the willingness of people reporting on them to hype a finding without looking closely at the whole thing. I noticed it a lot when I was doing environmental work, but even more so now that I’m in the wine business.

    • 1WineDude

      Firstvine – yeah, wine seems notorious for this sort of thing.

  • Bob Henry

    An earlier wine consumption study using a functional MRI . . . testing price vs. perceived quality.

    From USA TODAY
    (January 14, 2008):

    “Raising Prices Enhances Sales”


    By Randolph E. Schmid
    AP Science Writer

    — AND —

    From CNET News
    (January 14, 2008)

    “Study: $90 Wine Tastes Better Than the Same Wine at $10”


    Posted by Stephen Shankland

    ADDENDUM: Go to to see the accompanying exhibits.

    Exhibit # 1 caption: This graph shows the activity in the brain’s pleasure center; there’s more activity with wine subjects think costs $90 a bottle (top line) than the same wine priced at $10. The arrow shows the moment when the subjects started tasting the wine.

    (Exhibit credit: Caltech, Stanford)

    Exhibit # 2 caption: This chart shows that people ranked taste of a $45 wine higher than the same wine priced at $5, and the same for a different wine marked $90 and $10.

    (Exhibit credit: Caltech, Stanford)

    • 1WineDude

      Bob – you get what your brain thinks you pay for, I guess!

      • Bob Henry

        Such studies beg a related question: How would the subjects react on assessing their satisfaction/pleasure quotient if the choice was between paying for the wine — versus being “gifted” with it for free?

        Do we value gift wines as much as we value wines we pay for — earned by the sweat of our brow?

        It is the “sunk-cost” syndrome being measured:

        Excerpts from the Los Angeles Times “Opinion” Section
        (September 17, 2006, Page M5):

        “The ‘Sunk-Cost Fallacy’ ”


        By Barry Schwartz

        (Professor of psychology at Swarthmore College and the author of “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less”)

        . . . We make a significant investment — of money, time or emotion — in some project, relationship or business deal, and it doesn’t seem to be working out. Do we continue to “throw good money after bad” or do we “cut and run” and “stop wasting time”? What’s the right way to think about such decisions?

        Psychologists, decision scientists an economists have an answer. They tell us it’s a mistake to continue with a project or an activity because of what you have already invested in it. The time or money you’ve already spent is gone. You can’t reclaim it. Using a past investment to justify a future investment is what they call the “sunk-cost fallacy.”

        Instead of thinking about the past, what we should be doing is thinking about the future. . . .

        . . .

        One can think through a problem in a logical and rigorous way, and formulate a sensible course of action, only to discover that it doesn’t work out. Good decisions do not guarantee good results (just as bad decisions don’t guarantee bad ones).

        Yet people seem willing to waste even more (time, money or lives) to justify what they have already spent and avoid that sick feeling of failure. . . .

        — AND —

        Excerpt from the Los Angeles Times “Opinion” Section
        (October 20, 2006, Page Unknown):

        “Weigh Your Anchor;
        happy profits or painful losses are a matter of perspective.”


        By Barry Schwartz

        (Professor of psychology at Swarthmore College and author of “The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less.”)

        . . . we have learned from research on decision-making is that people hate to suffer losses — and they feel far more pain from the loss of a sum of money than they experience pleasure from the gain of the same sum.

        • 1WineDude

          Spot on, Bob!

The Fine Print

This site is licensed under Creative Commons. Content may be used for non-commercial use only; no modifications allowed; attribution required in the form of a statement "originally published by 1WineDude" with a link back to the original posting.

Play nice! Code of Ethics and Privacy.

Contact: joe (at) 1winedude (dot) com





Sign up, lushes!

Enter your email address to subscribe and get all the good stuff via email.

Join 36,826 other subscribers