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Expectations Influence Sense of Taste and Evaluation of Wine

white_red_smallScienceDaily (14 September 2009) — Wine tastes different to those who are given information on the product before a wine tasting, tests where the test people received information on the wine before and after the tasting have shown.  Many a wine grower trembles at the prospect of a visit from Robert Parker, one of the most famous wine critics in the world. His "Parker Points" have a similar impact to the Roman Emperor's thumb, deciding the success of a winery instead of life and death. The extent to which product information like Parker's ratings influence the consumer is revealed in a study by Michael Siegrist, Professor of Consumer Behavior at the Institute for Environmental Decisions, and his post-doc Marie-Eve Cousin from ETH Zurich, which was published in the journal Appetite.

The two scientists wanted to find out how information of that type influences the sensory experience by testing their hypothesis that the wine critic's opinion affects the sense of taste — and not just the rating.

Good and bad information

163 test people tasted the Argentinean red wine "Clos de Los Siete Mendoza" (2006), which Robert Parker had given 92 points out of 100 and thus had rated as an exceptional wine. The two scientists divided the subjects into five groups: one was told about Parker's positive appraisal before the tasting; the second group also received the information beforehand, but was told that the wine had only scored 72 Parker Points and was thus average. Two more groups received the positive or negative information after they had tasted the wine but before they had rated it themselves. The final group was not given any information at all and served as the control group.

The test people, who tasted the wine separately, were asked to rate the wine on a 10-point scale, ranging from "didn't like it at all" to "excellent". They were also supposed to state how much they would be prepared to pay for the wine.

Advance information influences senses

The analysis of the test results revealed that the test people who had been given the ratings with 92 or 72 points before the tasting rated the wine differently to those who weren't given the Parker rating until afterwards. In the first two groups, the test people who had been given negative information rated the wine considerably worse than those who proceeded on the assumption that the wine was good. Those who knew beforehand that the wine had been given 92 Parker Points also found the wine better than those who only discovered the rating after they had tried the wine.

The information not only influences the sense of taste, but also how deep we are prepared to dig into our wallets: again, the test people with negative advance information were prepared to pay the least.

The researchers feel their initial hypothesis has been confirmed and conclude that the opinions of wine critics do have an impact on a wine drinker's sense of taste. Surprisingly, the subjects did not change their opinion if they received the information after tasting. "People therefore were not simply trying to show themselves in a good light; the information really did alter their sense of taste", says Siegrist.

Praise the wine before drinking it

Psychosocial factors are bound to play a role: indeed, the scientists do not exclude the possibility that avid wine drinkers and connoisseurs might change their opinion, and therefore their rating, afterwards to save face. This issue should be examined in more detail in future studies. For now, however, the scientists have a practical tip for restaurants and hosts: always stress the quality of the wine before it is tasted!

Journal reference:

Siegrist et al. Expectations influence sensory experience in a wine tasting. Appetite, 2009; 52 (3): 762 DOI: 10.1016/j.appet.2009.02.002

Adapted from materials provided by ETH Zurich.

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