The impact of setting on wine tasting experiments: Do blind tastings reflect the real-life enjoyment of wine?

Geoffrey Lewis (Melbourne Business School, University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia)
Steve Charters (Burgundy School of Business, Dijon, France)
Benoît Lecat (Department of Wine and Viticulture, California Polytechnic State University, Pomona, California, USA)
Tatiana Zalan (School of Business Administration, American University in Dubai, Dubai, United Arab Emirates)
Marianna McGarry Wolf (Department of Wine and Viticulture, California Polytechnic State University, Pomona, California, USA)

International Journal of Wine Business Research

ISSN: 1751-1062

Article publication date: 30 August 2019

Issue publication date: 31 October 2019

Abstract

Purpose

Tasting experiments involving willingness to pay (WTP) have grown over the past few years; however, most of them occur in formal wine-tasting conditions, removed from real-world experience. This study aims to conduct experiments on wine appreciation and willingness to pay in both settings, to allow a comparison of how tasters reached conclusions in different situations.

Design/methodology/approach

The authors conducted two sets of experiments in Dijon, France, with knowledgeable wine drinkers, in 2014 and in 2016, to explore the relationship between wine ratings, WTP and objective characteristics (appellation, labelling and price). The first was in a formal wine-tasting setting (n = 58), and the second in the social setting of a restaurant (n = 52). The experiments involved deception: the tasters were presented with five wines, but in fact only three wines were involved, two of the wines being presented twice.

Findings

The results from the 2014 study showed that even with a group of experienced tasters, objective characteristics overwhelmed subjective assessment (taste, sensory perception) of the wine. Ratings and WTP were driven by the appellation or brand, labelling and price of the wines. The authors replicated the experiment in a social setting in 2016 which, contrary to their expectations, produced very similar results. In neither experiment did the experienced tasters detect the deception.

Research limitations/implications

The social setting was a lunch in a restaurant with a group of students who were graduating together. The tasting was conducted by some of their professors, which may have influenced the results and raises questions about whether the setting was truly ‘social’. The sample size for the experiments was comparatively small and further research, including novice and expert tasters, might contradict these findings, or at least add nuances to them.

Originality/value

The study finds that, contrary to expectations, in the social wine consumption setting of a restaurant meal enjoyed with colleagues, objective wine characteristics over-rode subjective appreciation of the wine.

Keywords

Citation

Lewis, G., Charters, S., Lecat, B., Zalan, T. and Wolf, M.M. (2019), "The impact of setting on wine tasting experiments: Do blind tastings reflect the real-life enjoyment of wine?", International Journal of Wine Business Research, Vol. 31 No. 4, pp. 578-590. https://doi.org/10.1108/IJWBR-07-2018-0033

Publisher

:

Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited


Blind tasting of great wines is always disappointing.Emile Peynaud, 1987

Introduction

In a letter to the editors of the Journal of Wine Economics, commenting on the work of Plassmann et al. (2008), Postman (2010) observed that the experience of wine tasting in social settings is much more nuanced than in experimental settings. Our wine-tasting experiments were motivated by this observation. The Plassmann et al. (2008) experiments were conducted in a clinical setting with wine delivered to participants via a computerised pump while they were in a functional MRI machine. A novel aspect of the Plassmann et al. experiments was that they manipulated prices to see the impact of price (an objective characteristic) on wine appreciation as measured by the participants’ responses and neural activity in the pleasure centres of the brain. The price manipulation involved telling participants they would be tasting five wines at different price points, when in fact only three wines were involved, two of them being presented twice (at different prices).

We replicated the structure of the Plassmann et al. price manipulation, but with more complete deception. Five wines were presented with the tasters, but again only three wines were actually involved, two of the wines being relabelled as different wines. We conducted two sets of experiments with knowledgeable wine drinkers, in 2014 and again in 2016, to explore the relationship between wine appreciation and willingness-to-pay (WTP), and the objective characteristics of the wine. The results from the 2014 study, conducted in a formal wine-tasting setting, showed that even with a group of experienced tasters, objective characteristics overwhelmed subjective appreciation of the wine. Ratings and WTP were driven by the appellation, labelling and price of the wines. None of the tasters detected the deception.

We replicated the experiment in 2016 with a very similar cohort of tasters, but this time in a social setting to test Postman’s proposition and with the expectation that the tasters would detect the deception. Contrary to our expectations, we find that the experiment in the social wine consumption setting of a restaurant meal enjoyed with colleagues gave essentially identical results to those in the experimental setting. In neither setting did the tasters detect the experimental deception.

Literature review

In 2008, a group of researchers at Stanford and Caltech (Plassmann et al., 2008) challenged the basic assumption in economics that a person’s experienced pleasantness (EP) from consuming a product depends on its intrinsic properties, such as taste. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans on a group of non-expert wine drinkers in a blind experiment involving price manipulation[1], the researchers established that changes in the price of wine influence neural computations associated with EP. An increase in the presented price of the wine led to increased activity in the part of the brain that experiences pleasure (the medial orbitofrontal cortex). The participants in the experiment reported that the wines identified as more expensive tasted better. The practical implication of the study is that marketing actions such as a change in product prices can affect neural representations of EP. Overall, this study demonstrates that price-based expectancies change not only reported measures of the consumption experience (e.g. self-reporting using a Likert-type scale) but also neural measures of consumption enjoyment (as measured by brain activity) (Plassmann and Weber, 2015).

In a letter to the editors of the Journal of Wine Economics, commenting on the work of Plassmann et al. (2008), Jeffrey Postman, a New York cardiologist, offered the following observation:

Some wines are much better than others, but the satisfaction one gets from them is so much more nuanced in a social setting than in a blind tasting, the latter is but a pale shadow of the former. The message that I take home from the Plassmann experiment is that blind tasting has little to do with the real life experience of tasting wine.

Our experimental study was motivated by this observation, in recognition that there may indeed be differences in how individuals appreciate wine depending on whether the wine tasting takes place in the setting of a formal tasting or a social setting where the wine is enjoyed (and discussed) in the company of friends.

Blind tastings[2] offer researchers and critics the opportunity to isolate the experience of the wine itself from psychological distractions related to its price, presentation or expert ratings. One of the best-known studies of blind tastings is that of Goldstein et al. (2008), which includes a comprehensive literature review of the relationship between price (an objective characteristic) and the subjective appreciation of wine. Goldstein’s study used a large sample of US blind tastings (over 6,000) with both expert and non-expert drinkers, where no characteristics of the wine (aside from the wine colour) were disclosed to the participants. The study focused on the relationship between price and subjective appreciation of wines when the price was unknown to the taster. Subjective appreciation was measured by overall ratings (on a scale of 1-4) assigned by individual participants to wines priced between $1.65 and $150 per bottle. The conclusion from the study was that when individuals are unaware of the price, they do not seem to derive more enjoyment from more expensive wine. The correlation between price and overall rating was small and negative, suggesting that individuals, on average, enjoy more expensive wines slightly less. For individuals with wine training, however, the researchers found indications of a slightly positive, or at any rate non-negative, relationship between price and enjoyment.

Goldstein et al.’s (2008) results are consistent with previous research by Weil (2001, 2005) who finds that even tasters who can distinguish between “good” and “bad” vintages are as likely to prefer the ‘worse’ one as the ‘better’ one. The reproducibility of results in blind tastings is also notoriously difficult: for example, a study by Hodgson (2008) established that the consistency of the judging at the California State Fair Wine Competition was poor, as the judges struggled to replicate their own results when presented with the same wine several times. Blind tasting of other products, including beer, turkey breast, water, cola, and coffee demonstrate that while individual consumers believe that they can taste the difference and can pick their preferred brand, whenever it is tested, they usually cannot (Spence, 2015). The recent experimental study of different grape combinations going into champagne (Harrar, Smith, Deroy and Spence, 2013), with prices ranging from £10 to £400, using hedonic ratings, showed that neither experts nor social drinkers attributed a higher price to the more expensive champagne, or enjoyed the more expensive wine more. And yet, according to Spence (2015), it is wrong to conclude – as Goldstein et al.’s (2008) study did – that just because individual tasters could not tell the difference between wines they would not be willing to pay higher prices, or that there is no “value” in buying more expensive wines. He suggests that

[b]lind wine tasting is a different experience from the experience of tasting wine sighted. The wine in your brain is a wholly different experience. The taste is not on your tongue but in your mind

Plassmann et al.’s (2008) brain scan experiment clearly demonstrates that expensive wines are worth more to the consumer, in as much as they do derive more enjoyment from them.

Unlike in a blind tasting, in some experimental settings all extrinsic clues (objective characteristics) are available to the wine drinker. Prior studies have shown that “reserve” vs regular bottling, region, Parker points, brand, tasting notes and vintage, among other objective characteristics, influence appreciation of wine (Spence, 2015). For example, Siegrist and Cousins (2009) presented the same wine (rated at 92 Parker Points) to three groups of wine tasters where one group was aware of the score before the tasting, the other group not aware of the score, and the third group was told that the score was 72. The group that knew the real score beforehand found the wine better than those who only discovered the rating after the tasting. In addition, the information influenced not only their appreciation of the wine, but also the subjects’ willingness to pay: the test group provided with the low Parker score was prepared to pay the least. Likewise, the absence of other objective characteristics reveals changes in consumer preferences; thus seeing a label after tasting may change the rank order of wines, and thus may offer more value than merely tasting (Lange et al., 2002; Vignes and Gergaud, 2003).

Wine appreciation in a formal, wine-tasting setting

This research is an extension of earlier work done in Melbourne (Lewis and Zalan, 2014) and in Dijon (Lewis et al., 2015) where we demonstrated that ‘objective characteristics’ (brand, label and price) overwhelm subjective appreciation of a wine. These experiments, following earlier work by Plassmann et al. (2008), involved deception – the tasters were presented with five wines, but in fact only three wines were involved, two of the wines being presented twice. The Melbourne study (Lewis and Zalan, 2014) demonstrated that for non-expert wine consumers a complex interaction exists between price and wine appreciation and willingness to pay (WTP). The key conclusions from the study are those for non-expert wine consumers: there is no relationship between intrinsic wine character and enjoyment (individuals rated the same wines – presented as different wines in the experiment – quite differently); price influences both appreciation of wine and WTP (self-reported measures), but the latter more strongly.

With the 2014 Dijon study the deception went to the extent of re-labelling two of the wines, with the tasters pouring the wine from the mis-labelled bottles (Appendix 1). Given the challenges of experimental designs in economics involving price manipulation (Cooper, 2014), the tasters were carefully debriefed at the end of the tastings about the nature of the experiment.

Research methods

The study was conducted at the Burgundy School of Wine and Spirits Business with two groups:

  1. English-language programme students in the Master of Wine Business and Master of Wine Management programs (n = 31); and

  2. students in the French-language programme CIVS (Master of Science Commerce International des Vins et Spiritueux), a leading post-graduate wine business program in France (n = 27).

The experiment was structured in two rounds:

Round 1: This round was conducted to put the tasters at ease and to make them less likely to suspect experimental deception in Round 2. In this Round (“Can you identify the Village Appellation?”) the tasters were each given a form to complete where they were asked to identify the Village appellation of three red Burgundies, and to indicate their Rating of the wines on a scale 1-6 (“I don’t like it at all” to “I like it very much”) and WTP.

Round 2: It was in Round 2 that experimental deception was involved (see Table I for the structure of the experiment). In Round 2 (“The Burgundy Appellation Challenge”) the tasters were presented with five red Burgundy wines from the same producer and vintage and were asked to assess on a form the classification of the wines.

The question posed to the tasters was whether some classifications were over/under-rated or over/under-priced – how did they value these wines based on quality, regardless of the classification? They were again asked to rate the wines (on a scale of 1-6) and indicate their WTP.

The tasters had similar WSET[3] levels with a minimum of Level 2 of the Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) and 32 of the 58 tasters undertaking Level 3. They had similar self-reported “knowledge of the appellations of Burgundy,” on average rating themselves 2.5 out of 4 (Appendix 2). They were quite successful with the Round 1 challenge of identifying the village appellation of the red Burgundies – not an easy task. A total of 24 tasters got three correct, 25 got one correct and only 9 got none correct.

In Round 2, which involved the experimental deception, the Presented Price, i.e. the price shown on the tasting form, influenced both appreciation (ratings) and WTP (Table II and Figure 1). The results were statistically significant (Table II). Willingness to pay and respondent age are ratio data variables. The wine rating scale is an interval data variable. The wine rating used a scale from 1 to 6. The rating scale of 1 reflected “I don’t like it at all.” The highest point on the scale, 6, reflected “I like it very much.” Statistical differences in the means for ratio data and interval data are evaluated using independent sample t-tests between independent groups. Paired sample t-tests are used to test statistical differences between the total sample of an individual group. Statistical differences in nominal and ordinal variables such as language group and WSET level are identified using a chi-square test. Pearson correlations are used to test significant relationships.

These findings were consistent with the earlier Australian study and, as with the Australian study, WTP was influenced more than appreciation by the objective characteristics of the wine.

The results from the 2014 experiments confirmed that, even with a group of experienced tasters (WSET 2/3), objective characteristics overwhelmed subjective assessment of the wine. Ratings and WTP were driven by the appellation, labelling and price of the wines. None of the tasters detected the deception and rated the same wines quite differently when presented as a different wine.

The same experiment repeated in a social wine consumption setting

The 2014 Dijon experiment was conducted in the typical, formal, wine-tasting setting that the students were familiar with because of their WSET training during the programs. Based on Postman’s challenge, we hypothesized that we would obtain different results if we replicated the experiments in a ‘social setting’ where the tasters had the opportunity to enjoy and discuss the wines over a meal with friends. To that end we repeated the 2014 experiment with a similar group of tasters – the class of 2016 instead of the 2014 cohort – using exactly the same experimental structure (Table III), but under the guise of a “French Food and Wine Experience” to celebrate the completion of their course. The experiment was conducted at a well-respected Dijon restaurant, Dame d’Aquitaine. The students tasted the wines while enjoying a meal and considering the question of how the wines matched with the food. They were encouraged to discuss the wines as they enjoyed them with the meal.

One luncheon was held for English-speaking students (n = 29) and one, a week later, with the French-speaking students (CIVS group, n = 23). The invitation indicated they would be exploring how wine and food went together. Students arrived at the restaurant and seated themselves at tables of six to eight. This allowed students to sit with their friends. At each table there was a member of the Burgundy School of Wine and Spirits faculty, ostensibly to act as “host”, but in fact to act as a participant-observer to see whether the deception was detected. The participant-observers were briefed prior to the experiment and were informed that some deception was involved, but they were not informed of the details, so they were effectively blind. To avoid participant-observers influencing the student responses to the wine, during the introduction to the luncheon, students were told that we had specifically asked the faculty members not to share their opinions about the wines. All the students had completed the course assessment and the lunch was a celebration of the completion of the course.

As in the 2014 study, the 2016 experiment was structured in two rounds:

Round 1: “Can you identify the White Wine Variety?” Three wines (Sancerre, Bourgogne and Alsace) were served with the entrée. The participants were asked to identify the region of the three white wines, indicate their Rating of the wines (scale 1-6) and their WTP. Data were collected on forms as with the 2014 experiment. This was an easier task than Round 1 of the 2014 experiment and the tasters performed very well with 47 getting all three correct and 5 getting one correct. This group had higher WSET qualifications with four having completed Level 3. Of the tasters, 35 were currently doing Level 3 of the WSET qualification.

As was the case with the 2014 experiments, this first round was conducted to familiarise the participants with the process and to make them less likely to suspect experimental deception in Round 2. This round was debriefed and a prize was awarded to the student whose WTP was closest to the retail prices of the wines.

Round 2: “The Burgundy Appellation Challenge”. As in the 2014 Dijon experiment, the participants were presented with five red Burgundy wines from the same producer and vintage (ranging from Grand Cru to Bourgogne Regional Appellation – see Table III for a structure of the tasting) and were asked to assess how the wines matched with the main course. As with the 2014 experiment the question was posed whether some classifications were over/under-rated or over/under-priced – how did they value these wines based on quality, regardless of the classification? They were again asked to rate the wines (on a scale of 1-6) and indicate their WTP. Contrary to the researchers’ expectations, the results were very similar to the 2014 experiments (Table IV and Figure 2). The results were statistically significant (Table IV).

We find that the ‘social wine consumption setting’ of a restaurant meal enjoyed with friends did nothing to reduce the impact of objective wine characteristics, which clearly overrode sensory appreciation. The tasters did not detect the deception, even though the participant-observers noted that the similarity of some of the wines was discussed around some of the tables. Indeed, we had a Diploma level WSET sommelier in the group (who was very accurate with the wines and prices in Round 1), who still did not detect the deception and whose ratings of the wines were clearly driven by the objective characteristics. When the deception was revealed during the debriefing he was very surprised.

Conclusions, implications, limitations and future research

This study essentially followed the price deception research (Plassmann et al., 2008; Lewis and Zalan, 2014) but applied the experimental design to a social wine consumption setting. Based on the results of our experiments we reach a number of conclusions.

As has been shown in much of the previous wine-tasting research (Ashenfelter et al., 1995; Byron and Ashenfelter, 1995; Jones and Storchmann, 2001; Schamel and Anderson, 2001) objective characteristics (appellation, label and price) overwhelm a tasters' subjective assessment of wine. Essentially visual cues override the ability to taste. Contrary to our expectations, the social wine consumption setting of a restaurant meal enjoyed with friends did nothing to reduce the overriding influence of objective characteristics. The tasters did not detect the deception, as we thought they might, even though the similarity of some of the wines were discussed around some of the tables. Ratings and WTP were driven by objective characteristics.

The evaluation of wine is a complex process involving both cognitive and sensory abilities (Ashton, 2017) and while the participants in our study were all WSET trained they (perhaps with the exception of one who had already achieved WSET diploma level) would not claim to be wine experts. It would be interesting to replicate the experiments with Burgundian sommeliers or winemakers, individuals more familiar with the nuances of these wines than wine business students, the purpose of whose training (and that of the WSET certification) is to have a broad knowledge of wines, rather than the trained palate we would associate with trained winemakers.

The experiments we conducted placed demands on both the cognitive and sensory abilities of the participants, compounded by the deception. Perhaps this sort of experimental design simply places too great a demand on a taster’s abilities. We taste wine with the brain not the mouth (just as we hear with the brain and not the ear, and see with the brain and not the eye). This is now well understood by modern neuroscience. As Goode states (Goode, 2016, p. 55):

If we are to understand wine tasting in an intelligent way, our starting point must be that we are not measuring devices. However much we train ourselves, we can never get away from the fact that our consciousness does not present us with an exact, true version of reality. What we are aware of has already been edited by our brains

The question remains as to whether our experimental design accurately tested Postman’s proposition – Was the social setting the same as that referred to by Postman, or was the fact that the tasting was held under the auspices of the School of Wines and Spirits and conducted by professors distorting the results? If it did not accurately test Postman’s proposition, the question then is, “How can the proposition be tested?” Perhaps a different experimental design not using deception would confirm Postman’s proposition. This offers possibilities for further research.

Figures

2014 WSET-style formal wine-tasting Setting (n = 58)

Figure 1.

2014 WSET-style formal wine-tasting Setting (n = 58)

2016 Social Setting (n = 52)

Figure 2.

2016 Social Setting (n = 52)

Structure of the experimental deception 2014 (round 2)

Wine Presented (i.e. as labelled and shown on tasting form) Price as presented Actual wine Actual price
1 Echezeaux Grand Cru €48 Echezeaux Grand Cru €48
2 Nuits-Saint-Georges 1er Cru Les Damodes €31 Regional Cru Bourgogne (Presented as wine 2 but actually Wine 4.) €8
3 Nuits-Saint-Georges 1er Cru les Boudot €31 Nuits-Saint-Georges 1er Cru les Boudot €31
4 Village Cru ☐20 – Vosne Romanée €20 Echezeaux Grand Cru
(Presented as wine 4 but actually Wine 1.)
€48
5 Regional Cru Bourgogne €8 Regional Cru Bourgogne €8

Summary result from the experimental deception 2014 (N = 58)

Wine 1 Wine 2 Wine 3 Wine 4 Wine 5
True price 48.00 8.00 31.00 48.00 8.00
Presented price 48.00 31.00 31.00 20.00 8.00
WTP 38.90 22.97 25.66 22.31 9.38
WTP paired-T 0.000a 0.000b
rating 4.81 3.62 4.03 4.47 3.02
Rate paired- T 0.047c 0.000d
Diff. WTP and true price 14.97 25.69
Notes:
a

Paired samples t-test between WTP for Wine 1 and Wine 4 significantly different;

b

Paired samples t-test between WTP for Wine 2 and Wine 5 significantly different;

c

Paired samples t-test between Rating for Wine 1 and Wine 4 significantly different;

d

Paired samples t-test between Rating for Wine 2 and Wine 5 significantly different

Structure of the experimental deception 2016 (round 2)

Wine Presented (i.e., as labelled and shown on tasting form) Price as presented Actual wine Actual price
1 Echezeaux Grand Cru €61 Echezeaux Grand Cru €61
2 Nuits-Saint-Georges 1er Cru Les Damodes €36 Regional Cru Bourgogne
(Presented as wine 2 but actually Wine 4.)
€9
3 Nuits-Saint-Georges 1er Cru les Boudot €36 Nuits-Saint-Georges 1er Cru les Boudot €36
4 Village Cru ☐20 – Vosne Romanée €28 Echezeaux Grand Cru
(Presented as wine 4 but actually Wine 1.)
€61
5 Regional Cru Bourgogne €9 Regional Cru Bourgogne €9

Summary result from the experimental deception 2016 (N = 52)

Wine 1 Wine 2 Wine 3 Wine 4 Wine 5
True price 61 9 36 61 9
Presented price 61 36 36 28 9
WTP 47.79 29.96 27.63 24.46 10.62
WTP paired-T       0.000a 0.000b
Rating 4.88 4.19 3.81 4.12 3.35
Rate paired- T       0.000c 0.000d
Diff. WTP and true price 20.96 36.54
Notes:
a

Paired samples t-test between WTP for Wine 1 and Wine 4 significantly different;

b

Paired samples t-test between WTP for Wine 2 and Wine 5 significantly different;

c

Paired samples t-test between Rating for Wine 1 and Wine 4 significantly different;

d

Paired samples t-test between Rating for Wine 2 and Wine 5 significantly different

Notes

1.

The subjects were told that they would be trying five different Cabernet Sauvignons, identified by price, to study the effect of sampling time on flavour. Only three wines were used, with two wines presented twice. The first wine was identified by its real bottle price of $5 and by a fictitious $45 price tag. The second wine was identified by its actual $90 price and a fictitious $10 tag. The third wine was marked with its correct $35 price.

2.

Tasting blind means tasting without seeing the label describing the wine. This common professional practice is different from the experimental procedure adopted in this study in which the labels were visible but did not necessarily reflect the wine in the bottle.

3.

WSET Level 2 trains people how to describe wine using WSET’s “systematic approach to tasting wine”. Upon completion of Level 3 a student is “able to assess wines accurately, and use your understanding to confidently explain wine style and quality”. Level 4 is the diploma level, described as the “stepping stone to the Master of Wine programme”.

Appendix 1. 2014 Experiment Round 2 Form

Figure A1

Appendix 2. 2014 Experiment Taster Data

Figure A2

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Further reading

Brochet, F. (2001). Chemical Object Representation in the Field of Consciousness. Application presented for the grand prix of the Académie Amorim following work carried out towards a doctorate from the Faculty of Oenology, General Oenology Laboratory, 351 Cours de la Libération, 33405 Talence Cadex.

Acknowledgements

The authors wish to thank the School of Wine and Spirits Business at Burgundy School of Business for supporting the research carried out here, and the help of the reviewers which undoubtedly improved the quality of this paper.

Corresponding author

Steve Charters can be contacted at: Steve.Charters@bsb-education.com