We probably didn’t need more proof that wine drinkers’ evaluation of wines is subjective and readily influenced by factors other than the actual characteristics of what comes out of the bottle. Now, though, we find that not only is the perception of the wine itself changed by what they think is the wine’s origin, but even that of the entire meal and the restaurant where it was served. A study by Cornell University demonstrated the power of a wine label:
Forty-one diners at the Spice Box restaurant in Urbana, Illinois were given a free glass of Cabernet Sauvignon to accompany a $24 prix-fixe French meal. Half the bottles claimed to be from Noah’s Winery in California. The labels on the other half claimed to be from Noah’s Winery in North Dakota. In both cases, the wine was an inexpensive Charles Shaw wine.
Those drinking what they thought was California wine, rated the wine and food as tasting better, and ate 11% more of their food. They were also more likely to make return reservations.
It comes down to expectations. If you think a wine will taste good, it will taste better than if you think it will taste bad. People didn’t believe North Dakota wine would taste good, so it had a double curse – it hurt both the wine and the entire meal. “Wine labels can throw both a halo or a shadow over the entire dining experience,” according to Cornell Professor Brian Wansink (Ph.D.), author of the book Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think. [From Fine as North Dakota wine.]
Another study tested 49 MBA students at a wine and cheese reception. The subjects given wine labeled from California rated the wine 85% higher and the cheese 50% higher.
It’s amusing that they chose Charles Shaw wines (aka Two Buck Chuck) for the test, as it is perhaps the cheapest wine in the U.S. On the other hand, perhaps that makes it perfect for a blind test. Does anyone think that Charles Shaw Chardonnay would have won the top prize at the California State Fair wine competition if the labels had been shown to the judges?
This simple study has a lot of implications. It shows the uphill battle that winemakers face if their label or origin isn’t perceived as prestigious or as connoting high quality. This is a particular impediment for boxed wines seeking to promote themselves as high quality products that are equivalent, if not better, than their bottled peers. The Cornell researchers didn’t test this, but we have little doubt that had some diners seen the wine poured from a bottle and others from a box, the split would have been at least as dramatic as the California/North Dakota divide.
This research also shows the importance of wines to a restaurant. Those restaurants that stick a small selection of mass-market wines on their menu as a seeming afterthought may be missing out - the study shows that the perception of the wine carries over to the entire meal and even impacts the probability of a diner returning to the restaurant.