For those of us who can’t tell a Syrah from a Sauvignon Blanc, selecting wine at a fancy restaurant can be crazy stressful, especially when there are guests to impress. When the goal is to give the impression that one is neither an amateur nor a tightwad, a common strategy is to scan the wine list by price, avoiding the dirt-cheap bottles and going for a slightly more expensive pick.

The assumption, of course, is that more expensive wine must be better wine.

The scientists behind a recent paper in Scientific Reports would probably agree with this assumption, but not because they’re wine snobs. In their study, they showed that people who think their wine is expensive tend to rate it as better wine, even if it’s actually just a middle-of-the-road bottle.

brain scans wine
Specific parts of the brain became active when participants sampled "expensive" wine.

To study the effect of the price of wine on its perceived flavor, the INSEAD Business School and Bonn University researchers invited 15 men and 15 women to a wine tasting event — which took place inside a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine. These massive machines take a snapshot of blood flow in the brain over time, letting scientists see which parts of the brain become active in response to certain stimuli.

Lying on their backs in the MRI machine, the wine tasters waited for a tube to squirt a milliliter-sized sample of wine into their mouths. But before each sample was dispensed, the participants were shown the price of the wine they were about to taste. While they were led to believe they’d be tasting different wines with different price points, they were really just tasting various “average to good quality” red wines, and the “prices” they were shown were randomly chosen numbers — either 3, 6 or 18 euros.

After tasting, they rated the flavor of the wine on a nine-point scale. The results were just as the researchers had predicted.

A Whole Lotta Two Buck Chuck
Trader Joe's famous "two buck chuck" would likely taste better if it was marketed as "twenty buck chuck."

“As expected, the subjects stated that the wine with the higher price tasted better than an apparently cheaper one,” said INSEAD Professor Hilke Plassmann in a statement. The MRI scans corroborated this: When the wine tasters tried the “expensive” — and thus better-tasting — samples, the part of the brain linked to the brain’s reward and motivation system (the ventral striatum) was activated more significantly. The researchers also noticed increased activity in the medial pre-frontal cortex, which they think represents the brain weighing the sample’s taste versus its price.

“The reward and motivation system is activated more significantly with higher prices and apparently increases the taste experience in this way,” said Bernd Weber, one of the study’s authors.

This suggests that wine posers in fancy restaurants are on the right track by choosing their wine by price — but if they really want to impress, they might want to show their guests just how expensive their wine is.

But what’s really interesting, the researchers point out, is that the perception of the wine didn’t seem to hinge on whether participants had to pay for it or not, as they observed in a variation of the experiment where the samples were either “free” or paid for. Personal experience may suggest that it’s easier to judge a wine more harshly if you’ve paid for it (“If I’m spending 18 euros on a bottle, it better taste like ‘Versace on the Floor’ sounds!”), but the data suggests it doesn’t really matter: “expensive” wine tastes better even when it’s free.

Of course, the “marketing placebo effect” isn’t foolproof, say the researchers, so don’t think you can scam your dinner guests with just any old swill. A truly terrible 2-euro bottle of wine will never taste like a 100-euro bottle, no matter how impressionable the taster.