Hey Wineries: the Story Changes the Flavor

Modern science is uncovering surprising truths about how we taste wine — and how much of our brain is wrapped up in it.

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This article is a chapter from Transom's E-Book 5 Things We Learned Building Brands and Websites for Wineries (PDF).

In 2008, Stanford University conducted a study where researchers observed participants as they drank wine while inside a brain-scanning MRI machine.

When participants were told they were drinking a cheap wine, the pleasure centers of their brains remained quiet. When told that a wine was expensive, the pleasure receptors lit up like a Christmas tree. The trick? Both were the same wine.

You probably guessed the twist before the end, but this study uncovers a powerful truth. The expectation we have of a wine literally changes if and how we enjoy it. All the work that is put into a bottle of wine — the decisions made in the vineyard, the selection of the barrels, the blending, the bottles — can be for naught if the drinker doesn’t have a positive expectation to accompany their first sip. Many wineries would excitedly spend $30K on a new nitrogen generator but would balk at a professional photographer’s $5K price tag — yet each carries the same potential to shape the drinker’s enjoyment.

The expectation we have of a wine can literally change if and how we enjoy it. And all the work that is put into a bottle of wine can be for naught if the drinker doesn’t have a positive expectation to accompany their first sip.

We Taste with Our Eyes, Too

A similar study at Cornell had participants wear VR goggles while they ate identical pieces of blue cheese. Participants reported distinctly more pungent aromas and flavors while seated in a virtual cow barn as they did on a virtual park bench. As with the Stanford study, we find that flavor exists not on the tongue, but deep in our brains, as a sum product of our bodily senses, emotions, and memories.

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Every part of a person’s experience with a wine — the story told on the website, the decor of the tasting room, the texture of the labels — influences their enjoyment of that wine. Wineries that understand this make sure that every aspect of the experience reinforces the story they want to convey — so that all their hard work has an opportunity to truly sing.

Some Questions:

  1. What do you think most drinkers expect from your wine when they take their first sip? How do they arrive at that expectation?
  2. What is one thing you can do right now to better craft expectation and set your wine up for success?
  3. How are you distributing your resources (time, materials, money) to best improve the experience of your wine?

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