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Behavioral Economics

Science and Wine Collecting: Do They Mix?

Science has one opinion; high-end collectors have another.

Key points

  • Among recent discoveries on wine appreciation is that vision is primary to our judgement of what we drink.
  • We know that some people are gifted in their bility to appreciate wine; the rest of us can simply enjoy it.
  • Even established authorities on wine were not able to distinguish wine properties in a blind tasting.

Essentialism — an authentic essence that is not directly observed — has been scientifically demonstrated with the help of wine in several ways. One was measuring brain function related to what we are told. When research subjects were placed in a functional magnetic imaging scanner and given the same wine to taste, their brain response depended on the story related to them about the wine. When they were told the wine was expensive, the anterior part of their brain, the orbitofrontal cortex, was activated. This region is known to encode for pleasurable experiences during experiential tasks. On the other hand, there was no reaction in those subjects who were informed that they were drinking cheap wine. This experiment suggests that what we believe about the wine we are drinking strongly influences how much we enjoy it.

Today, we know things are more complicated. Not only is what we are told about the wine we are drinking important, but its presentation makes a difference in our perception of it. For example, the shape of the bottle and particulars of the label, plus the glass from which we drink the wine, affect us. Moreover, the music playing in the background can influence our experience of the wine and the ambient light, which impacts the inherent color of the wine. This added information is a lot to take in. To help understand it, some specific studies related to these areas are briefly described below:

Brain Response: Visual Compared to Olfactory Stimulation

According to Yarkoni et al. (2011), the average functional brain activation to visual stimulation using functional magnetic resonance imaging is 16%. For olfactory, brain activation is 1%. Thus, our vision is front and center, relating to our judgment of what we drink. Part of this involuntary human visual bias can be overcome when the tester closes her/his eyes during the wine tasting. Thus, the heavy influence of vision is diminished or obliterated.

Blind Tastings: Can Experts Outperform Novices?

Spence (2020), a primary author in this area, has reviewed a number of papers regarding the skill of wine experts during wine tastings. He concludes that authorities on wine could not distinguish wine properties in a blind tasting, much less amateurs. Rather, the difference that was observed between novices and experts was that the latter were able to give identifications and classifications to wine aromas readily. This makes them appear smart, but in reality, their nose was no better than neophytes. They could not distinguish one wine from another any better than the next person. In summary, the author wrote, “Studies of perceptual learning in the world of wine suggest that the majority of the learning tends to be more conceptual/cognitive than specifically in terms of changes to sensory thresholds. In part, the reason for this may once again relate to the complexity of the underlying stimulus.”

Wine: A Bargain at Any Price?

Since wine can be consumed, it is not taxable when sold by a collector. Other collectors are not in such a choice position. For example, those who buy high-end art end up with a tax bill when they sell at a profit, generally 28% of the gain. In addition, it may be subject to a further 3.8% tax if the seller’s adjusted gross income is sufficiently high. Since the current tax on the sale of assets, in general, is 20% or less, there is a relative tax penalty for owning art compared to other assets and, especially, wine (no tax at all). This makes it seem like a bargain, not necessarily on the front end but on the back end, when taxes would normally be paid on other collectibles. Thus, money is saved when buying and selling wine which the collector can use to buy yet more wine or something else altogether. Thus, the buyer conserves resources for herself or himself. In some obtuse way, a bargain has been acquired (Mueller, 2019).


How we perceive wine is obviously multi-factorial. While earlier research focused on what the taster was told and how it affected her/his appreciation, new research is more extensive, including a number of psychological influences on wine shoppers and interpretations of blind tastings. Even background music and ambient lighting can have an effect on the purchaser.

On the other hand, we know that the ability to taste, identify, and critique wine is not shared equally by every person. Indeed, there are some who are gifted in this area. Many of us, however, at least based on the research I've presented, are not as able as we would like to be. Nevertheless, we can still enjoy wine.


Yarkoni, T., Poldrack, R., Nichols, T. et al. Large-scale automated synthesis of human functional neuroimaging data, 2011. Nat Methods 8, 665–670 (2011).

Spence, C. “Wine psychology: basic & applied,” 2020. Cogn. Research 5, 22

Mueller, S.M., 2019, “Bargains.” In Inside the Head of a Collector: Neuropsychological Forces at Play, pages 125-127, Lucia Marquand.

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