2000s Archive

Shattered Myths

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But the second part of the University of Bordeaux study is in some ways even more embarrassing. Brochet and his team sat 63 professors and students in a room, separated by dividers so they couldn’t see each other but they could see the test presenter, who stood at the front. First, the presenter asked them to taste and rate a somewhat infamous mass-market wine that sells for about a euro a bottle. As the subjects swirled and sipped, the presenter did, too, and then he spat into his bucket like a true professional. Moldy, the tasters wrote. Rot. Flat. Hard. Acidic.

Then the presenter asked them to sample a famous wine that sells for 100 euros a bottle. As everybody took their first sip, he cheated a bit—and swallowed. This wine went over big: Fruity, the subjects wrote. Woody. Well balanced.

You’ve probably already guessed—the researchers duped them. The subjects had been drinking the exact same wine, which actually sells for about six euros a bottle.

“Come on,” I ask Brochet, during a lengthy phone call. “Are you saying that most of us can’t tell the difference between a Chardonnay and a Zinfandel? We can’t tell good wine from bad?”

“No, no, no,” he says. “I’m not saying that. I’m saying that expectations have an enormous impact. People can, in fact, tell the difference between wines. But their expectations—based on the label, or whether you tell them it’s expensive, or good, or based on what kind of wine you tell them it is, the color—all these factors can be much more powerful in determining how you taste a wine than the actual physical qualities of the wine itself.”

And now we’re getting to the moral of the story.

Look, Brochet says, he’s never studied wineglasses himself, so he can’t prove what he’s about to say. But the research that he and others have done on the science of expectation convinces him that they’ve found the key: Riedel and other high-end glasses can make wine taste better. Because they’re pretty. Because they’re delicate. Because they’re expensive. Because you expect them to make the wine taste better.

And that, says Brochet, can make all the difference.

You can’t always believe what you read in the papers

Georg Riedel finally seemed to be vindicated when media around the world trumpeted the results of a study conducted at the University of Tennessee. “A U.S. study found that the shape of a glass can have a big influence on chemicals in wine,” the London-based Daily Telegraph glowed, in August 2002. “Wine really does taste different depending on the kind of glass it is drunk from, according to research.”

“Scientists prove the right glass matters,” declared Decanter magazine. “It’s official—wine really does taste better out of the right glass.” The findings were cited by everyone from New Scientist magazine to American radio legend Paul Harvey. Riedel himself must have been relieved. “It is great,” he told a reporter, “that independent scientific research supports our philosophy.”

But when I tracked down the researcher who did the study, she groaned. Then she started laughing. “I can’t believe how reporters ran away with this thing,” says Kari Russell. “That’s because so many people want to believe” that glasses make a difference. First of all, Russell is bemused that nobody seemed to realize that she wasn’t a renowned scientist, but a mere college senior (she’s now working on a Ph.D.). And she didn’t do some big, rigorous study: She rounded up just a dozen subjects.

And what she finds even more bizarre, she says, is that Riedel wouldn’t have liked her findings if anybody had reported them correctly, because they don’t support his claims at all. “Glass shape does not affect the perceptions of the average consumer,” Russell told me. “That’s my conclusion.” To put it bluntly, her subjects couldn’t tell the difference between Merlot in Champagne, red-wine, or Martini glasses.

But Russell says what galls her most is that not a single newspaper reporter who wrote about the study ever bothered to call and ask her about it. She says she figures that they wrote their articles based on another article by a reporter who heard Russell speak about her senior thesis at a meeting—and unfortunately, that reporter ignored her conclusion. Russell told me that she even called some of the newspapers to ask them to correct their articles. Nobody called her back.

Russell left me with an urgent plea: “Please don’t say the name of the wineglass company,” she says. “I don’t want to make them mad. I might need to ask them for a job someday.”

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