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Jonah Lehrer on Wine: It’s All About the Story (and the Science)

by Tom McFadden

I was taking a stroll through my blogroll last week, when I landed on The Frontal Cortex by Jonah Lehrer. Jonah is one of my favorite science writers, and a regular contributor to the godly font of science journalism/art that is Radiolab. I felt a thrill when I saw the title of his article: “Should We Buy Expensive Wine?” Jonah likes writing about wine too!  Cool!

But joy turned to horror when I realized that he had written the exact blog post that I was hoping to write, only with far greater depth and eloquence. The topic: the pleasure of wine is all in our heads. Luckily he finessed the topic into a ringing (albeit indirect) endorsement of this blog. So
give it a read.

His first point is to establish “a robust psychological fact”: average wine drinkers
who are unaware of a wine’s cost don’t derive more enjoyment from more expensive wine. But when they think a wine costs more (even if they're being lied to by cheeky scientists) they report more enjoyment.

So… bummer. A big price tag on a wine bottle gives our non-expert brains an artificial boost of excitement. We’re not paying for better “objective taste”, but for the joy of the price itself. Kind of makes you feel queasy inside.

However, these studies show that our experience of wine is about so much more than the way the molecules in the bottle hit your nose and tongue. The pleasure of wine is as much about the rest of our brain – the part that knows the history, the science, and the story of those molecules.  And maybe that’s a good thing.

In Jonah’s own words:

Our [stories] often matter more than the grapes. The question is what those stories are. If the only story we can tell about wine is its price, then our pleasure will always linked to cost... A much better (and more cost-effective) idea is to find some other narrative, to focus on aspects of wine that don’t require a big expense account. Knowledge is free.

So for all of those wishing to heed Jonah’s advice and make your wine drinking as pleasurable as possible… stay tuned. Chronicling the science behind the wine will be our pleasure.

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