Saturday, August 11, 2007

In vino veritas?

Fine wineHow fine is that wine? Perhaps it's all in your mind.

Consider this experiment in consumer perception: Forty-one diners at the same restaurant were given a free glass of cabernet sauvignon to accompany a $24 prix-fixe French meal. Half the bottles purported to come from Noah's Winery in California. The other half claimed to be from Noah's Winery in North Dakota. The same wine, an inexpensive Charles Shaw vintage, was in all the bottles.

Those who thought they weree drinking California wine rated the wine and food better. They ate 11 percent more of their food. They were more likely to make return reservations.

Repeating the experiment with 49 MBA students at a wine and cheese reception yielded similar results. Those given wine labeled from California rated the wine 85 percent higher and the cheese 50 percent higher.

The point is this: Diners and nibblers alike expected North Dakota wine to taste bad, and so it did. Worse, the entire culinary experience hinged on their perception of subtle clues indicating the wine's quality (or lack thereof): the place of origin, the aesthetic appeal of the label, and so forth. Consumer perceptions of wine can cast a halo or a shadow on an entire meal.

Brian WansinkThese insights come from Brian Wansink, a Cornell professor and director of that university's Food and Brand Laboratory. Much of our relationship with food, so it seems, is a trick of the mind.

Professor Wansink's research sheds light on what Morgan Holcomb has called the obesity/hunger paradox. In Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, Professor Wansink explains how the human mind, adapted to making judgments on minute and subtle hints, leads the body to consume more than it needs. In plotting daily diets as in evaluating restaurant meals, we are not so much what we eat. We eat according to what we think we are.

Bon appetit!