On Vines and Minds is an excellent summary of the history and psychology of wine (pdf/html).

Some topics of note:

  • Music radically influences our purchasing habits: classical music increases the amount we’re willing to spend while characteristically French music sways us toward wine from that region (similarly for German music/wine).
  • Colour affects the brain’s response to odours; as demonstrated when an odourless red die was mixed with white wine, fooling ‘Masters of Wine‘ into explaining its ‘nose’ using terms reserved for red wines.
  • Describing a wine has a drastic effect on how we later perceive that same wine, as shown when non-experts matched experts in identifying wines during blind taste tests… unless they had to describe the wine between tasting sessions.
  • Perceived price influences the amount of pleasure we derive from wine: fMRI scans have shown more ‘real’ physiological pleasure when tasting a wine labelled as more expensive compared to others at lower prices (even though it was the same wine throughout the study).

Another round-up of wine psychology—albeit a slightly less comprehensive one—comes from Freakonomics, where they point out that there is a zero (or even slightly negative) correlation between the perceived quality of a wine and its price when non-experts undergo blind taste tests. The article also notes:

  • This correlation is even stronger with champagne: a study showed a $12 sparkling wine from Washington was preferred nearly two to one to $150 Dom Perignon when the labels were removed.
  • People dislike a beverage if it contains a typically offensive flavouring, even though it actually improves the flavour: adding a small amount of balsamic vinegar to beer will slightly improve its flavour, but tell people it’s added before a tasting and few will prefer it to an untainted version; inform them after a tasting and they’re indifferent; don’t inform them at all and the majority prefer the tainted beer.
  • Hardy Rodenstock, one of the most infamous wine counterfeiters, fooled experts all around the world into purchasing fake 18th-century wine he claimed Thomas Jefferson once owned. His ruse was eventually uncovered by a private investigation financed by millionaire Bill Cock (who Rodenstock duped), using a horde of former FBI and MI5 agents. Interestingly, Rodenstock managed to dupe experts by “getting [them] shitfaced” (to quote the wine critic Robert Parker) prior to tasting the fake wine. (The story of the fraud is a lengthy—but fascinating—read.)

Finally, these two complementary studies could make for an interesting business model (think: wine bar serving cheap yet expensive looking wine, loud music, food available):

In conclusion you could say that this quote encapsulates everything you need to know about wine:

Wine does not live in a vacuum and it is sampled and savoured in the context of our life experiences.

P.S. Don’t forget the second cheapest wine syndrome.