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The Pepsi challenge: what it tells us about wine tasting

Read Montague, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine in Texas, devised a fascinating experiment that has implications for wine tasting. It stemmed from a series of TV commercials in the 1970s and 80s where individuals were subjected to the ‘Pepsi challenge’. In this test Pepsi was pitted against Coke blind, with subjects not knowing which was which. They invariably preferred the taste of Pepsi, but this wasn’t reflected in their buying decisions. Montague wanted to know why.

So he re-enacted the Pepsi challenge with volunteers. The difference was that this time their brain activity was being scanned by an MRI machine. On average, Pepsi produced a stronger response in the ventral putamen, a region thought to process reward. In people who preferred Pepsi, the putamen was five times as active when they drunk Pepsi than it was in Coke-preferring subjects drinking Coke.

In a clever twist, Montague repeated the experiments, this time telling subjects what they were drinking. Remarkably, most of them now preferred Coke. The brain activity also changed, with activity in the medial prefrontal cortex, a region that shapes high-level cognitive powers. The subjects were allowing what they knew about Coke – its brand image – to shape their preferences. Remarkable.

The implications for winetasting are clear. When we don’t taste blind, our preferences are liable to be shaped by pre-existing information we have about the wine. “The results (even just the behavioral results) would speak directly to wine tasting as well”, Montague told wineanorak.com, ‘although the presence of alcohol might change things in interesting ways.’

Try as hard as we might to be objective, this isn’t possible. What we know about wine will mould how we perceive the wine, and will even shape how much we enjoy a particular bottle. This brings another fascinating level of complexity to wine tasting.

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