Rudy Kurniawan this week became the first person to go to jail for selling fake wine. In addition to his ten year sentence he was ordered to pay US$20m, plus millions in restitution to victims, including at least one billionaire and a restaurateur, who were conned into buying over US$20m worth of mixtures of older and newer wines that had been prepared in Kurniawan’s kitchen.
Vintage wine is ripe for such nefarious practice. Any psychologist could tell you that the more ambiguous the stimulus, the more likely it is that people’s judgements can be biased: if there are fewer objective cues concerning what is “right” or “correct” so one has to resort to basing one’s views on other less reliable information, and so it is unsurprising that something so difficult to evaluate objectively as wine should allow con-men to fool consumers.
The extent to which judgements of wine can be biased is illustrated well by research I published just a couple of years ago showing that the taste could be influenced even by background music.
I gave people a glass of wine and asked them to drink it while either no sound played in the background or they instead heard one of four types of music: some of the music was chosen because I thought it sounded “refreshing” (Just Can’t Get Enough by Nouvelle Vague), some of it “heavy” (Carmina Burana), some of it “subtle” (Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers), and some of it “mellow” (Slow Breakdown by Michael Brook).
Drinkers were then asked to rate the taste of the wine according to these same four dimensions. Ratings of the wine reflected the characteristics of the music that played in the background. For example, red wine was rated as 60% more “heavy” when people heard heavy music rather than no music; and as 41% more subtle when people heard subtle music rather than no music.
So it is easy to see how vintage wine can be the subject of fraud. However, the effects of sound on taste are not just limited to wine or even just to music.
More recently I re-ran the wine experiment, this time using orange juice. If we played The Beach Boys from the stall offering the juice so customers thought it came from California, whereas if we played Chinese music they thought the juice came from China. And these effects are not unique to music. If instead we played the sound of a babbling brook, customers regarded our juice as fresher and thought that orange juice could help prevent a wider range of medical conditions compared to when we played the sound of traffic.
And these kind of effects are not unique just to my own research. Others have found that potato chips are rated as fresher when the sound made biting into them is louder; oysters taste more pleasant when eating them is accompanied by a “sounds of the sea” soundtrack rather than the sound of farmyard chickens; and people tend to implicitly associate sour foods such as vinegar and lemon juice with high-pitched sounds and bitter-tasting foods such as coffee and chocolate with low-pitched sounds.
So there are strong psychological reasons why we should take pity on the billionaires and restaurateurs conned by Mr Kurniawan: by tricking them into buying fake wine, he demonstrated that the taste buds of these wealthy connoisseurs are no more reliable than are our own.