Everyone acknowledges that there is a lot of subjectivity in wine tasting, but it turns out that more expensive wine really DOES taste better, even when it's the same stuff in the cheaper bottle. Neuromarketing notes in Why Expensive Wine Tastes Better that neuroscientists at Stanford and Caltech found that wine that the drinker thought cost more activated the brain's pleasure center to a higher degree than the exact same wine with a cheaper price. In short, the identical wine tasted better with a higher price tag. I suppose that's one reason why Charles Shaw wines (aka Two Buck Chuck) can win a blind tasting competition, but rarely scores rave reviews in wine publications.
The important aspect of these findings is that people aren’t rationalizing on a survey, i.e., reporting that a wine tastes better because they know it’s a lot more expensive. Rather, they are actually experiencing a tastier wine.
This is indeed the key point. It's easy to imagine a wine novice being given a glass of wine and told it was one of California's finest wines, costing $100 a bottle, and being too intimidated to say, "Gee, this tastes about like the $5 Cab I bought at the supermarket..." - even if that's what he's thinking. To the contrary, the researchers found that, according to the brain scans, the expensive wine really DID taste better to the subjects.
In an earlier post, Wine Label Makes Food Taste Better, we talked about how a wine's apparent origin (California vs. North Dakota) shaped diners feelings not just about the wine itself, but about the entire dining experience.
I'm sure we'll see more research in the future that demonstrates the subjectivity of wine tasting and how the wine drinker's actual experience is shaped by preconceived notions about the wine. While very experienced wine tasters may well be more objective, the vast majority of wine drinkers do not have the experience and skill to dispassionately analyze the wines they sample.
Obviously, price isn't the only factor that influences the perceived taste. The perceived origin of the wine is clearly important, as shown by the California vs. North Dakota study. Presumably, other label characteristics will prove to be important too - the perceived prestige of the winery, past experience with a brand or varietal, third party ratings, etc.
This is fascinating research that shows why wine is such an interesting, and occasionally controversial, topic.