The “quality” of heavy bottles and cross-modal sensory perception (Social construction of wine appreciation at ICCWS, part I)

When Dr. Charles Spence stood up to speak at the International Cool Climate Wine Symposium in Brighton a week ago, I was looking forward to the reaction of the audience as much as to his presentation. Spence is a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford, and I’ve read some of his published research. He documents examples of integrative multisensory experiences – connections amongst taste, smell, sight, sound, and touch – and experiments with ways to manipulate experiences in one sensory mode by messing about with what’s happening in our other sensory channels. The data he generates are important for marketers, who would obviously love to sell more X with an inexpensive trick like changing the music or the lighting or the colors surrounding a consumption experience.

Much of Spence’s research has involved wine quality, and most people in the wine industry are interested in marketing (not all winemakers are trying to sell more wine or sell the wine they have at higher prices, but many are); ergo, his conclusions might be useful for helping industry folk generate new marketing ideas, like harmonious wine and music pairings to sell new and different wine experiences that increase perceptions of wine quality. But more than that, crossmodal sensory perception is fun to think about, to play with the idea that how “crunchy” a chip is depends on the sound it makes and not just the physical way it feels in your mouth, or that music can “make” a wine more or less astringent. “Taste” or “smell” isn’t a fixed property of food or drink, and more environmental variables contribute to how we experience taste and smell than we usually consider. That’s good food for thinking about how attending to all of our senses in an experience can make for better living, too.

On the one hand, Spence’s observations are pretty darn mundane. Tasting with unpleasant, discordant music makes wine taste more sharp and angular. Duh? On the other, Spence’s work is unusual in this still-all-too-reductionist world, and he’s an eminent Oxford professor, and his conclusions are useful for the money-making types. So as a science communicator, I wondered, were session attendees going to be delighted? Bored? Surprised? I need to consider that a goodly proportion of ICCWS attendees were British, and as a culture the Brits aren’t exactly known for being expressive in public. But there was one moment at which I absolutely expected to hear a murmur in the crowd and didn’t.

Spence discussed bottle weight as an example of how customer perceptions of wine quality are affected by parameters that have nothing to do with the composition of the wine itself. This is a well-known phenomenon. As bottles get heavier, consumers think wine costs more. That association has been widely exploited by wine companies willing to spend more on thicker glass and shipping costs if doing so means selling the bottle in a slightly higher price bracket, justified by that sense of “quality” the shopper feels when she hefts the bottle. But that trend toward barbell bottles has shifted in the past decade, and the reasons why point to the most interesting question I think Spence isn’t asking.

Heavy glass isn’t sustainable. Even if 100% of the glass itself is recycled (which it isn’t*), trucking all of that dead weight to and fro weighs heavy on a wine’s carbon footprint. Lighter bottles sporting environmentally conscious messages are voguish. And in this well-educated wine audience, if anyone was surprised that Spence didn’t mention the sustainability side of the bottle weight coin, they didn’t show it.

The low-carbon message is far from universally successful at the mainstream level. But for argument’s sake let’s say that it becomes so. Will consumers shift to perceive heavier bottles as lower quality? Or do we always associate “heavy” with “better,” “better value,” or “better quality” because “heavy” means “more?” To ask the question more broadly, and more bluntly, how much of the crossmodal sensory effects Spence observes are socially conditioned? How much have to do with what we might call universal associations or liking and disliking?

It’s not a fair question because nature and nurture are never binary opposites. What is “innate” to human nature anyway? So let me ask a different question: how plastic are the effects Spence observes? Do all people everywhere perceive the same kind of music as “sweet?” To what extent does the effect of “sweet music” on making wine taste sweeter rely on memory, on previous experience, and to what extent on some other kind of pathway? Short of Brave New World-style conditioning – giving babies electric shocks when they wriggle toward a wine bottle while listening to Bach, and giving them hugs when they approach the wine bottle to Metallica – (how easily) could consumers be conditioned to think lighter bottles are higher quality?

Those questions** are at least in theory answerable by experimenting with many diverse groups of people, and by using real-time imaging techniques (fMRI) to observe what parts of the brain are active during the tasting/listening experience and how brain activity varies among individual taster/listeners. Those experiments can be tricky and expensive, but I hope that someone gets around to doing them. It’s not just a matter of curiosity (though that’s a fine motivation for research), or improving marketing, but about living better. Building sustainable ways of living will work best when we work with and not against our senses…whatever that turns out to mean.

*Statistics from the American Glass Packaging Institute say that only about a third of glass bottles are recycled, and that glass bottles have dropped in weight by 40% over the past thirty years.

**I didn’t have a chance to ask this sort of question at the session, but Spence’s work in any case seems far more interested in the business marketing-useful what than the how or the why. I respect and appreciate Spence’s work, but his toolkits are from business and psychology, and from a science and technology perspective can be pretty socioculturally uncritical (Spence uses the wine terminology “masculine” and “feminine” without discussion, for obvious example).

4 thoughts on “The “quality” of heavy bottles and cross-modal sensory perception (Social construction of wine appreciation at ICCWS, part I)

  1. It’s interesting that your experience in NZ clearly puts sustainability at the front, whereas we’re too blase about such things in the UK by far.

    Also that you found much of Spence’s observations mundane; have often thought so too.

    But then again, he’s selling something too; himself and the need to keep a university happy by promoting himself around outside its walls. He’s found fertile hunting ground with wine it seems.

    • Interesting that you associate my foregrounding sustainability with being in NZ. I never would have. Sustainability seems just as prominent in the US among industry folk, and probably more prominent among consumers. You think that it’s less of a concern generally in the UK? Thanks for raising the question.

  2. I think that a “heavy” bottle also imparts the notion of preciousness to the wine. It is something to treasure and should be protected with a heavy container – something substantial.

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