If the wine is hard to pronounce, is it worth more?

The Globe and Mail

What value do you place on a winery’s name? How about two bucks?

In a recent psychological study, researchers at Brock University in Niagara found that people were willing to pay an average of $2 more for a wine based purely on the sound of its name. Specifically, they tended to favour a tongue-twisting brand versus one they could more easily pronounce. The findings suggest that unfamiliar or exotic sounds imply scarcity, and that’s an attribute frequently associated with quality in the highly impressionable minds of wine shoppers.

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“Names that seem unique or harder to understand or wrap your mind around are that way because they’re rare,” said Antonia Mantonakis, the Brock associate professor of marketing who led the study. “Things that are rare are more valuable.”

The research was based on a sort of wine analogue to the placebo effect, in which patients are deceptively treated with a dummy drug to test mind over matter. In this case, three groups of 41 to 48 participants each were dispensed the same wine, a Niagara chardonnay produced at Brock University’s oenology institute. But they were told different tales.

One group was led to believe that the white had been produced by a fictional winery named Titakis. Though Greek-sounding, it was deemed through linguistic testing to be easy to pronounce by English speakers. They were shown the wine’s name on paper, rather than a fancy label. Another group was told that it came from the harder-to-pronounce Tselepou winery. And a control group was given no name but asked to judge the sample on its own merits. This provided an objective gauge of the wine’s perceived quality.

After the participants tasted the wine, they were asked three questions: How much do you like the wine? How keen would you be to buy it? How much would you be willing to pay? The first two were rated on a scale of one to seven.

The winner, with a half-point advantage for perceived quality and purchase intent, was Tselepou. The convoluted name also was valued at $16, on average, while Titakis sounded like a good buy at $14. The control group was less smitten with its no-name sample, with participants generally falling in the $12-to-$13 range.

Those spreads might not seem like much, but Dr. Mantonakis says they’re statistically significant, not least regarding price. “In the marketplace, a $2 difference is a substantial, meaningful difference,” she said. It’s a Grand Canyon span for many consumers, especially in the price-sensitive under-$20 universe.

The choice of Greek-sounding names was essentially arbitrary. Dr. Mantonakis and student researcher Bryan Galiffi tested several other pairs for “linguistic fluency,” including German examples, but eventually ruled them out for other factors. In at least one case, a name was found to be too similar to an actual winery.

Of course, this is just one test, with one specific set of names. Whether we’d see the same results with other name pairs is an open question. Also, consumer choices are based not only on estate names but also on grape varieties and regional designations, such as Burgundy and “grand crus,” which come with their own cachet and may undermine the influence of the mere winery name. In fact, that’s the subject of follow-up studies on which Dr. Mantonakis is already working.

The study’s findings offer up a jab at wine snobs’ expense. The tasters, all English speakers drawn from a broad base of Niagara residents, were tested for their wine knowledge, as well. Some knew little, unable to cite basic traits associate with popular grape varieties, while others, including some from the wine industry, knew lots. Care to guess which were disposed to paying more for the tongue-twisting Tselepou? Drum roll, please: the wine geeks.

“You’d think they’d rely less on external factors and more on the taste,” Dr. Mantonakis said. “You’d think they’d have the knowledge to be able to judge based on taste rather than the sound of the winery name.”

I’m not too surprised, frankly. Wine aficionados often cut plenty of slack to inferior wines simply because they are rare, just as they often harbour disdain for fine stuff that is popular or produced in huge quantity. Smaller is better, the wine-nerd saying goes, and big is bad. Yet blind tastings often prove instinctive preferences to be misplaced.

Meanwhile, neophytes often will literally overlook the label and confidently judge with their own taste buds, unfazed by price or reputation (though often a cute critter on the label might seal the deal at the cash register, no question).

Curiously, Dr. Mantonakis says her results contrast with parallel studies on other commodities. In one fascinating example, two Princeton University psychologists, Adam Alter and Danny Oppenheimer, found that companies with easy-to-say stock-ticker symbols (those three- or four-letter abbreviations that scroll across TV screens on business reports) performed better on the markets than those with symbols that could not be pronounced as a word. Think RAD (Rite Aid Corp.), for example, versus the more awkward RDA (for Reader’s Digest Association Inc.). In one subsequently famous case, Harley-Davidson shares shot up 16 per cent in the weeks after it changed its ticker from HDI to HOG, the biker-slang term for its motorcycles.

“For a stock, you want something that seems less risky,” Dr. Mantonakis says, whereas, with wine, there’s cachet in the unfamiliar.

It’s unlikely that the study will prompt wineries to start twisting our tongues in a bid for higher prices. But there’s a lesson for the rest of us. “It is useful for consumers to know that something as simple as the sound of a word could influence their judgment about things,” Dr. Mantonakis said.

How good does that wine in front of you taste? In some cases, not nearly as good as it sounds.

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