At the Olympics, the best finish first. In wine, the first usually tends to finish best.
Lending credence to what cynics have long suspected, researchers in Ontario and Illinois have shown that, when presented with several unlabelled - and, unbeknownst to them, identical - wine samples, tasters had an irrational bias for the first.
As for flavour differences, they played no role in the results because the 142 tasters were given the same samples in each set of three to five wines. In fact, the samples were poured from the same bottle.
"There is always a first-is-best bias," said Antonia Mantonakis, an assistant business professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ont., who was lead author of the study, published in U.S.-based Psychological Science.
The study, titled Order in Choice: Effects of Serial Position on Preferences, builds on similar work as far back as the mid-1950s by Ferrer Filipello, a wine researcher at the University of California at Davis.
But whereas previous studies tended to include no more than three samples, this one had as many as five. And it appeared to reconcile conflicting findings in other areas of consumer research that show subjects in fact tend to prefer the last in a series of samples.
As the sample size grew from three to five wines, the pendulum began swinging, specifically among wine-savvy tasters, toward the last sample over the first.
"As the number of options increases, especially for high-knowledge consumers, the primacy advantage starts to turn into a recency advantage, or a last-is-best advantage," Prof. Mantonakis said.
Several reasons have been offered to account for the primacy effect, or what might be more colloquially called the first-impression prejudice.
Sensory scientists have argued that the first food a person consumes during a meal is experienced more hedonistically, and thus tends to be remembered most favourably.
Another explanation might be dubbed the Olympic effect, or what Prof. Mantonakis describes as an inbred expectation.
"The first one is the gold medal, the first one is the best. It's this expectation we have in society."
But she and her fellow researchers at the faculty of business at Brock and the University of Chicago's Booth School of Business also wanted to test a hunch that wine aficionados ultimately would transcend the primacy prejudice if given enough choices.
Their reasoning: Wine geeks thrive on discovering new and ever-better drinking experiences, so they're more likely to give subsequent options a chance.
Indeed, the researchers found that wine aficionados not only gave subsequent samples more of a chance, but may have become over receptive to new choices down the line, tending to see them as better than what went before.
"They are persistent, they are engaged, and their goal is to make sure they find the best wine," Prof. Mantonakis said.
"So they will keep looking and they will give themselves even more of an opportunity for something later in the sequence to beat the current favourite."
All participants, drawn from the Brock student body and local community, were randomly assigned to a certain wine - a riesling, a cabernet and so on - to rule out the potential peculiarities of any one varietal.
All wines were Canadian, since Brock University is the major research school in the Niagara wine region.
To me, the biggest surprise was that none of the subjects raised a question about the similarity of the samples. The only person who clued in was another Brock researcher who tried to enroll himself in the study.
"He knows that's the kind of experiment I tend to do," Prof. Mantonakis said. "He said, 'Oh, are these all the same wine?' That was the only one. We really tried to keep track of that."
The results have an obvious implication for the wine industry.
Desperate to sell a high-profit (or slow-moving) wine? Place it first in a sequence when presenting it for tasting. If you're pouring for connoisseur buyers such as beverage managers, insert it last in the roster.
But the Brock paper clearly has implications that go beyond wine - one reason it was published in Psychological Science rather than in a wine journal. In fact, wine is a near-ideal prism through which to test general hypotheses about taste and the effects of serial position on preferences.
With athletic or aesthetic competitions, by contrast, it's impossible to present identical samples to judges. Replaying a taped performance over and over would be a dead giveaway. Similarly with food, five pieces of the same cheesecake will taste like the same cheesecake to just about anybody.
But wine appreciation is - and please don't shoot the messenger - inherently pretentious and open to fallacy and fantasy. Flavour differences between fine wines can be so subtle that people will detect differences even where none exist. The most respected tasters have been humiliated into praising fraudulent bottles, or mistaking U.S. wines for French classics.
"We could have measured American Idol contestants, but wine allows you to control for biases," Prof. Mantonakis said.
Identical samples were critical to the study, because even different wines made from similar grapes using similar methods can skew the results. A super-crisp riesling, for example, can make a less-crisp riesling taste sweeter than it is.
The Brock study is not without its shortcomings. For one thing, it capped the sample number at five even though the researchers would have liked to include a longer sequence. Ten or 12 wines would have enabled them to test the "recency" effect more fully.
But a university ethics board prohibited them from administering more than 120 millilitres of wine to each subject in one sitting. What began as a science experiment in fact turned into a scene akin to a trip downtown in the back of a cruiser after a drunk-driving charge.
"They had to sit in the lab for 30 minutes afterward and take a Breathalyzer," Prof. Mantonakis said.
I think there's a lesson in the Brock study for those of us who enjoy wine at home, too.
If you intend to serve several vintages at a dinner party, don't blow the best at the start of the evening. The first wine will tend to show well anyway, and you don't want the evening to go downhill from there.