Myth and magic

Note: I no longer contribute drinks columns to the Irish Examiner. See here for details.

EXCITING news from the world of science. Beer has been found to contain a substance that makes a proven contribution to health. Scientific studies have shown that dihydrogen monoxide or DHMO delivers important health benefits, delaying death for decades. And laboratory tests on beer have shown that it contains a significant proportion of the miracle compound. Moreover, researchers warn that a diet lacking in DHMO could cause developmental issues and even death for some children as it plays a vital role in the metabolism. But on the upside, as well as promoting health, the superfood ingredient may also contribute to your kids’ intelligence: Albert Einstein was known to have included it in his diet…

OK, stop. There isn’t one untrue statement in the preceding few sentences but it’s utterly misleading. yes, DHMO is essential for life and yes, it’s found in beer. But it’s also found in parsnips, apples, your little finger and, in great quantities, gushing out of your kitchen taps. Because it is just another name for plain ol’ H2O – water.

Misleading with selected facts is easily done: A few carefully-chosen points are presented (and, crucially, information which might provide contradiction or even context is omitted) in a way to plant an utterly false suggestion in the reader’s mind. You could just as easily turn the miracle ingredient into a nightmare… Experts warn that DHMO, whether in its liquid, solid or gaseous state, can contribute to accidents and injuries and even kill… Yes, people do drown, slip on ice, and get burnt by handling boiling kettles. 

Like a car crash, negative scare stories attract attention, and keep readers exercised and clicking on the pages generated by some parts of the media, old and new alike, which appear to value popularity over proper, contextualised truth. Similarly, breathless upbeat stories like our  ‘miracle’ product are attractive to many readers. Both types of fact-filled misleading nonsense are sometimes used by less scrupulous businesses promoting some product or other. Boo! story – our product has the solution. Yay! story – our product is packed with the miracle ingredient.

Brief report on The Drinks Business website

In my column in this morning’s Irish Examiner I refer to a brief piece in a drinks industry news website which quotes Professor Roger Corder. The piece, in The Drinks Business, is nonsense. Like my spoof paragraph in italics above, it appears to contain no untruths that I’m aware of. But the parade of selective partial truths is more thoroughly misleading than a pack of lies. Let’s go take a look at it.

Professor Roger Corder, author of The Wine Diet and an expert on dietary polyphenols, has spoken out against supermarket red wines dubbing them “cheap imposters” and “little more than white wines pretending to be red.”

A professor, author and expert (ooh there’s an appeal to authority) is indicting those rascally retailers, the supermarkets, for suckering us into buying cheap imposters. That’s the impression being delivered here.

Let’s hold off judgement and read on till he presents his evidence. Mind you, I must point out the thing about “white wine masquerading as red” is questionable even without evidence. There is a glut of wine, red and white, on world wholesale markets at most price points. Surely the purpose of ‘passing off’ is defeated if the alleged fraudster is making no extra benefit from his fraud. Pretending that white wines are actually red would be like melting down €1 coins to forge €1 coins. Eh? Let’s read on…

“A large percentage of supermarket red wines have just enough contact with grapes to extract colour from the skins and contain virtually no grape pip polyphenols,” Corder said.

*BRRRNNNGGG!!!!* Sorry, that was the guff alarm going off. Permitting grape juice to remain in contact with the grape skins (and pulp, and possibly a few unlucky but merry wasps who followed the truck to the winery) is precisely what happens when making red wine. That skin contact is necessary, and it is sufficient. It’s the way red wines have been made, are being made, and will be made. Saying this process is “just enough” is a bit like saying that Rory McIlroy played “just enough” golf to win the US Open. Pips? You want pips? Here you go. This side-eye ‘just enough’ bollocks from Corder adds little to the reader’s store of knowledge but much to inculcate a vague dissatisfaction with some (as yet unidentified) wines sold by (as yet unidentified) stores.

“Polyphenols are the source of a wine’s colour, flavour and character, yet many supermarket red wines are low in polyphenols, which compromises the taste and quality of the wine,” Corder added.

This is a particularly vicious type of nonsense. First, here comes the science bit: As the article sort-of points out elsewhere, the levels of polyphenols, colour, alcohol, etc do indeed vary from wine to wine. This phenomenon of variability is known as the “range” of “wine styles”. No more, no less. A wine that has more or less of any of these constituents isn’t necessarily better, and isn’t necessarily worse by any criterion. It depends. So much for the insinuation.

But anyway, polyphenols are only one source of ‘a wine’s colour, flavour and character’. Let’s go back and look at Corder’s broad point which seems to suggest polyphenols are where it’s at, and that red wines with lower levels of same are somehow lacking.

Here are some facts. Wines made from red grapes range from white through the palest rosé to dense, dark purply black. Yes, the fact that white wines can be made from red grapes may come as a surprise, but everyone knows the most famous example – Champagne. The traditional sparkler can be made with any combination of three grapes – chardonnay, pinot noir and pinot meunier. The latter two are red and, while they are obviously used in making rosé Champagne, those red grapes also feature in ‘white’ Champagnes. To complete the picture, a sparkler made only with white grapes is known as blanc de blancs; while a white one made only with red grapes is a blanc de noirs. And pink-hued sparkers made with red grapes and/or white are rosé, rosato or rosado. This is a digression. But it may serve as a useful bit of perspective.

Each and every wine style has something to recommend it. Being a source of polyphenols ain’t one of them. Why? Because polyphenols are everywhere, that’s why. We’re practically falling over them. Nature is knee-deep in em, as they crop up in practically every type of plant. So if you feel an urgent need to embiggen the quantity of polyphenols in your diet, just tuck into some tasty fruit and veg. Especially fresh or raw. Here, have a tomato. Peel an orange. Put a lettuce leaf into that breakfast roll. Have a cup of tea even.

So what the hell is Corder whingeing about?

Why would the learned professor keep banging on about a common-as-muck component of our diet which he (unsupported by even one proper scientific finding) claims is good for our health and bemoan what he claims is its scarcity in certain products (which he hasn’t disclosed) sold by certain retailers (which he hasn’t disclosed)?

While scratching your head over the enigma of Professor Corder, here are some thoughts. I think wine is fun, whether it’s red, white or rosé. A decent bottle in good company can elevate a dinner into a feast, can make you feel good. All great fun once it’s in reasonable proportion, once alcohol doesn’t adversely affect you. But even as a major fan of wine, I have to say it has a miniscule positive effect on our lives compared to the powerful impact on your longevity delivered by the real agenda-toppers such as having a good balanced diet, enjoying life, having a half-decent mission in your life, exercising mind and body a bit, having reasonably fulfilling relationships, and having a sense of perspective…

Speaking of perspective, where’s Prof Corder? Look back at that third paragraph again and ask why do his sciency pronouncements — Specific. Hard-edged. Clear. Polyphenols! Pow! Analysis! Biff! — just… collapse… into detumescent vagueness…

How many is this “many” supermarkets you speak of Professor? Three? 2,476? And then there’s the wines he’s trying to warn us about. Name one. Go on. Check your wallet — the name of this appalling imposter is probably printed on your till receipt and we’d like to know. After all you’ve been ‘dissecting’ these wines in the lab, haven’t you? Where’s the paperwork? The rather large bank of data listing all the components of all the wines you’ve tested? Oh and while you’re at it, name just one of the supermarkets in question. So we’ll know which ones to avoid. Let’s see if the article divulges. We’ll read on…

In March, Corder teamed up with Santiago Navarro, head of UK online wine merchant Vinopic, which assesses a wine’s drinking pleasure, richness in grape polyphenols, value for money and customer popularity, giving each wine a score out of 100.

Oh…. So the brave sciencey stand Prof Corder has been taking on behalf of consumers… It turns out that he’s…. Vinopic is… how do I put this… another wine retailer?

I haven’t forgotten his 100% failure to provide even one item of evidence for his assertions in this article so far. But for the moment let’s put that question on hold. And let’s take a look at the retailer he’s involved with.

Vinopic (“buy better wine online” is the cheering, albeit hardly objective, endorsement on the link when I Google it) looks for all the world like any other online wine shop. Nothing wrong with that. A blameless occupation. Curiously, the site boasts not one but two rating systems — an “intrinsic quotient” awarded by the professor to reds which purports to measure “the skill of the winemaker and how well-made the wine is” and then there’s an overall score. I could find no explanation of how points were awarded to the wines which is again oddly vague: We’re asked to believe that this isn’t just a regular wine reviewer’s scoring system, but something sciencey, yet we’re kept in the dark about criteria and even the units of measurement.

To illustrate the intrinsic quotient, the site provides this graphic.

The “Intrinsic Quotient” scale on the vinopic site.

Ooooh. Interesting. Average “supermarket wines” are way over on the left. Tut tut. Bit low on the Intrinsic Quotient so they are. But great news for Vinopic! Their wines have scored up to 150 wotsits. So unlike any presentation of data you might expect from — oh, say a scientist — this one doesn’t actually disclose anything. Not the items being compared, nor the criteria for the comparison nor even the unit of measurement (I’ve decided to call them wotsits).

Sure we could all do that. I could put up a chart measuring the, eh, Intrinsic Quality of blogs. Few wotsits bad (frowny face), many wotsits good (smiley face). And on my chart, right there on the right hand side would be my brilliant blog! 150 wotsits! And on the ‘bad’ left hand side would be “A Terrible Average Low-Wotsit Blog”. No URL or link, mind you as the ‘bad’ blog may not even exist.

Corder’s Vinopic chart says supermarkets boo. Vinopic yay.

So you’d expect the site is selling truly extraordinary wines with magickal properties. Having trawled through some of the wines on offer, I recognise quite a few as wines I’ve tasted, and some I’ve recommended here or in the Irish Examiner.

Here’s one of them, as it appears on the Vinopic website.

Ringbolt Cabernet Sauvignon £64.99 for six from Vinopic

Yep that’s it. Ringbolt Cabernet Sauvignon from Western Australia. 2008.

I must say I like it a lot, and I recall recommending it, and previous vintages too. But Vinopic wasn’t on my radar until last week. So how the hell did I manage to secure a precious bottle of this life-giving elixir that’s so… polyphenolish? Oh hang on, here it is…

Ringbolt Cabernet Sauvignon £55.80 for six at Tesco

Yes, another retailer [I've used their UK site so the prices are comparable] selling the same wine, same region, same winemaker, same vintage, same polyphenols. Tesco. A supermarket.

 

Question: What’s the difference between supermarket wine and Prof Corder’s magically healthy wine?
Answer: About £1.53 per bottle.

 

I don’t speak for any retailer, let alone any supermarket. Far from it. I think far too much power in the retail food trade is concentrated in too few hands. I regret the clout that supermarkets wield, and also think the relaxing of regulations on aspects such as opening hours, Sunday trading and store size may have been harmful to communities around Ireland…

But none of that makes it all right for anyone – in this case a competitor – to take lazy swipes at a big, easy target. Worse, preying on common misconceptions of how science actually works. And worst of all, in my view, nothing justifies stoking up misplaced doubt and unjustified fear in the minds of us, the public.

Despite the inital appearance to the contrary, the short article in The Drinks Business has nothing to do with your health, nor with the quality of wine you’re drinking. There is no reason to believe that Prof Corder has any more interest in your life and your wellbeing than the employees of those other retailers he’s giving out about. In fact, he has far more in common with them than sets them apart. They both want your money. The only major difference, as far as I can tell, is that supermarkets haven’t been spreading mendacious nonsense warning customers off from shopping in independent online wine stores. I shop in both, find excellent quality and value in both, and I know of no wine lover who doesn’t.

 

If you’re interested in finding out more, I suggest you start with Dr Ben Goldacre the greatest debunker of nonsense science reporting in the media – his site includes a number of brilliant bits of audio which I think are particularly helpful for crystallising the issues. And here is my guide to wine myths, for the most part just common errors rather than deliberately misleading guff. But among them is a look at those utterly misleading pseudoscience stories about wine you’ll occasionally see in the media.

 

Edit: Many thanks to Tom Way for the splendid spoofery he’s got going on over at the DHMO website. I borrowed from shamelessly plundered the DHMO idea from his hilariously panic-inducing posts for my opening paragraph above. You may want to start with this 2004 article in the Guardian which recounts a real-life panic in a Californian city caused by someone taking the DHMO spoof as real. Is it okay to laugh at them? Briefly perhaps. And then maybe resolve to be less credulous ourselves. ♦

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3 Responses

  1. Top article Blake, absolute TOP.
    Well stated.

  2. That was a thoroughly enjoyable read!!

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