Myth and magic

EXCITING news from the world of science. White wine made with the sauvignon blanc grape 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 — in certain circumstances even delaying death. And new laborotory tests on sauv blanc wine 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 for some children as it plays a vital role in the metabolism. And on the upside, the superfood ingredient may also contribute to your kids’ intelligence: Albert Einstein was known to have included it in his diet…

OK, stop it right there. There isn’t one untrue statement in the preceding few sentences — but they’re utterly misleading. The truth is, dihydrogen monoxide (or DHMO) is essential for life and yes, it’s found in a glass of sauv blanc. But it’s also found in parsnips, beer, apples, your little finger and, in great quantities, gushing out of your kitchen taps. Because it is water by another name.  H2O. In that paragraph though, I’ve selected my facts and presented them to plant an utterly false suggestion in your mind — that there’s some magic health benefit in a particular product.

Brief report on The Drinks Business website

I’ve also introduced a whiff of fear by suggesting that doing without this special substance can cause a threat to your children — a cynical trick that has been used by snake-oil salesmen since time immemorial. I’m not in the business of misleading people, so please accept the bit in italics above as a satirical spoof which is intended as an alert to the pseudo-scientific nonsense that’s paraded in the media practically every day (often to misleadingly hype up someone’s product).

In my column in this morning’s Irish Examiner I’m referring 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. At least with lies, there might be an opportunity to refute them with the truth. It takes much more work to take apart selective mendacious nonsense. And even if someone like me takes such crap apart, the damage will already have been done, planting false notions in the minds of innocent readers. Let’s go take a look at that article.

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! Is indicting cheap imposters! OMG what are those supermarket rascals up to now? We must be told at once! Mind you, I did pause at the thing about “white wine masquerading as red”. Um, it takes pretty much the same outlay for a retailer to buy in reds as whites and, broadly speaking, they can charge us more for the wines that are dearer for them to buy.  So, like… you’d wonder… where’s the benefit to them in this alleged cheating? 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? Are we accusing supermarkets of surrealism? 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.

*BRRRRRNNNNGGG!!!!* Oh sorry. I hope the noise didn’t startle you, but the phrase “just enough” applied to colour extraction in winemaking has just set off the guff alarm. Permitting grape juice to remain in contact with the grape skins (thereby extracting the regiments of compounds that make a red wine a red wine) 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. Clear? So 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.

“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 Champagne or other sparkler made only with white grapes is known as blanc de blancs; while a white one made with the 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 bloody well everywhere, that’s why. We’re practically falling over them. Nature is knee-deep in the blasted things 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 for pity’s sake. Have a cup of tea even. But why anyone would want to go off spending €8 or €18 on a bottle of wine to serve that purpose defeats me.

Yes, tannic acid (the ‘tannin’ we refer to in red wine) is one particular polyphenol. But so what? If red wine really contained such an essential magic bullet, why aren’t teetotalers dropping like flies in the streets? And those poor folk who only ever drink white wine? Or beer? And the children — think of the children. Those wretched creatures are made to forego red wine until they’re 18. Denied the life-giving cure-all of red-wine-specific polyphenols, surely our nippers don’t stand a chance, eh? If this wine thing works so well, surely it’s time to start serving a glass of a decent cabernet sauvignon to them from the age of thirteen. Or four. Or one. No?

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. You may feel some minor benefits in terms of, for instance, digestion. 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 that the positives in wine are only a minor fringe benefit at best. Good wine 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? Ah yes, here he is again. In that third quote above he blithely refers to lighter wine styles — the ones lower in polyphenols aka tannin — in a pejorative sense. The unwary may be gulled into thinking there was something wrong with lighter reds, or with white wines. There isn’t. Just as there’s no magick in dense dark reds.

Notice too his effortless blending of vague and specific. Here’s a scientist  (well he appears to be styled as such) nailing down facts, goddammit. Specific. Hard-edged. Clear. Polyphenols! Pow! Analysis! Biff!

And yet in the midst of all this rock-hard sciencey stuff, just as Corder is banging the table and building up to his central accusation he… just…  collapses… into detumescent vagueness…  when he refers to many supermarket red wines. How many is this “many” 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. 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…

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.

So…. Okay… I’m trying to square the brave stand Prof Corder has been taking on behalf of consumers… with this new disclosure that Prof Corder is… like he’s…. Vinopic is… how do I put this… another wine retailer? Hang on now. Let me see if I’m getting this right. Here’s a wine retailer. It issues a statement that includes some sciency-sounding stuff [check] a vague unsubstantiated warning that a whole raft of its competitors aren’t very good [check] leading  the reader to believe that this particular retailer is somehow better [check]…  Is that it?

It’s just old-fahioned hype right? Am I missing something? Let’s take a closer look at that retailer.

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. Anyway, 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. To explain the intrinsic quotient, the site helpfully provides this graphic.

The "Intrinsic Quotient" scale on the vinopic site.

Ooooh. Average “supermarket wines” way over on the left. Tut tut. Bit low on the Intrinsic Quotient so they are. Mind you, unlike any chart you might expect from — oh, say a scientist — this one doesn’t actually disclose exactly what’s wrong with this particular wine. Or indeed identify it. Or, failing that, offer even one example.

This is a bit like if I put up a chart measuring the, eh, lumpiness of blogs. Lumpy good, unlumpy bad. And on my chart, right there on the ‘bad’ left hand side would be “A Terrible Average Unlumpy Blog”. No URL or link, mind you. In fact the ‘bad’ blog may not even exist. Because the whole purpose of this nonsense pseudoscientific chart would be to show that mine is the best, right over there on the far right hand side denoting the magnificent lumpiness of it in all its lumpy goodness…

Where was I? Oh yes, the chart. Unsurprisingly, the chart confirms what Corder’s been saying. Supermarkets boo. Vinopic yay. Bears it out, see? And that’s science saying it, apparently. He’s a professor.

And so we may expect that the site is selling some truly extraordinary rare wines with magickal properties. This, it appears, is not what we get. 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, here’s 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. As promoted by Vinopic, our special purveyor of magick health-giving wines. And here it is on sale in Tesco. A supermarket. Oh my…

Question: What’s the difference between (boo!) supermarket wine and (yay!) magically healthy wine? Answer: About £1.53 per bottle.

So really this whole thing is about money. Yours. And whether it ends up in one trader’s pocket or another’s.

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. But particularly not by preying on common misconceptions of how science actually works. 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. ♦

3 Responses

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

  2. That was a thoroughly enjoyable read!!

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