Magick wine!

If you find this post of interest, you may want to click The skeptical wine lover, a compilation, with background, of instances of mythology and pseudoscience which I believe get in the way of our enjoyment of wine.

FIRST published on October 1 & 2, 2008 respectively, there are stories on the websites of the  UK Telegraph and Mail about an exciting new product which promises to revolutionise wine. As the (remarkably similar) stories are still up online unamended, I presume both publications stand over them.

The story  on both sites is almost comically wrong, a fantastic pantomime of snake oil and magic beans. It contains claims which not alone aren’t true but which couldn’t be true. Some of the quotes from the story’s key sources suggest that neither the commentators nor the journalists fully understand some of the basic facts about wine. Or physics.

Both papers report that a British inventor and former Dragon’s Den contestant, Casey Jones, is marketing a gadget which purports to use ultrasound to improve wine by recreating the effects of decades of ageing. Retailing at £350 (€450), the Ultrasonic Wine Ager goes even further, according to its  inventor.

It’s no less than “The miracle machine that turns cheap plonk into vintage wine — in just half an hour” as the headline in the latter paper put it.

Snake oil story in the Science And Tech section of the Daily Mail's website.

It “works on any alcohol that tastes better aged, even a bottle of paintstripper whisky can taste like an eight-year-aged single malt,” says Jones.

“This machine can take your run-of-the-mill £3.99 bottle of plonk and turn it into a finest bottle of vintage, tasting like it’s hundreds.

“It works on any alcohol that tastes better aged. Even a bottle of paint-stripper whisky can taste like an 8-year-aged single malt.”

This is all echoed on T3, the gadget website: “This wine ageing marvel will cost £350 saving you a whole lot more in the long run, so we will definitely raise a glass to that!”

All I can say to that is wow.

If you accept that pitch, and think it through (ideally after after a little lie-down to help you recover your composure) you will hail this machine as one of the greatest revolutions in food technology, right up there with two advances which helped shape the 20th century, refrigeration and containerised trasnport.

Going solely on the claims repeated above, it’s clear the magic machine will significantly disrupt the global economy. Consumers who collectivley have been spending billions of euro on decent wines at around €10 or €15 will suddenly switch to the cheapest available at rock bottom prices and enjoy quaffing what now tastes as good as the luxury upmarket variants they’d never previously been able to afford. I confess I’d never previously heard of a “bottle of vintage” but Jones does appear to mean upmarket wine, costing “hundreds” [of pounds].

The price of wines and spirits will plummet, and they will become generic unbranded commodities shipped around the world in vast tankers. I haven’t done the maths but even under Ireland’s super-high excise regime, ought to translate to perhaps about €3 per bottle.

Are you with me so far?

OK.

I’m taking this step by step so as not to alarm you.

Astonishingly, there’s more. A machine that makes something tastes so nasty taste so nice is an astounding physics-defying breakthrough. But it also seems to have pulled off a triple medical miracle.

“The look and bouquet of the drink is improved and because of the chemical changes, the alcohol is easier to absorb by the kidneys and therefore, hangovers are virtually eliminated.”

1 The kidneys?

Yes, the kidneys filter your blood, and all that’s in it. But alchohol is not specifically acted on by the kidney, that function belonging to the liver. So the machine seems to have sucessfully ordained an unprecedented organ function reassignment unless (and I’m just raising a possibility here) the people promoting the gadget have conducted another body-part swap and are talking out their arses.

2 My lay observer’s understanding of physics suggests alcohol is alcohol. You can’t like make it more slidey so it squirts faster into the bloodstream.

3 You’d also question in what sense easier absorbtion of alcohol might mitigate the symptoms of overindulgence. Faster absorbtion would blast alcohol more rapidly through your body. I’m no medical expert but if you’d overdone a bout with the sauce, wouldn’t the faster absorbtion hasten the onset of hangover and make it more acute? Indeed I imagine fast-absorbtion alcohol could be dangerous. Say someone horses through too much alcohol today. Then next week they do it all again with the same volume of alcohol.  But this time it’s been magicked in the machine. And seeing as it’s got go-faster stripes, and is absorbed faster, isn’t it possible that our subject could rapidly take on an acutely dangerous or even fatal dose? Especially as the new version is so damn tasty.

Much of the rest of the article in both papers is effectively an extended testimonial from one André Jones (no relation, according to the Telegraph, although the Mail is silent on the matter) who apparently makes wine at Buzzard Valley Vineyard near Tamworth in Staffordshire.

“I was amazed, it had definitely aged,” he’s quoted as saying in both reports. “Obviously it can’t change the grape variety used [phew, that's a relief for fuddy-duddies who insist in believing in physics] but it does mean a relatively poor variety can be made to taste a lot higher market.”
So. This wonder is an invaluable tool in food and drink production too. Who needs magic beans when you can buy a lean, keen bean machine, and turn your tin of Bachelors   into “higher market” beans with magickal properties?

The winemaker (a prizewinner at the Mercian Vineyards Association Wine Challenge) warms to his theme: “I suppose you could buy a good wine at two or three years old and age it so it tastes like a 20-year-old vintage.”
This really is quite an intriguing insight into the philosophy of an artisan carefully crafting wholesome product at a small family-owned winery. But, unless he was misquoted, both articles suggest Mr Jones has an incomplete grasp of what he’s talking about. To answer three oddities attributed to him:

(1) Rioja isn’t a grape variety;
(2) The region of the same name isn’t on the Mediterranean – it’s about 400km inland and is not regarded as part of the Med in terms of ampelography, oenology or geography. Atlantic more like.
(3) To say that wine is at its best “five or so years after it’s made” is akin to answering the age-old question on the length of a piece of string by confidently declaring “oh, five or so inches long”. The ageing assertion is bollocks. Some wines are best within a few months; others could do with a decade in bottle before opening. Most wines we drink are designed to be consumed within a year or two.

Naturally, I would like to put the machine to the test. They’ve sold out apparently but I registered my intentions on Mr Jones’ site, http://www.inventors-showcase.com, and emailed him explaining I write about wine and would love a go on the first available machine. So far… tumbleweed. If and when I get to try it out you’ll be first to know. In the meantime, here’s what I believe I should expect.

If I opened two identical bottles and had one of them Tangoed by Mr Jones’ invention, there’s a good chance that’s the one I’d prefer. However, if I insisted that the other non-magicked bottle was opened beforehand and allowed to ‘breathe’ first, I predict the zapped bottle would be no better and would quite possibly be worse. Because what Casey Jones describes (charmingly glossed in both papers as “colliding alcohol molecules inside the bottle”) is certainly not ageing — but sounds to me like one type of fast-track oxygenation.

Wine begins to oxidise the moment we open the bottle (there may be micro-oxidation going on beforehand,  especially with cork stoppers). The scents and flavours of your wine will alter minute by minute, ultimately (generally after a few days) ending up quite unpleasantly oxidised. But along the way it’ll have come into its own, tasting far, far better than if we’d drunk it the moment it’s opened. The optimum duration depends on many factors (including its age, and whether it’s red or white).  But really in general I prefer to give most whites a few hours, and most reds up to a day after which time its flavours and aromas really flower and shine in your glass.

While I’m generally happy just to open bottles in advance, there are fast-track ways to speed up oxygenation. The first and most traditional is to decant. You know the classic decanter shape? Basically a bottle but with an enormously wide bowl-shaped bottom? Yes, that. The ancient traditional shape is designed to present an extremely large surface area of the liquid to the air in the decanter, thereby speeding up oxidation. A generously proportioned kitchen jug would do the job just as well.

I believe the ultrasound yoke — rather like a whiz in a blender or a few seconds in the microwave — may speed up the uptake of O2. But I’m convinced it’s an intrusive, expensive and unnecessary replacement for the simple expedient of letting the wine breathe for itself.

The final tally

Magick ultrasound wine machine   - €450
Opening the bottle to let it breathe – €0
Recognising crap pseudoscience     – Priceless    ♦


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