The skeptical wine lover

See below for a link to Tim Minchin's White Wine In The Sun.

I WAS delighted to raise a glass recently in honour of Cork Skeptics‘ first birthday. Part of the worldwide skeptics (or sceptics) movement promoting critical thinking, they meet monthly at Blackrock Castle Observatory and kindly invited me to their December event to present a talk, ‘Suck It And See’.

That title is intended to suggest that our best understanding of wine comes from our own senses, unmediated by a host of other voices from advertising through to the opinions of independent wine columnists and bloggers like me. The subheading, ‘everything we think we know about wine is wrong’ is a deliberately provocative overstatement…  But it can be a useful motto to adopt, leaving you refreshed, open-minded, and prepared for a delightful new journey into wonderful wine.

I said then I’d post links to some of the key issues I covered that evening. Here they are. Yes it’s a very long post (and it’s likely to get longer). But firstly, this isn’t a hurrah-here’s-a-wine-you-might-like kind of post and many of the points do need all that background and context. Secondly, this (plus the posts I link to) really comprise a compliation albubm plus extended remixes. I’ve mentioned almost all of the points, in one form or another, in my column in the Irish Examiner and on this blog.

Comments, questions and challenges are of course always welcome —but particularly to this post, and to the links on it.

Some background

The psychology and physiology of misunderstanding is a rich field, ranging from Richard Dawkins pointing out our difficulty in grasping evolutionary time, through to the exploration of the issues on Dr Brian Hughes’ blog. I don’t think anyone’s suggesting we should (or could) shake off our all-too-human perceptual shortcomings which seem to be a hardwired component of our makeup. But we can acknowledge and understand, and thereby work around, them. The components of misunderstanding — such as unwarranted or unquestioning faith in authority figures; misattribution; mistaking coincidence for causality — these are lenses which can interrupt or distort our understanding of the world around us. And, specifically in relation to wine, they can distort our perception of quality and value.

Poster by Alan Barrett

Cork Skeptics

There’s a second chapter to all this: the sometimes well-meaning and mistaken, but often deliberate, manipulation of our wobbly perception by others. Some newspapers profitably agitate readers with nonsensical stories which you could broadly divide into yay (something will improve your health) and boo (something will damage your health). Such stories are often entirely incorrect, or at least so misreported and decontextualised as to be even worse than lies — true-but-misleading. The same media also often presents specious made-up stuff from press releases as fact when reason suggests they know better.

And it’s not just the media. Among the matters previously covered on this blog are, for instance, the way retailers’ sales can distort our perception of value; how heavy, carefully-positioned marketing spend keeps upmarket wines such as Champagne high in our affections; and research suggesting we’re positively influenced by higher prices; a refreshing dose of reality from an unexpected source acknowledging the glut on world markets which suggests that broadly speaking the price of many wines may be artificially high. And here is an occasionally-updated post you may find useful for reference purposes — a list of the most common wine myths you may encounter regarding the likes of organic wine, sulphites and more.

The foregoing plus the following new links set out to illustrate some of our perceptual limitations and how they can be manipulated. And the underlying point of all this? I adore wine and want to help clear away some of the guff that surrounds it so we can drink better, and better value, in 2012. Happy New Year!

Start here

Dr Ben Goldacre is one of the most prominent debunkers of media pseudoscience. On August 7, 2009, in the wake of the swine flu panic, he appeared on BBC Radio 4’s satirical news/comedy programme The Now Show. In less than six minutes – along with the show’s anchors, Laura Shavin, Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis – he delivers a tour de force of what you could call fact-based comedy, filleting the travesty that is much of popular media science reporting.

Dr Ben Goldacre

Click to hear Dr Ben Goldacre's tour de force on a BBC Radio 4 comedy show.

It’s not all fun and games, and you may be angered by some of the evidence he provides of borderline psychotic media irresponsibility. Ultimately, the clip is an excellent piece of public service focusing well-deserved derision on the crap we let the media get away with.

The audio clip here on YouTube doesn’t even mention wine. But go on. It really is the best place to start. Follow that link and rejoin me here when you’re done.

Roll up! Roll up! Getcha magic beans!

Everyone from Sense About Science to the National Consumer Agency keeps reminding us that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t. True that is. Given that it’s panto season I might add that anyone who’s been to see Jack And The Beanstalk will know magic beans don’t work or, at best, are an expensive rip-off.
Click here to read my post on a palpably ridiculous comedy spoof dead-serious articles in two newspapers about a magic bean machine that will make your wine better. Really. It’s tempting to comment that ‘you couldn’t make this stuff up’. But they do.

Those wines are rubbish. But ours are fab. And good for you.

The belief that there is some kind of class system of wine wholesalers and retailers is, I believe, one of the worst and most persistent wine myths.

Wineupmanship: Pay us more than you have to, and look happy about it.

This is suggested to me by, for instance, wine fans practically apologising for buying wine in a supermarket or corner shop rather than a specialist wine store — even though they’re quite often buying better, or at least the same, as they would in a wine specialist. This impression is based on anecdotal evidence and at a later date I’ll look around for harder evidence of it.

While I percieve this bias being projected by us consumers, I suspect some wine traders may well practice wineupmanship, taking advantage of this misperception about the quality of their wares. For now though here’s an extreme example of wineupmanship you might enjoy.

Media boo!

The Channel 4 wine scandal

As a counterpart to media yay! (nonsense ranging from generic wine-is-good-for-you yarns to the magic bean machine press release above) the feral end of the media business loves media boo! stories too.

Dispatches, the investigative current affairs television strand on Britain’s Channel 4, has a reputation for tackling important issues head-on including, for instance, going undercover at a residential care home to expose abuses. On September 5, 2008, it broadcast a documentary named What’s in your wine? which set out to expose a scandal that we consumers ought to know about.

Click to view Channel 4's Dispatches programme on wine, presented by Jane Moore.

The programme does indeed point towards some issues which should cause us sceptical consumers concern. But it is so thoroughly compromised that it’s worse than useless. I do recommend viewing the programme, and I’d welcome your comments below. At a later date I intend putting up here a timeline answering each point raised by the programme. Some, such as the litter-strewn Champagne vineyard, do cause me concern. But the programme-makers have as many questions to answer as do the winemakers.

For now, let’s look at some of the broad issues that undermine it, starting with the promises made in the Channel 4 press release which should raise eyebrows even before you see a single frame of the documentary.

With wine consumption in the UK hitting record levels, Jane Moore investigates the many different substances — including fish and dairy products — that can be used to produce wine but which rarely appear on the label of the average bottle.

Anyone who has attended the most basic wine course will chuckle at this paragraph. Because they will know that since time immemorial, naturally-occurring compounds derived from sources such as fish (isinglass), egg (albumen) and clay (bentonite) have been used to refine and filter wines. Big deal. But those with enough interest and time on their hands to sign up for Wine 101 amount to a tiny minority of the wine-drinking population. And this TV programme which purports to inform and educate the public is achieving precisely the opposite, scaring people unnecessarily by couching widely-available uncontroversial facts in terms normally reserved for startling revelations.

Let’s try a more calm approach.

One of the great benefits of EU membership has been the introduction of standardised mandatory labelling on food and other packaging. I think the labelling information on wine could be much better: Processes such as chaptalisation (adding sugar) and the use of fining agents should be disclosed. And in particular, I think the presence of that most misunderstood of additives, sulphites / sulfites, should be disclosed by means of a parts-per-million measure rather than just blankly as “contains sulphites” (see the ‘Contains Sulphites’ entry in Wine Myths for more). Isn’t that a reasonable proposition? A wine buyer for the Co-Op retail chain makes similar positive suggestions in the programme. But, embedded as they are in the shriekingly fearful tone of the programme, such reasonable points may be misinterpreted as suggesting there’s some sort of wine conspiracy going on. Let’s go back to that statement from Channel 4.

The health benefits of the occasional glass of red wine are widely acknowledged but Dispatches reveals how a great deal of the wine we consume is enhanced, sweetened or flavoured, creating a drink that one critic describes as no better than, ‘an alcoholic cola’.

“Widely acknowledged” eh? Actually, the health benefits of an occasional glass of wine have never been demonstrated. And nor has the opposite contention. Again I refer you to the Wine Myths post. That sort of assertion is understandable at the water cooler. But this TV programme purports to have expertise in divining the truth about wine and informing us of it, and really should stick to the evidence rather than parading this wilfully ignorant OMGism.

The ‘alcoholic cola’ bit is a quote from veteran wine writer Malcolm Gluck. Which brings me to two aspects of the editing which oversell and undermine the film.
Selective editing. The film includes soundbites from two luminaries — former Guardian wine critic Malcolm Gluck and winemaker Randall Grahm. There are brief clips of both, their tone broadly condemnatory of much modern winemaking practice. But each soundbite is bracketed by voiceover from Jane Moore which seems to be levelling more serious charges. Further, we don’t get to hear the full interviews with either. Indeed, not once are we allowed hear the questions that elicited those quotes — not a major problem in a light entertainment show. But hardly best practice in a groundbreaking current affairs programme.

What did they really say? In full I mean. And what questions and prompts were put to them? Any chance Channel 4 would put the raw video online?

I believe their quotes were deliberately taken out of context, that the broad thrust of their comments was not to suggest that any, or even many, wines contain dangerous nasties, but rather to distinguish between the upmarket wines they might advocate, and more popularly-priced ones. It’s perfectly reasonable for them to profess that the latter are not good quality or that they’d prefer not to drink them. But that’s a world away from the panicky feeling induced by the frantic tone set by the two framing devices — Jane Moore’s commentary, and that wretched soundtrack.

[By the way – Apart from one accessibly-priced mourvèdre, I have never bought wines made by Randall Graham. I’ve tasted a few down the years and they did indeed rock, but they are way outside my price bracket. To give you an indication, here’s a link to the nearest stockist of their wines I could find.]

Manipulative audio. Have you ever trawled YouTube for funny movie mashups? You should. Amateur auteurs take clips of popular movie and television hits, edit them together and post them as faux trailers for strange new imagined hybrid movies. Among the most popular are Sesame Street muddled up with Mean Streets (there’s a lot of swearing and violence in that one so you may want to avoid showing it when children are around) and classic horror The Shining as a romantic comedy. They’re a lot of fun – and they’re also terrific examples of how easy it is to manipulate meaning, and the viewer’s emotions, with a soundtrack.

If it weren’t so grossly misleading the public, the Dispatches wine programme would be almost as funny as those mashups. The film is accompanied throughout by a soundscape which is, frankly, distressing. Such manipulation has no place in any reasonable assessment of the issues involved.

But my ‘favourite’ sequence in the whole show is the startling revelation [cue spooky music; odd camera angles] made by a SCIENTIST [man in white coat; test tubes] about the level of residual sugar in various Champagnes and sparkling wines…

Good God, what a reveal! High fives all round the production office! We nailed Big Wine, eh?

Problem is, it’s not a revelation. The sugar levels in various wines including those bubblies are widely available; none of the ‘tests’ fouund any discrepancies from the stated levels; and not only does the process leading to that sugar’s presence in sparklers have a name (‘dosage’), but if you visit any winery making a champenoise sparkling wine, they will actually show the process to you as they proudly demonstrate the intricate business they have to set about to make this fascinating and often delicious wine style.

This programme has to be the most most cynical confection of weaselly, misleading crap about wine I’ve ever had the displeasure to endure. But there’s a positive message for us — we shouldn’t believe stuff just because it’s on telly, in a newspaper, or on a blog including this one: if they don’t provide clear evidence, what they’re saying is quite likely to be untrue or misleading.

And finally…

I’ll add more links as they crop up. For now though, let’s leave the topic as we began it, with comedy, sort-of. There’s a wave of top-class comics such as Dara Ó Briain who riff on and ridicule pseudoscience to devastating effect. Among the foremost is Tim Minchin, whose appearance at Cork Opera House this year was promoted by Cork Skeptics.

The Australian comic’s appeal to both our reason and to our funnybone is certainly reflected in this song, White Wine In The Sun. But it’s also a moving paen to the Christmas spirit, and an expression of love to those closest to us — and enjoying good wine in their company. I think that’s what wine should be all about. ♦

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