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Goodbye, hello and thank you

Goodbye…

Mixed feelings  — I got ’em. I’ve wound up my wine, beer and cider columns in the Irish Examiner Weekend and the final ones appeared on Saturday October 20, 2012.

Hello…

More to the point, I hope you will join me in offering a hearty welcome to Leslie Williams (see final bullet point at the end of this post) who begins fresh new drinks columns in the Irish Examiner on Saturday, October 27, 2012. His survey of what’s what on the drinks shelves kicks off with his pick of the best from the National Off-Licence Association Gold Star Awards.

Thank you.

° Thank you to everyone who has read my columns, and to those who have responded with complaints or compliments, tips and suggestions.
° Thank you to the importers, distributors, retailers and PR people for supplying samples, pictures, information – and especially tasting opportunities.
° Thank you to groups as diverse as the Sexual Violence Centre, Cork Skeptics and St Luke’s ICA for hosting me at events where I attempted to help unwind the true qualities of our drinks from the sometimes misleading reputations that surround them.
° Most of all, I am indebted to the Irish Examiner’s editor Tim Vaughan and features editor Vickie Maye – and her predecessor, Fionnuala Quinlan – for giving me the freedom to explore this fascinating topic. It has been a privilege and a pleasure and I hope at least some of that enthusiasm has rubbed off on readers.

The above are the main points but there’s a bit more detail below if you want it. 
Wine tasting

Not only are open-ended ‘silent’ wine tastings vital for any decent wine firm – they can be invaluable to us consumers too. Picture: Blake Creedon.

♦ Earlier this year I decided to bring to an end my regular columns about wine and beer in the Irish Examiner Weekend. It wasn’t a sudden epiphany — I had been coming to the conclusion that it was reaching the end of its usefulness. There’s also a practical purpose. I wanted to scale back, for now at least, my working week: Of the various things I do, these columns were the most neatly discrete component and thus the easiest to excise. And so they had to go.

Beer

It’s only when you shed the values imposed by branding that you get a feel for how good your beer really is.

♦ So here ends my affection for wine and beer? Eh… Hardly! I am hoping to continue doing as an amateur one of the things I’d been doing as a pro… I wasn’t joking all those times I recommended readers to go check out open-ended tastings. Seriously. When you begin to actively sniff and taste and compare wines a few dozen at a time, you step into another world. Working your way uninterrupted through a non-tutored tasting is a bit like sending your nose to the movies. As some bloggers will know, for some time I’ve been encouraging bloggers to get themselves invited to such trade & media  tastings, and encouraging wine businesses to invite them – so at least I am being consistent.

♦ I don’t plan to recommence writing in any capacity in the near future. Nor will I be looking for work of any kind with any drinks business. I remain working at various roles in the backroom of the Irish Examiner.

♦ In one way, dropping these columns has been the easy way out for me.  I believe I’ve been most useful as a map, assisting readers get a sense of the lay of the land, rather than as a signpost, directing them towards specific destination bottles. Yes I do believe there is value in the latter, and stand over every bottle I’ve ever highlighted.  But informed scepticism is infinitely more valuable than someone else’s conclusions — no matter how well-placed. That’s true for consumer food and drink, but also with far more serious matters. We are far too eager to hand our sovereignty over to whatever credible-sounding authority figure currently has the mic — with ultimately disastrous results, as will be obvious to anyone observing the Irish economy, abuse cover-ups etc. What’s on your dining room table is hardly as grave an issue as those — but it does entail the same process: credulity versus sovereignty. Feedback suggests I may not have been as successful at nudging readers towards a more sceptical outlook as I’d have liked. If I do go back into the field again, that’s what I’d want to work at.

Finally, I hope you will always have good quality and value-for-money stuff in your glass. Because you’re worth it.


♦ If you have any queries or comments for me, leave a comment below.
If you want the contact details for Leslie and other food & drinks columnists, events listings etc, contact the Irish Examiner Features desk.

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Enjoy a drink in relaxing surroundings

The challenge in this week’s episode of The Apprentice UK (Season 8 Episode 9, Wednesday May 16 2012 and available to watch again on YouTube by clicking here) was to devise an online marketing campaign for English sparkling wine...

The show

Click here to view The Apprentice – English sparkling wine.

So is it about business? Or wine? Not quite. You could view the series as The Office staffed by volunteers or a fish-out-of-water sitcom with a cast of amateur method actors. The business challenge each week is the sit, while the com is provided by watching youngish, inexperienced people jump through hoops while subjected to outlandishly unrealistic constraints, all carefully edited for our slightly guilty viewing pleasure. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not dismissing the show, and it’s no Big Brother. I reckon The Apprentice could be a great experience – once you don’t mind coming across like a bit of a prat, which seems inevitable on much reality TV.

(If you’re not familiar with The Apprentice UK, it’s a weekly reality show in which contestants complete challenges set for them by entrepreneur Alan Sugar. A flock of camera crews film the contestants as they go about their antics – coming up with their plans, consulting with people who do know the field of business, and putting plans into action. The results are edited down to a package lasting perhaps 15 or 20 minutes. After this is screened, the contestants and Sugar are brought face-to-face in the ‘boardroom’ segment. Drawing on opinions of experts and the show’s in-house ‘aides’ who’ve accompanied the contestants, Sugar offers a pungent critique of each candidate before choosing one to eliminate with the catch-phrase ‘you’re fired’.)

And there’s comedy anguish aplenty.

For instance, one of the competing teams came up with the deathless slogan “Less fizz, more sparkle.” To my ears, this belongs to a genre of advertising prose that older readers may remember with a shudder: a calendar printed on an A3 card surrounded by adverts for pubs, chippers and taxi companies, each bearing some trite, gumpish legend. Enjoy a drink in relaxing surroundings. You’re tried the rest now buy the best. Less fizz more sparkle.

Two contestants are filmed stumbling around Tesco looking for the in-store wine connoisseur. Another of the contestants, Adam Corbally, is apparently pissed as a newt when interviewed after a wine tasting.

But for schadenfreude fans, the show’s highlight was surely the catastrophically, comically wrong advert depicting a bride gagging at the (presumably foreign) rubbish sparkling wine and declaiming this isn’t English Sparkling Wine she’d ordered. Boo. But the advert has a happy ending. Yay. Some guy proffering the desired porduct that no-one’s heard of. The whole thing is redolent of the hilariously amateurish, self-regarding and seller-oriented advertising pitches so mercilessly lampooned in Viz all those years ago. The ad on The Apprentice just about stopped short of saying “At last!!! An end to your lack of English Sparkling Wine misery!!”. It also scored a double by including a priceless tagline modelled on a horrific sexist trope along the lines of ‘what she needs is English sparkling wine’. Nudge nudge, wink wink.

The participants respond to Alan Sugar’s verdict.

So we conclude the contestants are thick? Big mistake. And unfair. While many episodes do seem to reveal some terribly naive misjudgments, I suspect it’s emphasised or even created by the programme planners (by the obstacles and time constraints on the contestants) and editors (for instance by deleting evidence of competence).

When Adam Corbally compared the taste of his sparkler to Christmas cake, Twitter erupted in derision. But hang on a minute. Let’s workshop this. Imagine someone who hasn’t tasted much wine, and now for the first time he’s coached to actively sniff it. Which he does. And he detects a vinous smell he associates with one particular vinous scent he is familiar with, a port-rich christmas cake…

I didn’t taste the bottle he tasted. I wasn’t there. But on the face of it, that soundbite sounds to me like an honest and I imagine a broadly accurate descriptor.  I’d be far less impressed with the guy if he’d parroted what he’d heard other people say. Or if he baulked, refusing to say what he thought, for fear of what others might think. As such, he seems to be doing precisely what I try to do, and what I advocate others to practise. On the evidence of that tiny clip, he appears to listen to what his nose and palate tell him, and reports it honestly. That right there – that’s what I want to see. If I’m right in my presumptions, he surpasses the professionals in France who were caught out a few years ago, describing the tannins in a white wine which had been dyed red. There’s every chance he’d excel as a sommelier if happenstance directed him that way, and he enjoyed a few years’ exposure to lots and lots of wines. I’d happily buy wine from him.

The Christmas cake scene lasted seconds. What was snipped out?  By any chance did his other comments display non-comedy competence? We don’t know.  And then there’s a cutaway to Sugar aide Karren Brady, smiling and shaking her head. She may have been smiling at that comment. Or she could just as easily have been filmed an hour earlier responding to a crew member making some silly gag. We don’t know.

Adam is later shown apparently drunk. At a wine tasting, you whizz through a great volume of wines in a short period, spitting out everything you sample. The spitting out thing doesn’t come naturally and has to be learnt.  So while it may look like he was irresponsibly drinking on the job, it may be that he hadn’t learned how to spit. Big deal.

The social media

For me though, one of the most interesting aspects of the whole experience was not in the programme itself but in responses on social media to it – for instance, the derision that greeted one team’s search for the sommelier in the wine aisle of Tesco. Many (most?) of such criticisms were spot on, pointing out that that’s simply not the way large volume stores work. But some of the comments seemed to be using the opportunity to take a lazy, snobbish pop at supermarkets such as Tesco and effectively the people shop in them.   Those big-volume stores do generally have wine experts working for them – but they’re to be found at head office, at tastings sessions, or visiting wineries, not manning the aisle. In supermarkets. You know, those (hint) self-service stores.

I could be mistaken but think I detected a subtext in some of the comments on social media: they seemed to me to support the oft-repeated calumny that wines sold in supermarkets are somehow ‘different’ and inferior to fancy-pants wine. They’re not: The supermarkets’ mission is to sell lots more of everything to a broader spread of the population than, say, specialist wine stores.

Tesco, Dunnes, Superquinn et al try to address a far broader band of people including, for instance, those who have to or want to shop primarily on price. Similarly, the big stores have to cater to popular tastes, many of which aren’t highly rated by sommeliers. But that range is broad in both directions,  and the supermarkets also sell some of the high-end, highly sought-after and expensive wines, just as the wine specialists do: Champagnes, cult winemakers, gran reservas.  Indeed sometimes they’re the same wines.

The wine

I do occasionally taste English sparkling wines – most recently in April of this year – and found almost all of them perfectly palatable and presentable. I’ve never highlighted any of them in my column, solely because they’re priced in the twenties, thirties and up. They’re lovely and all that but they’re just too dear. I reckon  there’s a niche market of people who have that kind of  money, don’t mind spending it. They are welcome to buy all of it, and I merrily raise a glass to them in the hope they enjoy it.

Which brings me, finally, to an interesting article here in the Daily Telegraph about English sparkling wines. It begins with an anecdote which yet again underlines one of the best-kept secrets in the wine world: Even after we’ve tried and judged a wine, our feelings toward it can be overruled by factors which have absolutely nothing to do with what our senses have told us. The power of suggestion – whether it’s on the label, in an ad, or in suggestions of wine salesperson – is astonishingly powerful, and because it broadly equates price with quality, it’s costing us money.

The Champagne myth is riddled throughout the media, and The Apprentice isn’t immune, right from the first act. The Eurostar terminal at St Pancras station in London, the voiceover breathlessly intones, has “the longest Champange bar in Europe” (meh) “boasting the finest French fizz”. Accompanied by a shot of some moodily-lit bottles including Perrier Jouet Belle Époque 1999. Here in Ireland it’s imported by Mitchells, and it’ll set you back €119. A bottle.

Ah no thanks lads, you’re grand. Really. Bye now.

In the anecdote in the Telegraph, the two factors are provenance and price. And the writer’s point remains true even when you broaden it beyond English wines. Just because a bubbly comes from Champagne and costs €20 or €100 doesn’t mean it’s as good as a well-made cava or Australian chardonnay pinot noir for a tenner. Overpriced wine, you’re FIRED!  ♦

Reeling in the years 2012

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

IF you haven’t already seen it, I’d recommend you download and read The misuse of alcohol and other drugs, a report released this week by the Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children.

As the name suggests, it has a wide focus. Among its recommendations are stricter controls on prescription drugs, and funding for drug and alcohol rehabilitation schemes. But as you’d expect from a wine blogger, my main focus is on the parts of the report dealing with alcohol.

Alcohol consumption in Ireland has gone up by 231% since 1960. Source: http://stats.oecd.org/Index.aspx

Some of the recommendations have hit the headlines but it’s really worth reading the full report as it delivers a more rounded sense of the submissions the committee heard, lays out some key evidence, provides useful graphics which can help our understanding of the issues, and contains comprehensive references/links to further relevant stats, audio etc.

Retailers

One of the most controversial recommendations (11) suggests the government should consider an “outright ban on the sale of alcohol in certain outlets”.

But the more specific proposal in this regard is (10) for legislation to “ban the presentation and sale of alcoholic products alongside groceries, confectionary and fuel”.

This is the ‘garages-and-supermarkets’ bit you may have heard about in the news.

While on the face of it, this may look like an enormously radical change, it’s little more than a reversion to the situation that prevailed a few decades ago. The recommendation doesn’t suggest firms operating supermarkets shouldn’t run off-licences, and in practical terms it could mean little more than alcohol being hived off into an area separate from the groceries in supermarkets. This is pretty reasonable really, giving alcohol its proper place as a speciality rather than normalised as a shopping trolley staple.

However I think the 12th recommendation — “that the Government prohibit the practice of retail deliveries of alcoholic products directly to consumers’ homes” — may be a mistake. I believe it’s inspired at least in part by the shocking images from a sting operation in August 2010 on RTÉ’s Prime Time.

That film showed how four off-licences and two supermarkets had sent round alcohol to people who certainly looked like under-18s without checking for identification. The practice is also being targeted by Garda undercover sting operations.

However it’s important to distinguish between such a dial-up booze taxi and the activities of online stores occasionally mentioned in this column which take orders by credit or debit card and deliver wine and beer days later. I see little connection between the online wine stores mentioned on this blog and the booze taxi scandal. Is this because those online wine shops appeal to middle-class folk like me? Captured by the posh? Moi? Don’t think so. No, really. No, it’s because factors including price and the time lag between order and delivery are likely to make them far less appealing to underage drinkers. I’m not convinced anything would be achieved by banning them that wouldn’t be done better by ensuring they’re regulated.

A majority of the committee commended the government’s plan to indroduce minimum pricing, with a minority proposing tax increases, the proceeds to be ring-fenced for alcohol addiction services. The committee also backed a recommendation by the chairman Jerry Buttimer TD to end VAT refunds on below-cost sales. It came as a surprise to many including me that the state was, I presume unintentionally, subsidising some retailers’ sales.

The Nanny State

Inevitably, some of the committee’s recommendations, and the outlook expressed here, will be ridiculed as advocating ‘the nanny state’: folks being coddled and controlled by big brother. Well fine. Let’s look at the world from that perspective…

The Nanny Sector

Instead of the nanny state we have the nanny sector. The retail and drinks lobbies have persuaded the state to privatise much of its policy on how alcohol is advertised and sold, along with winning concessions on matters such as store size and opening hours. And then there’s the advertising and sponsorship. The ‘nannying’ we get from state bodies such as safefood.ie shrinks to infinitesimal dimensions when compared with the wall of communication funded by the powerful, largely self-regulated, alcohol industry. It’s been building its brands by advertising to impressionable young people. For many children and teens, some of the most exciting, engaging experiences are coming to them with alcohol stapled on.  The afternoon movies over Christmas on UTV were sponsored by an alcoholic cider. Matches at the most recent soccer World Cup were bookended by comedy sketches advertising a beer. The very name of Europe’s premier rugby competition is a brand of beer.

Here’s the committee’s recommendation (4)

that the Government explore the option of a ban on all retail advertising relating to the discounting of alcoholic products, a ban on the advertisement of alcoholic products on television before 9PM, and any advertisement of alcohol products on social networking websites (these bans to be given legislative standing).

In what way is this nannying? What will be missing from your life if you see fewer advertisements for drink?

If such advertising weren’t so powerful, they wouldn’t be spending so much money on it. Young people also can’t help but notice the ubiquitous availability of alcohol as part of the weekly shop — which helps normalise drink as a somehow inevitable part of grown-up life.

What happens next?

The report is now being considered by junior Health Minister Roisin Shortall. But she doesn’t get to sit on the couch and just read the report. Not by a long chalk. Don’t forget that various interested parties will be lobbying hard right now, now that change is in the air. The obvious lobbying battle line (alcohol-industry-versus-regulation) is likely to be blurred, and the hardest skirmishes may well be fought by the various sectors of that industry trying to ensure they don’t lose advantage to the others. From their persepective, it’s all about access to markets. The one justification you won’t hear for such opposition is ‘because we profit from it’.

If I knew how, I’d add a countdown clock to this blog. It’d be interesting to see, starting from the publicaton date of the committee’s report, how many days til we read press reports about the disastrous impact alcohol regulation would have on employment.

If I do get round to it, my countdown clock will be accompanied by a wry visual metaphor– a picture of a telegraph operator protesting against the advent of fax, email, SMS and social media and their effect on jobs in that now obsolete medium. 

Here’s an idea: Public policy in areas fundamental to our wellbeing such as health, education, crime, justice and welfare – should never depend how many jobs are in it.

To anyone workng in the alcohol or retail fields who feels I am being glib about the prospects for your business or your job, please be assured that is not the case. Take it from someone working in the print media: things change. It may even be for the better. And anyway, the liberalised regime of retailing and promoting alcohol in this country right now is an recent invention. I don’t recall anyone in the 1990s protesting that their sons or daughters (perhaps you) couldn’t get a job in the alcohol industry just because the local garage wasn’t allowed stock it, or your local sports club wasn’t allowed promote it. One day soon we will regard the ubiquitous alcohol policy as a flash in the pan – as brief and unwise as prohibition.  

Read the industry submissions included in the report and you’ll get a sense of the lobbying. For instance, the National Off-Licence Association is promoting measures which will make it more difficult for supermarkets to mop up market share. The supermarkets in turn — who need no lessons in lobbying from anyone — will be fighting to water down any proposals which impact on their business. I presume  other interest groups such as online wine traders are getting together right now to contact the minister. And on it goes. And it’s in that melee that policy will be formed.

Reeling In The Years

I’m hardly alone in suffering occasional pangs of embarrassment-by-proxy while watching Reeling In The Years on TV. You get that sharp pain when you spot among the video clips from yesteryear the often bizarre clothing, regrettable haircuts, ashtrays in the maternity wards, and members of our ruling class in mullets and kipper ties talking up the property bubble. The blithe reassurances that, yes, it was a good idea to hand our power to churches and companies and forego democratic oversight and regulation of them. And there’s us voting for them. What the hell were we thinking?

Well here’s a handy hint. If you’re wondering about the wisdom of anything from a political policy to a haircut — now, today — just cast your mind forward and imagine how it would look featured ten or twenty years hence on Reeling In The Years 2012.

With regard to alcohol, I figure there’s a good chance we’ll be pretty embarrassed. The way we drink, and especially the way we allow the industry to behave in 2012, will look wildly inappropriate when we look back at it a decade hence. With the lucidity of hindsight, we’ll look back in wonder at the way we handed over power to a small few stakeholders in the alcohol and retail industries, and it’ll all look utterly mad. Here’s a snippet of what we’re likely to say…

“Self-regulation? Given the lessons we’d already learnt from what that kind of power did to the financial industry? What the hell were we thinking?”

We ought to commend this Oireachteas committee, and any governement with the courage to drive on with the broad thrust of its report. As I mentioned above, there will be powerful groups who make their money from alcohol lobbying the minister. So who’s missing from her table? Most of us, really — disenfranchised by our silence, left reading page after page of court reports about alcohol-related violence and accidents. Because right now. whether we like it or not, that’s what’s ‘normal’.

The advertising, availability and display of alcohol aren’t the only factors contributing to the abuse of alcohol. But they are among the few in our direct political control. That’s our power which, for a generaton, we’ve ceded to private firms for profit. If you welcome the partial rolling back of ubiquitous alcohol and alcohol advertising, and taking power back from sectoral interests, you might consider contacting your TD or the minister to give them your backing.  ♦

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

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Wine unplugged

The Wine Trials

This post is part of a collection of related links here, The Skeptical Wine Lover.

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IT should go without saying but… When you’re at the dinner table tonight, you and your companions are all alone with the wine in your glasses.
Reputation, history, packaging, advertising, back label blurb, descriptions, reviews, ratings and even language itself all vanish – boof! – leaving just you and your company with the sight, smell and taste of the wine nestling in the bottom of your glass.

It’s pretty wonderful. Like music, enjoying food and drink is an entirely sensual escapade. However, we’re forever interpreting, judging, and imposing language on what we experience. And that’s okay too. As humans it’s what we’re wired to do.

But ideally, we should all be assessing the quality of any wine based entirely on its colour, aroma and taste. And so too should any wine columnist or blogger. With certain limitations, I attempt to do this, thereafter factoring in other key criteria, most notably price and availability, when deciding to recommend wines.

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

Recommend? What’s that about? Isn’t that just a second-hand experience? Well like many another, half of my weekly column in the Irish Examiner is essentially me nudging your elbow saying, “here, try these wines, I think you might like them.” I’m not shy, and not reluctant to recommend wines I think offer both an interesting experience and good value. And (especially when taken cumulatively) I believe such commendations may be of value to the reader. Wouldn’t do it otherwise.

However, I believe many readers presume those recommendations are what I’m at, that I view them as the most useful end of the column. I don’t. To me, the lump of narrative accompanying the recommendations is actually where it’s at. It’s where I do my bit to debunk wine myths, encourage readers to delve into the experience, plead with them to make use of open, public wine tastings. Because it’s not about me, nor about wineries or retailers or anything else. It’s all about you on a Saturday night and the bundle of sensations nestling in the bottom of your wine glass. Sometimes I say this overtly and sometimes I hint at it: Among the phrases I most frequently use are “suck it and see” and “trust your tastebuds”.

So it was with delight that I plunged last week into one of the delightful, radical books about wine I’ve had the pleasure to read, namely The Wine Trials 2011 (Workman Publishing, NY, 2011) You can buy it online (at Amazon for Kindle) or order it at good bookshops including Waterstones and Eason.

The book is the latest edition of a project that grew out of “Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better?” an academic paper published in May, 2008 by Robin Goldstein which in turn was based on a battery of blind taste-tests. In essence, some 500 volunteers assessed wines they tasted blind. And not only was a disparity between price and quality, in general they preferred cheaper wine to more expensive wine.  This, some further double-blind tastings, and a host of references to peer-reviewed academic research make up the business end of the book. Part II of the book is its list, complete with tasting notes, of the ‘winners’ selected by the blind tastings at the inexpensive end of the market.

I was delighted to see many wines there I’d recommended – some of them modest numbers priced well below €10 here in Ireland which I’d suggest offer far more than their price point would suggest. But the most significant deja-vu I experienced was reading Goldstein plead with readers to invest more of their attention in Part I. Suck it and see.

Importantly, the book is rigorous and disciplined. While Goldstein and his contributors do engage in some pretty interesting editorialising, the authors provide clear evidence for every significant claim they make, and delineate carefully between those evidence-based findings, and broader notions they put forward or use to illustrate the science.

I’m coming late to all this. I’m not alone. Despite its direct and immediate application anywhere in the world, The Wine Trials has had scant attention on this side of the Atlantic. The whole economy, let alone the wine market, of the US differs significantly from Ireland’s, But the most interesting and most important aspects of the book are entirely transferable.

I was alerted to the book by Eric Asimov, the New York Times’ wine guy whose columns and blogs are always worth a browse.
Over the last three years or so, Eric has been having a dialogue in print with the authors of The Wine Trials, and his critique may add a further dimension to your understanding of what the book is all about. But, while Asimov is as fair and respectful an interlocutor as one would expect, I’d recommend you don’t read one without the other. Goldstein continues the conversation in this latest edition of The Wine Trials. For an unparalelled insight into us, and how we view our food and drink, I recommend you buy it and read it.  ♦

As of October 2012, I am no longer drinks columnist with the Irish Examiner Weekend. See the home page of this blog for more details. Thank you.

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. ♦

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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