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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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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.

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.

Astonishingly, there’s more. A machine that makes something that tastes so nasty suddenly 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 alcohol is not specifically acted on by the kidney, that function belonging to the liver. So the machine seems to have successfully wrought 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 rudimentary understanding of physics and chemistry 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 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, to take just two criteria).  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 pretty well.

I believe the ultrasound yoke may — rather like a whiz in a blender or a few seconds in the microwave — 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    ♦

Beer and food at the Cornstore

HERE’S an event promising delicious grub, great value — and an eye-opener if you only ever consider wine for the dinner table.
Food & Beer dinner in the Cornstore restaurant, Cornmarket Street, Cork, on Wednesday, January 18, 2012 at 7.30pm.
Reservations on 021-4274777 or reservations@cornstorecork.com. €24.95 a head. Also see http://www.thisisbeer.ie.

While wine is my main interest, overlooking good beer and cider as accompaniments to food is frankly nuts. Just like wine, beers grew up alongside the food traditions on these islands and elsewhere and can be  perfectly suited to the dinner table. I’m particularly thinking good ales and stouts, but really there’s a whole world of beer styles that can be perfect with food.  Fermented grape, fermented grain. Your call.

Each of three courses on Wednesday is matched to a selection of the international beers marketed by Heineken Ireland.  Some of the company’s previous food-and-beer promotions were tutored tastings. I’m not sure if that’s the case this time. But the info Heineken did send includes the tasty-looking menu below. To me this looks like a great value night out.

STARTERS

 Duck liver parfait with brioche, Wild mushroom and brown bread dumpling
 Goats cheese crostini with sundried tomato pesto
 Mini white bean and bacon soup
with Paulaner or Zywiec

MAINS

Roast hake on braised leeks and sautéed samphire with a champagne, crab and coral sauce with Heineken or Tiger
Chicken breast with a mushroom duxell, roast swede, scallion mash, savoy cabbage and truffle jus with Zywiec or Coors Light
Slow-roasted pork belly  with roast potatoes, sauerkraut, candied walnuts and a cider reduction with Tiger, Affligem or Zywiec
Braised lamb shank with roast orange sweet potato, celeriac and green beans with
Affligem or Zywiec
Cannelloni of butternut squash with goats cheese, spinach and figs with sun dried tomato pesto, rocket salad with Birra Moretti

DESSERT

White chocolate mousse with raspberry sorbet, flourless chocolate cake and lemon posset, with Paulaner or Affligem 

Finally, In my column in the Irish Examiner today (Saturday January 14, 2012) I’m looking at a fascinating book, The Wine Trials, which may change the way you view the wine world. I’ll be posting more about that book, as well as a guide to blind tasting later today.

It ties in with the approach to wine this blog strives to promote, so you might like to start here with this heap of links for the sceptical wine lover♦ 

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. ♦

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