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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Twitter – The crowd bites back

TWITTER is changing the way information and opinion is shared. Historians may yet look back and identify it as the single greatest and fastest-growing tool for the democratisation of information since, um, the printing press.

I for one was baffled that commentators doing end-of-decade analysis last month didn’t declare 2009 The Year Of The Crowd. Turmoil in Iran, Jan Moir’s savaging of Stephen Gately’s reputation; Trafigura’s astonishing attempt to gag The Guardian and other media from reporting its toxic dumping scandal; The Scottish Sunday Express’ mugging of teenage survivors of the Dunblane massacre… The course of each of these stories was in part exposed, in part reported, and in part changed utterly by citizens with a net connection and a Twitter account.

Only yesterday, an air traffic controller based in Shannon Airport discovered that a blog post she’d published some time ago had been scooped up and selectively quoted by the Irish Mail on Sunday — essentially they used her words as a stick with which to beat her colleagues. Not good.

Update: When I first posted this opinion, the foregoing paragraph said the Irish Mail on Sunday had produced its article “without making contact with her”. Since then, the paper laid out its side of the story, including the fact that they had made contact, and that the subject had replied saying she’d rather not participate in their planned article. I don’t recall any mention of this contact in the first tweets and blog postings complaining about the article. I may have overlooked it. Either way, apologies to the journalist and the MoS for that.

I do think though my main point still makes sense. End of update.

While this story is still playing itself out, and I for one would balk at drawing any conclusions, Twitter was certainly crucial in allowing her put her side of the story assert the unvarnished and contextualised truth behind the misleading MoS article. Within hours of the newspaper hitting the streets, thousands of people, friends and strangers alike, were able to fully appreciate  her perspective.

I mainly post here about wine, and in a handful of instances (mainly advertising and PR guff, but also a laughably wretched Channel 4 Dispatches programme) I’ve drawn attention to what I call true-but-misleading syndrome: That’s where a newspaper, wine-seller or PR person (or, dagnabit, an office gossip) selectively stacks a heap of truths together that are so woefully decontextualised and misleading as to be worse than lies. Worse, because they are so difficult to rebut.

Twitter is not going to magically dispel that syndrome. But it’s certainly going to accelerate the dissemenation of detail, of context, of opinion. Not all of it is going to be good or pretty, and certainly not all of it is going to be bad.  It’s going to be interesting.

Have ye no homes to go to…

THREE things happening this week (two in Cork, one nationwide) may be of interest to wine fans – the inaugural session of Bubble Brothers’ new wine club, a guide to growing your own fruit, and a virtual blind tasting session through the medium of Twitter.

1. New wine club in Cork

Firstly, Bubble Brothers are launching what sounds like a fun monthly wine club. The Blackrock Castle Wine Club, as its name suggests, will be based at the unspeakably handsome castle-restaurant-observatory of that name on the Lee. It’ll meet 10 times a year, on the last Thursday of every month (except July and December) from 7.30pm to 9.30pm.

Blackrock Castle

Bubble Brothers are basing their new wine club at Blackrock Castle & Observatory

Forgive my repitition of what I regard as a well-kept secret: wine tastings, wine dinners and wine clubs often offer astonishing good value for a night out and BB’s club looks likely to be no exception. The price is €200 per year for all 10 sessions, or €25 per session for non-members, subject to space. They’ll meet at the Castle Bar and Trattoria in Blackrock Castle, although there may be occasional exceptions such as a midsummer banquet on June 24 in the Castle’s Observatory Restaurant.

The inaugural meeting takes place next Thursday at 7.30pm. Check out www.bubblebrothers.com for more details. I’m sure I’ve posted something here before about the economics of such events *rummages around in files to no avail*. In brief — retailer, wholesaler and producer all happily drop their margins in order to showcase wines they believe in. The wine fan enjoys a convivial night but pays far, far less than she would for the nearest equivalent in a pub or restaurant. It’s wine-wine. Sorry I meant win-win.

2. Grow your own fruit

I recently wrote a column in the Irish Examiner followed by a blog post on the same theme about growing fruit. It was by way of reply to the frequently-asked question about the feasiblity of making wine (as we know it) in Ireland. Now it turns out one of the players in that piece is generously giving his time to a meeting of the Cork Free Choice Consumer Group on Thursday January 28. Con Traas (whose apples I was merrily munching as I wrote the original blog post) is joined by a fellow fruit grower to provide guidance and inspiration to amateur gardeners who fancy growing a whole range of delicious fruits.  See here for all the details.

3. Twitter tasting

Time, ladies and gentlemen PUHLEASE! It’s last orders. Or at least it will be on Thursday January 28 at 1pm which is your last  chance to order a mystery bottle of wine so you can participate in Ireland’s second Twitter Blind Tasting Event or twebt.

Anyone (over 18 of course) who has The Twitter and is anywhere in Ireland can take part in this online blind tasting set up by technology professional Brian Clayton and Kevin Crowley of Fenn’s Quay restaurant in Cork.

Hey! No peeking now!

Twitter wine will be revealed on Sunday

The idea is simple. Rather than being asked to stir from the hearth to take part in a wine event, you’re invited to buy one particular bottle — wrapped so its identity is unknown to you — and set yourself up with glasses and your chosen company on Sunday night to take part in the tasting. On Twitter at the appointed time (8pm) you post up descriptions of the colours, scents and flavours you detect — and discuss it with other participants as long as the fancy takes you. In 140 characters or fewer, of course. Go have a look-see at the Twitter stream for #twebt or the other links on this page.

As well as Fenn’s Quay, the twebt is centered on three wine importers based in Co Cork — Bubble Brothers, Curious Wines and Karwig’s — which are of course competitors, but which yet have found common cause: They collaborated on The Good Wine Show in December, and they’re all interactive tweeters. They’re taking it in turns to supply wines to the Twitter tastings series.

You can buy the bottle here on the Curious Wines website, which also has all the details you may want to know.

I hasten to add that geography is no barrier as the Thursday deadline is for delivery anywhere in the republic. Those nearer Bandon Co Cork can pop by and buy their bottle over the counter up to Saturday at 6pm.

On a bigger scale *harrumphs and adopts serious disposition* you might like to pour another glass and reflect that Twitter is changing the way information and opinion is shared.  I look at just some aspects of that phenomenon here.

But for now I’m going to don my top hat and conduct a wine tasting by telegraph… And that’s another story

Wine myths

HERE are some widely-held misapprehensions about wine and alcohol. Self-confessed buffs will greet most of them with a nod of recognition. Some of the points relate to general health issues but as ever, if you have any query about any aspect of your health, ask your doctor about it.

Screwcaps

A myth still persists in some quarters that poor, cheap wines are the only ones bottled under screwcaps and that a ‘proper’ cork is a sign of a good wine. Not so. As practically every dedicated wine fan knows by now, the twist-off cap is generally a better, more reliable way to seal a wine bottle. And each year, more and more wines on our shelves are bottled that way, led by upmarket wineries in New Zealand and Australia.

Corked wine

There’s a perception that if cork is partly broken, crumbling or damaged, the wine inside will be faulty. Not necessarily.

When we say a wine is ‘corked’ we mean it’s infected with a substance named 2,4,6-trichloroanisole (TCA). Produced by fungi, it is harmless, but spoils the wine experience (especially if you’re in the habit of enjoying an occasional sniff as well as a sip) with its off-putting, dank, wet cardboard, rising damp odour. It can infest barrels or even a whole winery. But, crucially, one of the places it flourishes best is within natural cork, hence the slightly confusing word ‘corked’.

The fault was one of the impulses that drove the wine industry to turn to screwcaps.

“Single varietal wines are better than blends”

One possible source of this myth is that  some of the great traditions are single-varietal: The whites from Bourgogne/Burgundy are nothing but chardonnay, while the reds are 100% pinot noir. Also, most of the great wines from the related traditions of Germany and Alsace will contain only riesling, pinot blanc, pinot gris or gewürztraminer, each in splendid isolation.

But in fact, blends are the norm right around the wine world, old and new. In part, this is hidden from view as, in most wine producing countries, a wine named say “cabernet” can contain a smaller proportion of other grapes without that being mentioned on the label.

Some of the world’s most prized wines are blends. For instance, take three classic French regions – Champagne (three grapes) Bordeaux (two in whites and three in reds) and Chateauneuf-du-Pape (13. Yes, thirteen).
Across the border in Spain, we associate the great wines of Rioja with the tempranillo grape but in general, they may also contain the beautifully perfumed garnacha (aka grenache in the south of France) and possibly also some graciano and mazuelo too.

Blends of both red and white grapes aren’t uncommon either, the most obvious example being Champagne which often pitches pinot noir and chardonnay together – most obviously in rosés, but also in white sparklers. (The colour in red wines comes solely from the red grape skins, so you can make white wine from red grapes simply by minimising the amount of time the skins remain in contact with the fermenting must).

One of the keys to blending is that each grape complements the other. For instance, in the aforementioned Bordeaux red blend, the cabernet sauvignon (broadly speaking) tends to be hard, firm and austere, and the merlot softly aromatic. That characterisation is a bit simplistic, as many single-varitals of either can offer all that. And even within Bordeaux, quite a few wines will be made from 100% of one grape or the other. Like most things in life, it depends.

One last example: One of the many great contributions quality Australian wineries have made to wine was to rediscover and promote anew the great Rhone tradition of blending shiraz  with a tiny bit of viognier – co-fermented in the same vat, or done separately and blended later. Having tried my hand at a bit of bonehead Blending 101, I am convinced the little tot of white does lift and polish the colour, scent and taste of the finished wine.

 

Alcohol content

There’s a perception that winemakers have been deliberately pumping more and more alcohol into wines in recent decades. Twenty years ago, practically every wine came in at 11.5% to 12.5%, while nowadays they commonly hit 13% and 14%. But in fact, underlying this upward trend is the set of interrelationships among three factors: sugar, alcohol and flavour.

The wine styles we favour nowadays are generally (1) full of ripe fruit flavour and (2) quite dry, as in low in sugar. As you know, the riper any fruit is, the more stuffed with sugar it will be. So grapes bursting with sweet juice are carted off to the winery (generally trailed by a cloud of wasps driven crack-addict crazy by that heady scent) only for most of that sugar to be fermented into lots and lots and lots of alcohol.

Winemakers all over the world have been seeking ways to make modern fruity wines without such a high payload of alcohol. However, it’s not an easy circle to square. Planting in cooler areas; harvesting grapes earlier, and using less efficient strains of yeast are among the key approaches to naturally reduce the sugar/alcohol content. These expedients could help restore the old 11% benchmark. Two wine countries – Germany and Portugal – are awash in good traditional wine styles with around 10% or 11% alcohol ABV. And semi-sweet styles, again particularly from Germany may have even less alcohol.

There have been recent attempts to produce low-alcohol wines, usually by making full strength wine and then mechanically or chemically removing that particular active ingredient. All of the ones I’ve tried are pretty poor and if you want to reduce the alcohol content you’re imbibing, you’d be better off with grape juice, or by adding water to your wine, or drinking less.

Mixing your drinks

We’ve all heard the warning: mixing the grape (wine, brandy, port, sherry) with the grain (beer, whiskey) will cause you terrible after-effects the following day. This is an attribution error of giant proportions. Hangovers are caused by alcohol.
The myth may be grounded in the circumstances the sufferer is most likely to consume both classes of drink – coincidentally involving lots of alcohol. “We went for a few drinks after work and then on to the restaurant where we had a few bottles of wine and a drop of Cognac with the coffee – oh yes and the waiter came round with flaming sambucas on the house and then we went back to the pub for more pints…”

Attributing the problem to the class of drink rather than the quantity of it is a self-deluding get-out clause.

And if I can’t appeal to your common sense, can I please appeal to your incredulity? Just suppose for a moment that each class, grape and grain, does have some magic ingredient which – even after they’ve been denatured by fermentation or distillation – cause people to feel ill when they meet. Well if that is so, please explain to me why the streets aren’t full of people staggering around groaning in pain caused by their breakfast muesli.
Certainly, loading up on a rich, superfluous overdose of nutrients could cause some queasiness, but in my view it’s likely to be infinitesimal compared to the after-effects of too much alcohol.

The deeper the punt, the better the wine

I was startled at a tasting shortly before Christmas to hear someone suggest the depth of the indentation at the base of a bottle was linked to the quality of the wine inside. I really thought that myth had died, but no.
In wine as with most things in life, the packaging very unreliable as a predictor of quality.

Imagine you are a winemaker a few decades or a century ago, making two wines – one relatively cheap, all of which will be sold and consumed within a year. Another promises to improve with age: it is dearer to produce; storing it costs money; and it’ll probably fetch a far higher price.  Yes, it makes sense to bottle the latter in a more expensive, more robust bottle – the type with the deeper punt.

So more expensive wines -> heavier bottles. That was the cause and its consequence. Bear that in mind.

Fast forward to today, and switch location to UK and Ireland. Improved quality control in glassmaking and containerised transport has greatly lessened wastage due to breakage. But more importantly, some wine traders – understanding how we routinely read cause and consequence backwards – merrily bottle cheaper mid-range wines in big, heavy, expensive bottles. It’s part of the branding of the product, and comes out of the marketing budget.

The reverse of the myth is untrue too. I’ve tasted some cracking wines from lightweight bottles with practically no punt. And also from plastic bottles, quarter bottles, and cardboard boxes or ‘bladder packs’. If they had such reliable packaging technology a thousand years ago they’d all have been using them too.

Wine is good for you
Wine is bad for you

These notions – along with variants such as ‘a glass of red wine a day is good for you’ – aren’t true and aren’t false. But they’re hopelessly, irredeemably useless and there is no evidence for either. If and when such evidence is produced, I’ll be among the first to flag it, I promise.

Yet we keep seeing apparently plausible stories suggesting one or the other. It’s only when you take the long view and see all these stories in context that the absurdity emerges. Indeed one website is devoted entirely to aggregating stories in just one newspaper in the ‘X is good for you, Y is bad for you’ genre. Last time I checked, it listed 17 recent stories that wine prevents cancer and 18 that it causes it.

There are some specific health issues – alcoholism being merely the most obvious one – regarding wine that neither I nor any other blogger can help you with, and you really should talk to your doctor if you are in any doubt. But otherwise you should be fine with moderate consumption of alcohol, along with a good varied diet, a bit of exercise, a decent night’s sleep, the company of people who care about you, a good belly laugh, a sense of proportion about the risks and opportunities that face you, the respect of your peers, etc etc…

Where was I? Oh yes. Wine.

The real issue isn’t wine at all. Nor is it science. The real problem is twofold: our natural, human tendancy to misunderstand or overinterpret data around us, which is profitably exploited by the feral wing of the media.  What’s that about? Well for a swift catch-up, I refer you again to Ben Goldacre’s demolition of the way the media wilfully misrepresents science here      it’s a five- or six-minute audio-only clip on YouTube.

In what I call the yay-boo media, the work of scientists is regularly misreported, reducing them panto heroes or villains. They’ve either discovered some magic bullet that’ll help you live longer (yay!) or are foisting some new horror on us – such as vaccinations – that’ll kill us all stone dead (boo!).

Apart from such media outlets’ mendacity, much of the problem lies is the small print, and our reluctance or inability to read it: Scientific research is phrased carefully, and stuffed with caveats and conditions. For instance, a study might demonstrate that a substance isolated from grape skins tends to have certain effects on a certain type of human cells in vitro.  And those effects, if replicated in the human body, could potentially have effects that are beneficial to the workings of a particular aspect of our metabolism. That is not communicating the same message as the half-page article headlined Study Shows Wine Protects Heart Health, illustrated by that stock shot of a woman tucking into an enormous glass of cabernet. (As an aside – you might enjoy this glance into the world of stock photography).

We have a similarly big problem understanding population lifestyle studies. For instance, a large-scale study may indeed show that, of those sampled, people who drink wine live longer than those who don’t.

But crucially that does not suggest one phenomenon (the wine) causes the other (the longevity).  A brilliant piece of research reported in the British Medical Journal in 2006 demonstrated one way that studies of wine can be confounded by other factors. Researchers in Denmark got the co-operation of some 100 supermarkets and food shops which turned over the data from 3.5 million till receipts.
Trawling through them, they discovered that drinkers in their sample who bought wine (as opposed to other forms of alcohol) were more likely to buy fresh fruit, vegetables and meat, while those who brought other types of alcohol through the checkout were more likely to also buy snacks and fatty processed foods.

What that really tells us is something we may have guessed – for a host of reasons, people buying into home cooking tend to choose wine. That in turn may suggest why wine-drinking seems to be related to longevity.  While I certainly don’t see takeaways or snack foods as some sort of lethal poison, I do believe home cooking with fresh ingredients to be positive contributors to wellbeing – as well perhaps as suggesting an enhanced home life. And maybe that is where long life,  health and happiness can be found.

Thing is, unlike a bottle of wine, you can’t buy that lifestyle off the shelf for €8. And similarly, the Danish report doesn’t easily fit in to the yay-boo media template of a good story and so was barely mentioned in the mass media. Certainty sells, not subtlety.

‘Contains sulphites’

I believe the use and health efects of SO2 is the most widely misunderstood  issue regarding wine. Sulphites (or sulfites, the American spelling) are naturally-occurring compounds which have been used as a preservative in wine – as well as other foods such as blue cheese and dried fruit – for hundreds of years. You can take it that all wines, including those made from organically-grown grapes, contain sulphites. Oh, and your body naturally produces sulphites. They’re a group of natural, non-toxic compounds. And millions of people are drinking wine every day around the world with no problem.

Here’s my understanding: A small proportion of the population who suffer from asthma may have an adverse reaction to sulphites in the diet, but most of us seem to suffer no ill effects.

It may be technically possible to produce wines that don’t contain sulphites but they would be tremendously unstable and would perhaps more closely resemble vinegar. Put it this way –  I taste hundreds of wines every year and have yet to try, or even see, a bottle claiming to contain sulphite-free wine. On just one occasion (an informal sale akin to a Tupperware party) I did hear a winery representative wooing potential buyers by saying they didn’t use sulphites. When I queried this claim, she admitted that they did indeed use that natural harmless substance ‘but not much’. Oh dear.

The alarm suffered by some wine-drinkers is caused in part by the warning on wine bottles which screams CONTAINS SULPHITES just like that, in capitals. Given that, surely, anyone with a sulphite intolerance will know that wine always contains the stuff, I believe it’s as helpful as a warning that a tin of tomatoes CONTAINS TOMATOES.

I used to think that the warning should be scrapped entirely. A compromise could entail a requirement for wine producers to label the sulphite content as an average parts per million (ppm) at time of production. There would be understandable industry resistance to such a solution. Unlike, say, soft drinks or prepared meals, wine changes from year to year: the testing and printing costs could be prohibitive, especially to smaller producers. But either solution would be preferable to the current one which generally only serves to frighten people.

Organic wine

Some people believe that wines made from organically-grown grapes taste better, are better for you, and won’t give you a hangover. And yet – having met quite a few organic winemakers and people who sell their wines – I’ve yet to hear one of them make any of these claims.

I am emotionally drawn to organics, and am particularly persuaded by issues of sustainability, and by the notion of producers wresting power from companies that market agricultural inputs. We owe the organic movement a great deal of credit for its key role in putting food quality up the agenda in recent decades. However, I’ve yet to see any evidence of health benefits due to organic production methods.

There’s an ever-growing range of wines on the market approved by one of the various organisations certifying produce as being organic or biodynamic. In its wake comes an even larger slew of wines from producers practicing minimal intervention techniques such as ‘lutte raisonné’, many of which are organic-in-all-but-name. But by not seeking such certification are entitled to use legal insecticides and pesticides.

To the last and most easily demolished point, hangovers. Alcohol is the component that causes hangovers. So a wine made from organically-grown grapes will cause a hangover every bit as powerful as the non-organic type: Falling from an oak tree will not hurt any less than falling from a breeze-block wall. ♦

It’s hardly surprising that a psychoactive, potentially addictive and highly profitable substance should trail a whole slew of mythology in its wake.


“a mighty big claim”

“I have sent up to you a mighty big claim – which my visa really needs to see some monies but aside from that minor detail for some reason the receipts requested is for the one thing I don’t have receipts for which was the tips I forked out to the Indians for moving the luggage around airports, hotels etc…”

THE passage above is the guts of a covering note for an expenses claim submitted in February 2006 on foot of a trip to India by then minister John O’Donoghue, his wife, and his private secretary Therese O’Connor.

It was made public by Gavin Sheridan‘s blog after a Freedom of Information request which adds further texture and detail to recent articles in The Sunday Tribune.

I don’t want to distract from the real issue – government corruption and waste. Nor do I want to unduly emphasise the unreceipted component, €80 on tips to “the Indians”. Mere pennies compared to, for instance, the €7,591 O’Donoghue spent on “airport pick-ups” on a two-day trip to London. Deep breath after that one.

Nor do I mean to single out for ridicule the private secretary who wote the email above: I’m sure she’s a perfectly decent well-educated person who’s capable of better grammar and syntax than this particular scribble might suggest. We all dash stuff off like that, and god between us and linguistic nazism.

But, just as a piece of music can sometimes more eloquently describe a mood, a time and a place than any voluminous report, the tone of that email goes to the heart of the issue. The air of casual presumption, focused entirely on the need of the travelling party (…my visa really needs to see some monies…) is precisely one half of the problem.

This is the same insolent presumption displayed by the builders and bankers who populated the Fianna Fáil tent at Galway Races. It exhibits the same casual disregard for the mores, standards and budgetary strictures of ordinary families, of PAYE employees, and of the people running small businesses. It displays the same petulant arrogance as that of His Royal Highness Ned “droit de seigneur” O’Keeffe during his recent notorious antics.

Well, it’s not okay.

It wasn’t okay then, during the boom bubble. And maybe now that people are beginning to comprehend the outrage that is the NAMA socialism-for-the-rich scheme, perhaps more people might cop on that it was never okay.

The other half of the problem is us. We keep on voting for [or failing to vote against – same difference] the same dopey old mé féiners who feel entitled to run this country, and by extension their well-heeled apparatchiks who dash off the likes of the lumpen email above.

Please bookmark Gavin’s blog and watch these issues unfurl. ♦

Democracy in action

Clipping from the Cork Evening Echo of the Ned O'Keeffe story.

Clipping from the Cork Evening Echo of the Ned O'Keeffe story.

I will resume posting properly shortly – other fish to fry at the moment.  But I do feel obliged to break cover briefly to pass on this from the Public Enquiry website.

In brief, a TD dismisses the idea of representing the rather reasonable demands of a primary school because not enough people in that neighbourhood voted for him. The story by Padraig Hoare was carried in the Evening Echo on Thursday July 2 and is being given a bit of a further airing by Gavin Sheridan.

I don’t blame Ned so much as our very, very sick political system. It rewards the likes of Ned and promotes that princely  sense of entitlement he exhibits. And worst of all, we keep on voting these people in.

Please read the article here and/or Gavin’s commentary. And pass it on.

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