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    ♦

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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.

Buying wine online

Buying wine online


HERE’s a list of Ireland’s best wine websites and below are some  general guidelines to getting good wine delivered to your door in time for Christmas day. You should of course bear in mind all the usual caveats when shopping at an online wine retailer. The criteria I’d suggest you consider include…

1. The quality and value of the range of wines it sells;
2. Comprehensive information on each wine, including useful notes;
3. Free or reasonably priced delivery;
4. A range of styles sufficiently substantial to cope with different needs or occasions;
5. Ease of use of the site;
6. Fun and/or useful extras such as blogs, links and more information about wine.

There is also one overriding hygiene factor: clear and accurate information on price, delivery, terms and conditions made clear to the shopper before s/he starts the purchasing process. If any of those issues are in question, forget about it.

Specifically, any wine website worth looking at should be…

VERSATILE: Most sites offer two ways to buy: You can choose one of their pre-picked selections, or you can put together your own mixed cases will-nilly.

INFORMATIVE:It’ll list every wine’s full name, vintage and regional designation. It ought to have a little bit of further information about the wine’s producer and the region.

UNAMBIGUOUS: One of the things you should check immediately – that the site has unambiguous information about
1 minimum order
2 delivery charge, if any.*

3 extra costs, if any.
*The first two points can be related, as often delivery is free if you order over a certain value or volume.
The third point is ultra-important. There should be no extra costs, end of story.
*

AUTHORITATIVE: If there are notes about the wines, ask yourself if someone has actually tasted the wine and tried to communicate something of its character. Or is it just vaguely positive-sounding blurb.

UP TO DATE: It’s quite possible that a site promising “sizzling bargains for summer 2007” might be selling top class wines at good prices. But really you’d have more confidence in the ones that have accurate up-to-date information.

I’d be highly sceptical of any site that pops in a cost such as insurance on top of the list price. In particular, watch out for VAT. It is an offence for a retailer to advertise consumer goods without its VAT component.

Yet one site, http://www.throughthegrapevine.ie, (which should not be confused with the estimable http://www.onthegrapevine.ie) promotes itself as supplying individual customers, providing wedding wines etc. However, it does not include VAT in its list prices, that component being added in later in the purchase process. Some people (yes I mean me) get a bit fuzzy about numbers when they go into three figures and I can imagine a less-than-alert wine buyer innocently clicking ‘buy’ without realising his or her wines have gotten a whole lot dearer.
How can this site justify this? Well it also sells business-to-business and as such is entitled to show ex-VAT prices. But by rights they should emulate those flyers from Dell which clearly show both prices for business and private customers.

Through The Grapevine may not be doing anything illegal but really it is a bit cheesy to say the least and you don’t need people like that in your life. Puh.

El Coto Crianza

El Coto Crianza

Oh and apart from all that, the corporate or private shopper may do better elsewhere anyway. Last time I compared, Through The Grapevine listed El Coto De Rioja Crianza 2004/05 as €120 for a 6-bottle case. Add in €25.80  in VAT and the total comes to €145.80, meaning you’re stumping up over €24 every time you brandish your corkscrew. A high-end premium wine then? Break it out for special occasions?

Well hang on, look up another site,  www.karwigwines.ie, and there it is, El Coto Crianza [not to be confused with the Gran Reserva] the same wine for €14.15 a bottle straight up, VAT included. Delivery is free if you buy the right quantity. And even if you’re buying less than that, the €9.50 delivery charge is swallowed up by the 5% case discount  or the 10% discount on orders worth more than €200.

The point is — tame your credulity and shop around. If you’ve any comments or questions, please add a comment below. ♦

AUTHORITATIVE

Wine tasting evening, June 25

It’s wine o’clock!


I’M running a fun wine-tasting evening with the Sexual Violence Centre, Cork on Thursday June 25.  We’ll be sipping from a long list of wines that I think will light yer candle – accompanied by some top-class tasty treats courtesy of Bridget Healy and Vourneen Fayer. Yay!

For years, Mary Crilly and myself have been promising ourselves we’d do a tasting in (and for) the Sexual Violence Centre, so I’m thrilled skinny that it’s finally happening. You may be interested yourself. And/or if you know anyone who might be, please pass on a link to this page.

It’s all taking place in the airy first-floor rooms of the Centre’s home – a beautiful 18th century townhouse on Camden Place, the terrace of red-brick houses on Camden Quay just off St Patrick’s Bridge in Cork. By the way, the satirist and mischief-making rascal Sylvester Mahony (aka Fr Prout) was born on the same terrace in 1804 but I’m not sure which house. Anyway, this is a rare opportunity to see this lovely building from the inside, which is another bonus.

Untrellised bush vines

Where the wines come from...

The words “wine tasting” have many, many meanings so I’ll outline roughly what this one is all about. Everyone will be seated around tables (or, for the lucky few who get there early, sprawled on the cosy couches) and I’ll introduce six or eight reds, whites and rosés as well as some cool bubbles  —  the ones that don’t have the word ‘property’ in front of them.

I will be talking a bit about each wine while trying to avoid telling people what to think. I’ll also be chatting around some themes that can help us choose wines that are both good and good value.  (Plus, if it doesn’t complicate things too much, I might be getting people to engage in a fun and practical exercise designed to help us reassert the pre-eminence of our senses over the say-so of critics and commentators like myself).

It’ll most closely resemble a sociable few drinks (albeit with one guy holding forth a bit. That’d be me).  At the same time, it may be a useful exercise in reasserting some key guidelines when you are out buying wine. There’ll be printouts available at the end of the night detailing all the wines and where to get them, so people don’t have to be fussed getting the details at the time. Plus I’ll do a follow-up here online with references to any information that people are interested in. Which means we can all relax and enjoy the night.

Wine shelves
…and where we can buy them

I can’t stand the undue reverence that is often paid to wine, and do everything I can to demolish that. But we will be drinking good tack on the night. And the wines will be shown off at their best as we’ll be serving them in great big Bordeaux-style glasses rather than  those wretched ISO egg-cup-sized yokes. Life’s too short.

The event is taking place to raise funds for, and awareness of, the Sexual Violence Centre which for 26 years has been providing support for survivors of sexual violence. It also offers outreach such as its schools education programmes, and is an active participant in the anti-trafficking campaign. Apart from the funds raised by the evening, just by gathering in that building I think we’ll all be offering our unspoken support for the people who provide these vital services.

Wine Tasting Evening with Blake Creedon
Thursday June 25,  (start time 7.30pm or 8pm – TBC)
Sexual Violence Centre, Camden Quay, Cork.
Tickets (€25) from 021 4505577 or from http://www.sexualviolence.ie.

For years, Mary Crilly and myself have been promising ourselves we’d do one, so I’m thrilled skinny that it’s finally happening. You may be interested yourself. And/or if you know anyone who might, please pass on a link to this page.

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