Sunday, December 1, 2013

It's the thought that counts when you are drunk at Christmas

DECEMBER is hardly the time for discussing the finer aspects of wine and terroir; it is a time for over-indulgence and intoxication, sparkling bubbles and purple-stained lips, family and friends, ribaldry and badinage. But how much do you need to drink to feel attractive, smart and funny - the life and soul of the party?

Grenoble University researchers answered that question winning this year's Ig Nobel prize for psychology, the first time French psychologists have won the award ('Spoof Nobel prize goes to alcohol study', The Connexion, October 2013).

Real Nobel laureates award Ig Nobel prizes annually at a Harvard University ceremony to research that "makes you laugh, then think". The awards were created by the magazine Annals of Improbable Research in 1991. Previous winners have studied the role of oral sex among bats and how to prevent patients from exploding during colonoscopies.

The Grenoble researchers wanted to know why people believe they are more attractive after a few drinks ('Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder', published in the British Journal of Psychology). Their question was: is the effect due to consuming alcohol or to the activation of subliminal positive associations towards alcohol consumption?

Subjects were recruited first in a Grenoble bar where their levels of intoxication were compared with reports of how seductive, intelligent, original and funny they felt. Higher levels of intoxication correlated strongly with higher levels of perceived self-attractiveness. No surprise there. However, the barroom study on self-attractiveness could not disentangle alcohol's pharmacological effects from the psychological effects of just believing that alcohol has been consumed - because all the subjects were intoxicated and knew it - the second study did though.

Researchers placed a small ad in a local Grenoble paper to recruit subjects for a taste-test for a bogus private research firm Stat-food. They were instructed to fast for three hours before their appointment and assigned randomly on arrival to one of two groups: one group tasted an alcoholic drink; the other group tasted a non-alcoholic drink. Half of the subjects in each group were told their drink was alcoholic and half were told their drink was non-alcoholic (a balanced placebo design). After consuming their drinks, subjects wrote and delivered a filmed message ostensibly to promote the new drink; then they watched their performances and rated how attractive, bright, original and funny they thought they were using the same questionnaire employed in the earlier barroom study. Subjects who believed they had consumed alcohol - even those they had not actually consumed alcohol - gave themselves the most positive self-evaluations. Subjects who had in fact consumed alcohol but believed they had not did not rate themselves as more attractive. 

So, believing one has consumed alcohol rather than actually consuming alcohol influences self-evaluations of attractiveness. In fact, the quantity of alcohol ingested was not related to self-perceived attractiveness. "Everybody thinks that alcohol reduces inhibition and makes people feel more self-assured," said researcher Laurent Bègue. "Our results challenges these beliefs by showing that the mere belief one has consumed alcohol increases self-perceived attractiveness."

The filmed promotional messages were later rated by 22 independent, sober judges using the same attractiveness questionnaire. The judges' ratings showed that boosts in self-evaluation were unrelated to actual performances. Thus drunkenness is not merely a physiological consequence of alcohol but can be understood as a consequence of the activation of alcohol-related concepts in memory.

Previous intoxication studies have shown that alcohol consumption increases the attractiveness of members of the opposite sex (the "beer goggles" effect). In one study, the mere subliminal activation of alcohol-related concepts caused men to rate the faces of women more sexually attractive. Other studies show that the mere expectation of drinking alcohol signifcantly increases sexual arousal, whereas actual alcohol consumption has a non-significant effect on sexual arousal (or worse).

The Grenoble study's conclusions could help public authorities to communicate better about where the dangers of alcohol consumption actually originate. Meanwhile, it is a sobering thought that your festive season's designated driver may be getting 'intoxicated' on alcohol-free booze.

First published in The Connexion (December, 2013)

Monday, October 28, 2013

Rumpole's wine case reveals price mystery

IN RUMPOLE and The Blind Tasting, Horace Rumpole attends a blind tasting at a fine wine shop as a guest of his colleague Claude Erskine-Brown who wants to educate Rumpole's palate before it is ruined by Pommeroy's wine bar's rough claret, which Rumpole calls Chateau Fleet Street. The tasting's first mystery wine (a superior Pauillac) so impresses Rumpole that he says it must cost £10 a bottle - outside his price range - a guess that earns him titters and a consolation glass at the end of the first round. 

The Sunday Examiner's wine correspondent Honoria Bird competes against Luton car dealer Marty Mantis in the last round. Bird wins by identifying a rare bottle from Château Cheval Blanc - the top St. Emilion estate - led on by clues from the wine shop's owner; but Mantis swears the wine is inferior. When police find several dozen cases of this Cheval Blanc in the garage of one of Rumpole's clients, Rumpole becomes curious about the cost of wine.

The Financial Time's wine correspondent Jancis Robinson researched the cost of wine for The World Atlas of Wine. Her findings surprised her. "I was amazed by just how little it costs to make even some of the most famous wines of the world - by the fact that it costs next to nothing to make basic AC Bordeaux," she said ('How much does it cost to make great wine?' The Financial Times, 15 September 2001). Robinson reckoned it cost a producer just €4 to fill a bottle with classed growth red Bordeaux, though "it is common for wine drinkers to be asked to pay ten times that for Bordeaux's more sought-after wines."

La Revue du Vin de France magazine says it costs just €1.38 to make a €1.89 bottle of supermarket Bordeaux. Meanwhile, wine from Château Petrus - the leading Pomerol estate - costs just €30 to produce and sells for €4,500 a bottle. ('Le véritable prix des grandes bouteilles' RVF, February 2009).

The link between price and quality is often stretched beyond belief where scarcity is involved (Château Petrus produce just 30,000 bottles per vintage). In the absence of scarcity, an image of exclusiveness can stretch this link. Möet & Chandon produces 5 million bottles of Dom Perignon per vintage. It sells for €129 a pop because the company spends €25-€50 million per vintage promoting the champagne's exclusiveness. If a bloke in a pub offers you Dom Perignon for €22 a bottle, you will be paying what Möet & Chandon spend to produce and promote it, RVF says.

"The joke is that wine is not really very expensive to make. Production costs of even the grandest red bordeaux are rarely more than €10 a bottle, €30 at most if the château is run on bank borrowings," Robinson said ('When more is less' The Financial Times, 6 September 2013).

Honoria Bird's nostrils twitched in the Old Bailey courtroom's witness box as she sniffed the Cheval Blanc found in Rumpole's client's possession: "A crude Bordeaux of mixed origins served in certain bars in this part of London to the more poorly paid members of the legal profession," she said. The jury accepted that Bird had been deceived when she had previously tasted what she thought was a £50 bottle of Cheval Blanc and agreed that the shop's owner had intended to make the fake Cheval Blanc disappear as part of an insurance fraud.

"The wine was never meant for drinking; it was meant for stealing," Rumpole said. Rumpole's nose proved not beyond discrimination in The Blind Tasting: comparing the mystery wine he tasted to Pommeroy's plonk was, he said, "like comparing a planning appeal at the House of Lords with an indecent exposure before the Uxbridge magistrates." Would he pay Cheval Blanc prices for claret if his clients were not on Legal Aid? No. Price and quality, like law and justice, are not always as closely related as they should be. 

In any case, for Rumpole the chief worth of drinking wine, he tells a flabbergasted Erskine-Brown, is that "you stand a good chance of getting slightly blotto."

First published in The Connexion (November, 2013)

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Is wine journalism a load of nonsense?

HOW do you choose wine? By colour, price, region, grape variety, habit? How could you choose wine more intelligently? Attend a tasting course, talk to winemakers, keep bottle notes, read wine journalism? The last option is probably the easiest, but it is also the laziest - and I mean the wine journalist.

"My job as a journalist is to point readers to wines I like, and it makes sense for me to tell them where they can find these wines," said one UK wine writer in a recent spat on Twitter. "To do otherwise would be perverse."

The journalist was one of several prominent UK wine writers accused of lazily filling their newspaper or magazine columns with reviews of wines obtained from The Wine Society - a mail-order wine club with around 120,000 members who pay a one-time £40 subscription fee to join - of which the journalists are themselves members.

A London wine importer complained on his shop's blog that readers are left with the impression that The Wine Society is also the only source for a reviewed wine - because theirs is often the only price quoted. 

Setting aside the fact that millions of wine lovers are not members of The Wine Society, is it really a wine journalist's job just to type up tasting notes?

Hand-wringing wine journalists blame editors who say readers just want to know "what to drink and where to find it" for wine journalism's decline. 

In his myth-busting wine business book You Heard it Through the Grapevine wine writer Stuart Walton says "descanting about rose-petals" has undermined the entire wine-writing enterprise. 

"Large numbers of people think winespeak is tedious flannel, and all those speakers and writers who utter it are, quite frankly, too far up their own arses," he says.

But if sensible wine journalism resembles an internal memo for members of The Wine Society, what would "perverse" wine journalism look like instead?

Hugh Johnson's Wine is "written in the sensuous prose of a true aficionado, blending a narrative approach with its encyclopaedic presentation," says Walton. He praises Johnson because "the author appeared to recognise that if you had bought a book on wine because you enjoyed drinking the stuff, there might be more to its appeal if it spoke directly to that passion."

For The New York Times's wine critic Eric Azimov, the American wine importer and author Kermit Lynch speaks to that passion too.   

"Mr Lynch never engaged in the sort of contrived tasting notes that often pass for wine journalism today. Instead, he wrote of the joy and pleasures of consuming good wine, of the winemakers he met and the places he visited. He provided characters, context and travelogue, and even recipes," says Azimov

Lynch's Adventures on the Wine Route: A Wine Buyer's Tour of France is "one of the finest American books on wine," he says. It is a lament and a wake-up call for a tradition sacrificing its heritage to "men in white lab coats."

The wines Lynch loves "can never be mainstream, but they're out there." He spends half the year traveling France's back roads seeking out "distinctive, fresh and alive" wines from esoteric producers. His second home is in Provence "near enough to Domaine Tempier that I can fill up the trunk of my car whenever I need to," he says.

Lynch opened his cluttered, unprepossessing wine shop in 1972 in Berkeley, California - when importing French wines into the cradle of American youth counter-culture was a radical notion - and he has influenced a generation of American wine importers and writers.

Happily, living in France means not needing wine importers, or lazy wine journalists. Back roads, esoteric producers and wine shops are on the doorstep. There are four cavistes in my village. Mr Lynch would not need to go far off my beaten track to find something "out there".

First published in The Connexion (October, 2013)

Photograph of Kermit Lynch by Peter DaSilva