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By mthomas

Vinopic is clearly aware of the need to have a Unique Selling Point in a really competitive market. Theirs comes in the form of an Intrinsic Quotient (IQ) score; a kind of quality mark integrating a few variables including Roger Corder’s measure of polyphenol content (hence the focus on reds) and Rosemary George’s tasting score. Roger is a serious scientist and author of The Wine Diet and Rosemary is a well respected MW and journalist so I was intrigued by the idea of wine IQ. The role and effects  of dietary polyphenols is an interesting topic and I  keep meaning to review Roger’s book and often recommend it to people.  I have also written a few blogs about polyphenols including the work being done in Newcastle and a Norwegian study on cognitive effects.

Promoting alcohol based on ‘health properties’ is contrary to European law and when I spoke to Professor Corder recently he assured me that the aim is to encourage consumers to be more informed regarding the wines they are buying and for the company to establish relationships with winemakers who represent a mindful approach to production. High alcohol content and ‘industrial adjustments’ are the bugbears whilst lower consumption of better quality wine the aim. The problem, as ever, arises when the press spin the complex science in simplistic and unhelpful ways. IQ is a tricky concept when scrutinised closely and I wonder how many consumers will unfortunately interpret a better IQ as an index of  ’healthiness’. Like the classic IQ score, it is not just about validity, but also about interpretation and values.

It was interesting to hear that polyphenols do sustain over time as I thought that they degraded and that aged wines were likely to have much lower levels. Roger’s views on natural wine were also thought provoking. He used the analogy of not treating lambs for fluke worm (not good for the consumer who eats liver) and retained a healthy scepticism around the topic. He is passionate about informing consumers and aware of the dangers of engaging with the commercial world in this way. He has obviously carefully considered conflicts of interest and presented a compelling case for his involvement. It is difficult as an academic to retain control over intellectual property, especially once the decision is made to venture beyond the ivory tower and to engage with the press and the market. A brave decision on his part and I wish him well with his aim.

The Vinopic Team (minus Rosemary George) are pictured right. I haven’t systematically tasted or reviewed their wines but it looks like a thoughtful selection. I also never use ratings as I get too caught up in the theory of scales to take them seriously. Have a look around the site and decide for yourselves.



European Conference on Underage Drinking

By mthomas

“It is my firm belief that in order to make any real change in the fight against alcohol related harm, the efforts must be high not only on the public health agenda, but also on the agenda of all stakeholders, including schools, employers, NGOs, alcoholic drinks producers, distributors, the advertising and media industries, local/national authorities, Member States and the European Union.”

- European Commissioner for Health, June 2007

With the above in mind there is a conference scheduled in Brussels on the 13th April. Abstract below;

“Although recent statistics indicate that total alcohol consumption in Europe is falling, European citizens are still the highest consumers of alcohol in the world. Furthermore, worrying trends are emerging in relation to under-age drinking, binge-drinking and drink-driving, with the EU’s own statistics on the economic and social cost of alcohol related harm making sobering reading:

Alcohol responsible for 7.5% of all ill-health and early death in EU

• 60 acute or chronic diseases caused by excessive alcohol consumption

• More than 10,000 deaths a year are due to alcohol-related road accidents

• Tangible economic cost in Europe of over €125 billion

Whilst overall adult consumption is decreasing, with alcohol becoming more affordable in nearly all member states in the last decade, there has been a steady rise in harmful drinking patterns, particularly amongst younger people. Unless policymakers across Europe act quickly, this alarming trend in under-age drinking and binge drinking will have adverse long term effects on young people’s lives and future development. Campaigns to raise awareness, an understanding of the underlying social consequences and better access to education are all steps towards reversing this trend. Developing a methodology that involves all relevant authorities in young people’s lives such as schools, public health organizations, local government and NGO’s is crucial. Coordination at national and EU level could result in a stronger regulatory framework preventing the access of alcohol to minors as well as better awareness campaigns.

This International Symposium will gather comparative experience and best practices in early intervention strategies based around young people and their families, and tackle other key consequences of under-age drinking such as anti-social behaviour and drink-driving. It will also discuss the potential role of national governments and regional authorities in supporting campaigns to combat the issue and the dissemination of lessons learned from different European countries.

The Centre for Parliamentary Studies welcomes the participation of all key partners, responsible authorities and stakeholders. The Symposium will support the exchange of ideas and encourage delegates to engage in thought-provoking topical debate.” Speakers include Dr. Adrian Bonner (Reader in the Addictions Behaviour Group).

Unfortunately I am not able to attend but I hope the conference attracts delegates and look forward to useful outcomes. The Drinkaware website has some good resources to support young people in making healthy decisions here.




By mthomas

A couple of colleagues at the university commented on my last post about legislation and a minimum price for wine. They pointed out that the Government is increasingly embracing a ‘nudge’ approach (aka ‘libertarian paternalism’) to public health. The Cabinet Office have established a Behavioural Insight Team (already nicknamed ‘The Nudge Unit’) which published its first paper (here) on 31st December last year. This discussed the use of psychological principles to improve public health and argued against ‘strong-arm’ interventionist tactics.

I have, like many, been reading Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness” pictured above. The idea is that people can be encouraged to change habits (e.g. reduce ‘binge drinking’) with low cost interventions such as a reminder to buy fruit and vegetables on shopping trolleys. Examples of nudges (including one designed to support people in not smoking and another which promotes the use of motorcycle helmets) can be found (here). The coalition government  in the UK is clearly interested in low cost solutions and libertarian principles (for pragmatic economic as well as ideological reasons). The relationship between psychology and ideology is problemmatic though and issues of informed consent are likely to be raised when behaviour modification, rather than educational,  programmes are implemented.  Nudges website here.



Ancient winemaking and modern wine writing

By mthomas

A couple of recent articles caught my eye. Firstly the New York Times (article here) on the discovery of an ancient Armenian wine making site. It was a sophisticated set up and gives great insight into a period which saw the invention of the wheel and domestication of horses. Botanists are planning to plant some of the seed found at the site and I hope one day to try some fermented juice from them.

I subscribe to a feed from Dr Vino (Tylar Coleman) because he picks up on a wide range of wine related topics. Some are pretty trivial and aimed at his domestic US market (best wine to match with deep fried turkey twizzlers etc.) but in amongst the guff are some really interesting observations as well as a few well aimed polemic pieces. The one here raises the question ‘Who makes money from wine writing?’. The answer is ‘not bloggers!’ (unless they sell their souls and credibility). Tylar offers the sound advice that blogging should be done for love not money. The alternative is sure to plunge a writer into a morass of conflicts of interest especially as people appear to only be prepared to pay for ‘buying advice’.



Chave Selection Saint-Joseph 2004 (and a levitating cork)

By mthomas

23102010270I do not review many wines because this is primarily a psychology/wine website not a ‘wines I drink’ site, of which there are many of greatly variable quality. I also think that reviewing (don’t even mention arbitrary and impoverished scoring) a wine, based on a mouthful at a tasting, is so far removed from the experience of enjoying a wine with company and a meal that it is irrelevant to most of us. Many wines are also too tedious to write about but some demand it when they deliver a wonderful sensory experience. These are wines made with love and care that work with contextual factors, such as food and mood, to produce an emergent level of  enjoyment.

After a long and rewarding day at work I opened a bottle of J.L. Chave’s Selection St Joseph ‘Offerus’ and it really delivered. It is another Wine Society 2004 Rhone that spent its life in my cellar (a different 2004 St Joseph review is here for comparison). I have previously suggested that these are food friendly, well priced, often traditional in style yet sophisticated and enjoyable wines. 2004 is not the most highly rated year for Rhones (due to the proximity of ‘great years’) but was generally sound and good makers seem to have been able to express their skills and individuality. The Chave family have been making wines in the area since 1481 so do not lack commitment or experience. Jean-Louis (Chave the younger) uses the ‘selection’ label to make traditional but affordable wines in a Chai seperate from the main cellars. Chave have lots of parcels of Syrah and the ‘Offerus’ is a blend from St. Jean de Muzols (black fruit with cassis and spicy/herbal notes) and Mauves (red fruit and minerality). It works so well because it delivers both in a unified way. I decanted into the lovely (but hard to photograph as evidenced in pic below) Riedel Syrah decanter bought for me by some thoughtful and generous trainees last year. I love using this because it is aesthetically pleasing in terms of its design and feel. Like much of the range it is designed to optimise a specific wine and in this case is successful in adding value by enhancing the characteristics of the wine.

It had thrown some sediment, which can be a counter-intuitive mark of quality, and I stopped decanting at just the right point. The decanted wine was bright and crystalline, the remainder put in a glass to one side (and its cloudy intensity really enjoyable later!). The thing I loved about this wine was the overall balance; not too boozy at 13.5%, plenty of acid giving freshness, rounded and integrated tannins, and that combination of red and black fruits which really kept me engaged. The mineral complexity, herbiness and spicy notes, such as camphor and cedarwood, metaphorical icing on the proverbial cake.

Work was particularly rewarding because I am enjoying developing a new doctorate module, ‘Consultation and Intervention’. I was also contacted by Professor Richard Wiseman, psychologist and magician, who is Director of the 2011 Edinburgh International Science Festival. I am a great admirer of Richard’s work and was flattered to be asked to speak at the Festival. He has the enviable ability to communicate complex psychological knowledge in an entertaining fashion. He often runs large scale experiments on TV and we talked about plans related to tasting trials during the festival. Examples of his work can be seen on youtube (links below) and his excellent website is here. Make sure you look at his books, I can highly recommend them. ‘The Luck Factor’ changed my behaviour in that it made explicit a range of easily implemented strategies to influence positive life outcomes.

Try these videos: Colour changing card trick and ways to change your life in 59 seconds and the seminal awareness test.

And finally… The levitating cork.  Enjoy.



Forman and Field

By mthomas

East London institution H. Forman & Son is a 100 year old family business based on salmon smoking and their famous  ’London cure’. I used to love venturing out to their old premises but it’s gone now because the land was earmarked for the Olympics. But, instead of winding up the business they negotiated a great relocation deal including a state of the art new building (pictured to the right). I went to its opening and was impressed by the views, design, new smokehouse and big exhibition space. Each month, curators select artists for exhibitions: details of current and forthcoming events here. They also have an Olympic cam on the roof showing progress in the park.

Since 2002  Forman and Field, the on-line delivery arm of the business, have been supplying fish, seafood, meat and other products sourced from some excellent producers. They are increasingly, and admirably, championing great English wine from producers like Nyetimber, Chapel Down and Biddenden. They also have a few oddities like the Cornish Polgoon Apple and Raspberry Wine (although I agree with Dr Johnson’s definintion of wine as made from grapes). The Foreman open day is coming up in October and I might try some even if it isn’t ‘real wine’. There are lots of suppliers represented and I hope they have a good wine tasting this year.



Jaboulet Crozes Hermitage 2004

By mthomas

01012009001 I managed to bluetooth this pic from my new  phone. I am not a great photographer or a  technophile so am pleased the experiment worked  and will use this approach in future (and hopefully  refine my  photography). I would like to blog more  frequently  and guess the key to this will be  improving my use  of ICT so that I am more  adept. I  often don’t blog  on tastings and research papers because of time constraints. I am also keen that it does not become a blog about mundanities of my life or an ego trip along the line of some of blogs out there…

I opened a bottle of Jaboulet Crozes Hermitage Domaine de Thalabert 2004 to accompany a double rack of lamb (badly butchered by me from a lamb swapped with the farmer for a sack of scallops – long story). It was really aromatic and full of herbs (rosemary) and spices that worked really well with the meat. Some slightly woody and eucalyptus notes eased off as it opened up and the 100% Syrah fruitiness shone through. I think the 04s are really good at the moment and offer a lot of value. The Rhone has produced good wine in just about every year (apart from the catastrophic 2002) since the late 90s and you can do a lot worse than the 04s until the 01s and 05s are ready to drink. Even better, pick up some bargain 98s and 99s that have mellowed over the last decade.

“The Crozes Hermitage vineyard is the largest of all the northern Rhône Valley Appellations. It extends over 11 communes situated in the Drôme, on the left bank of the Rhône. The Domaine de Thalabert has belonged to the Maison Paul Jaboulet Aîné since 1834. It is situated on the plain, and is the oldest in the Appellation”  For more about their wines and the Rhone have a look at their website which is well-organised and informative.




By mthomas

grapestalk10In amongst the xmas email mountain was an invitation to write an article on psychology and wine for Grapestalk. I wasn’t familiar with the magazine but, having now read some of the issues online, I am really impressed by the quality of a publication from what appears to be a relatively small operation (The Association of Small Direct Wine Merchants – ASDW).

In the latest issue (number 10 – pictured) I enjoyed Robert Parker’s review of Harry Karis’ new book on Chateauneuf. The issue also contains lots of articles on wine as well as diverting reads such as ‘Demystifying French’ and ‘Provencal Flatbreads’. How can you not love an online magazine that can pull in Parker to review a book and find room to celebrate a regional bread!

Have a look at all the issues here.



The Bottle Apostle

By mthomas

bottle_apostle_wine_store_interior1It is really good to see new independent retailers like The Bottle Apostle opening (website here). This is especially true when they are in the East End and therefore easily accessible for me. The Apostle is clearly at home in ‘Hackney Village’, just along from the excellent Ginger Pig butchers and opposite the Empress of India ‘gastropub’. Those seeking an old style Hackney experience can still wander through Victoria Park to ‘The Top of the Morning’ pub in Hackney Wick (as I sometime do with friends) but this area is also gentrifying at a swift pace following the influx of artists fleeing Hoxton in the hope of finding affordable studio space .

Anyway, whatever your view of gentrification, the Bottle Apostle is an attractive space with welcoming staff (all of whom seem to be called Tom) and most importantly a good range of the kind of wines you don’t tend to see on supermarket shelves. I plumped for; 2007 Riesling Kabinett Der Brauneberg, 2008 Zarate Albarino (I think Jancis R liked the 2007 so this is worth a punt) and 2008 Pinot Blanc from Domaine Bruno Sorg (pictured).

Pinot Blanc 2008They are varietals I particularly like and although all were around the ten quid mark I think this is where true value often lies.  I will try to remember to review them when I open them…

It is so refreshing not to be treated like an idiot (bogus supermarket discounts and hyped up medal blurb) even if this is not the cheapest selection of wines in town.  I think they may have to rethink the Enomatic machines as I am unconvinced that they merit the space and must be a significant investment for a relatively small set up. Better to have a few open bottles, a cheap but effective Vacuvin and friendly banter.  They are organising tastings (see site) and currently have a witty competition to design a label for their own claret. Hopefully not the first step in a global branding campaign.

I was saddened to see the plight of Threshers, the 112 year old off-licence chain founded by Samual Thresher, following First Quench Retailing going into administration. Victoria Wine, an important venue in my youth, was merged with Thresher in 1998. Wine cellar recently sold 109 shops after similar difficulties and Unwins had already become part of Threshers in 2005.  Oddbins bought by Castel in 2002 was sold at a huge loss. Majestic however seems to be weathering the storm, in part due to the welcome move to reducing its minimum buy to six bottles, but the supermarkets seem to be heading towards an oligopoly (intended or not).

It is hard for conusmers to resist the retail advantages of the supermarkets. Even harder perhaps for producers to negotiate in a marketplace where they are so ‘outgunned’ by retailers. And, as for the critics and bloggers, what is their role in the wine economy? I like to think of myself  as a relatively independent blogger due to my main job as a Psychologist, and  I try to retain some objectivity when tasting (though would not be naive enough to proclaim a Ralph Nader inspired unimpeachability). I am aware of more than a few ‘critics’ who are so involved with the trade that their claims of objectivity, which is at best a fragile construct, are laughable.

I hope the Bottle Apostle thrives and will do my best to support it and other similar independents. I have no financial links with it but, ‘call me old-fashioned’, I just like local shops with good stock and the human touch.



Comments on photos (and architecture)

By mthomas

Photography by Steve Howse for Decanter

Photography by Steve Howse for Decanter

In a recent blog I used an image from a photoshoot for Decanter Magazine commissioned to accompany an article for their ‘My Passion for Wine’ slot. The image was not the one used in the article but people seem to really like it and have asked me about the angular building in the background (see below). The ‘shoot’ was at the University of East London Stratford Campus where I am based for part of my week. I am not used to being photographed, especially by a professional in public, so it was a strange experience despite Steve doing his best to put me at ease.

The building in the picture is the new Conference Centre at Stratford (soon to be venue of the De-medicalising Misery Conference (conference website here) run by my friend and colleague Professor Mark Rapley, Head of the training programme for Clinical Psychologists an Antipodean with an interest in wine and very GSOH.

cass-school-of-edThe campus has had a huge overhaul including the new Cass School of Education (picture to the right) and refurbished open spaces. It is not as striking as our Dockland Campus which regularly wins architectural awards but is a great place to work.  Here is more information on the campuses and buildings for those of an architectuaral inclination.

My office looks out over a green space containing a sculpture/garden that was at the Chelsea flower show. Perhaps more exciting is that my desk faces the Olympic site and I am monitoring the building progress and rise of the new (temple of consumerism) Westfield Centre. More importantly, things are settling down, for students and staff, after the unavoidable upheaval of the building work.

Photography by Steve Howse for Decanter

Photography by Steve Howse for Decanter

The image that was selected for the Decanter article was similar to the one on the left taken in the University library (an attempt to add intellectual gravitas perhaps). It was significantly different though in that I was looking up (recalling a trauma  or diassociating due to the embarassment of being ‘shot’) and gives the impression of me being slightly eccentric (Hannibal Lecter meets Woody Allen). People who meet me who have seen it are surprised I am not aloof and geeky! People who know me are convinced that it catches some important aspect of my personality. A big thanks to Steve and Decanter for allowing me to use his work and UEL for investing in such great buildings.

The emails from readers reminded me how important photography can be (especially in text heavy blogs). I guess I am lucky in that I have two good friends who are talented photographers. Huw Williams who did a lot of the early pics for the site (and was great on the technological stuff too) and James Wilson who used to work with a lot of well known photographers but now seems to specialise in taking lovely pictures of my wife and kids but embarassing pictures of me. I am a bit sceptical of ‘disclosure’ generally, and even more so on wine blogs; especially if it is along the lines of ‘we got a new hamster today’ but people have asked for a bit more info so there you go…