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The work of two of my favourite psychologists, DanielKahneman (alive and thriving) and Amos Tversky (1937-1996) was featured on Horizon this week. The programme explored their Nobel prize winning work which showed that we have two decision making systems; one is fast and intuitive whilst the other is slow and logical. We mostly rely on the former and it is very unreliable. For example, people can be primed with information (a ‘meaningless number’) to pay more or less for a bottle of Champagne. This is because we make our way through our complex world using heuristics (rules of thumb) and these are riddled with biases. Heuristics are necessary because our ability to process information is limited and our world would be overwhelming if we didn’t have some quick ways to deal with events and choices (such as selecting a wine from hundreds in a supermarket). Watch the programme to see how they created behavioural economics which is redefining how our financial and intelligence systems are designed. Perhaps also reflect on wine purchases which tend to be about risk management, familiarity, labels and emotional states rather than laboured logical decision making.
I have been very George Clooney towards social media in 2014; neglecting my blog, twitter etc. etc. ad nauseum and ‘doing stuff’ instead. However, the latest issue of the Journal of Wine Economics here has a few papers that might be of interest.
One telling contribution, a paper from Orley Ashenfelter and Gregory V. Jones, suggests that the demand for ‘expert opinion’ on wines from Bordeaux is not just about a thirst for accurate information. The abstract is below;
In this paper, we use unique data from the market for Bordeaux wine to test the hypothesis that consumers are willing to pay for expert opinion because it is accurate. Using proprietary indicators of the quality of the vintage, which are based on both publicly and privately available information, we find that additional publicly available information on the weather improves the expert’s predictions of subsequent prices. This establishes that the expert opinions are not efficient, in the sense that they can be easily improved, and that these opinions must be demanded, at least in part, for some purpose other than their accuracy.
Yet more evidence of the prevalence of pundits wearing ‘Emperor’s new clothes’ and charging punters for the pleasure of admiring them.
People often ask me what my picks from supermarket shelves are. As a Psychologist I am generally opposed to giving advice because it is often a poisoned chalice. I also don’t particularly like helping supermarkets shift wine and generally prefer supporting smaller independent outfits. However, there are some really decent wines available on the shelves and some of them are made by thoughtful and skilled producers. So, here are some I think of as good value for money (i.e. technically sound, relatively cheap and probably enjoyable for most drinkers). They can often be found in more than one supermarket and prices vary depending on offers etc.
For fizz Cremant de Jura Chardonnay 2010 £6.99 from Aldi is hard to beat. If you want the real stuff Blanc de Noirs Brut Champage £22 Sainsbury’s ticks my boxes (especially when discounted).
For whites I really like M and S. Their Palataia Pinot Grigio (with a bit of Pinot Bianco), a refreshing, tangy and easy-drinking example from Pfalz £8.49. M and S also stock a great alternative to NZ Sauvignon Blanc; Secano Sauvignon Gris £9. It’s made from an ‘interesting’ and under utilised grape and is very consistent across vintages. However, the outstanding supermarket white has to be Hatzadakis Assyrtiko Waitrose £12. Whenever they discount by 25% for 6 bottles (as they are at the moment) I buy this wine because it is ‘great’ in every sense of the word. A really fine wine with a wonderful heritage, it slips down as an aperitif, goes with food and can spend a bit of time in the cellar doing interesting things. All for £10 a bottle.
I don’t think there is an equivalent ‘great’ red but there are some really pleasing gluggers out there. I often wax lyrical about various Chilean Pinots inc. pretty much all the Cono Sur range which Burgundy simply can’t compete with under £10. France can do it in other areas though and there are lots of decent reds from the Languedoc and Rhone. Villages Seguret Cotes du Rhone 2011 Morrisons £5.99 is a crowd pleaser. I often recommend Vina Mayu Sangiovese Asda £5.50 but it seems to be getting a bit oakier which I don’t really like (but lots of people do). I could mention a few Malbecs but am finding the bog standard supermarket versions a increasingly tedious. However, there is no doubting Argentina, like Chile offers value. If anyone knows a decent Italian red outside Italy for under a tenner do let me know.
My number one supermarket tip at the moment would be… Sherry! Asda Fino at £5.50 is a steal and the rest of the range is worth trying to find the one you like (you will like one!). Sherry is deeply unpopular with most people and a hard product to shift despite its high quality. Supermarket buyers seem to like it though and take it seriously. The new wave of sherry bars opening in London and the consistent whispering of the cognoscenti are yet to impact on popularity (and prices) though so fill your boots whilst you can.
‘The Wine Gang’ (pictured) contacted me to announce an offer for winepsych readers on tickets to their forthcoming wine events. These are being held in November in Bath (2nd), London (9th) and Edinburgh (30th). There are lots of exhibitors, masterclasses and a pop-up shop to buy some of the 600 wines available for tasting. The Gang are an engaging and knowledgeable bunch who will be on hand to advise during the fairs. If you want to attend at a discounted price (£12 instead of £20 entry as well as 10% off masterclass tickets) then simply pay a visit to www.wineganglive.com and use the code BLOG40 when booking.
A family holiday in the Mani was a great reminder of what everyday wine is all about. On the first night we joined our hosts and 20 or so of their Greek friends under vine awnings for a long and leisurely meal. Every so often a plastic bottle or jug would appear. Without exception they were full of Greek (Assyrtiko, Moschofilero, Xinomavro and Agiorghitiko) food friendly, low alcohol country wines. They were all perfect for washing down the spread in front of us which must have taken Helene a couple of days to prepare. Because we took hand luggage, and our hosts were wine fanatics, we didn’t take any wine with us. I always tend to take a bottle to dinner parties but was glad I didn’t have one as it probably would have stood out like a sore thumb. So much of what we drink in ‘the West’, not just ‘fine wine’, is overworked; made to shout out in tastings, ‘varietally amplified’, over-oaked or alcohol soaked.
I am acutely aware of the power of context and have no illusions that the setting, company and food all contributed to the enjoyment. Some of the wines might taste watery and uninspiring in a tasting hall in London but are exactly what our market needs for a number of reasons. Firstly, the low alcohol; we drank copious amounts but were fresh as daisies in the morning. If we had been drinking 14% wines we would have suffered on the beach the next day. Secondly, food compatibility; these wines do not dominate the taste of foods, they refresh your palate, help to wash down the salt and oil and seem to aid digestion. Thirdly, they have low environmental impact due to limited packaging and transport costs. Fourthly, they are indigenous, varied and interesting in cultural terms. Without drifting into vague metaphysics and moral philosophy they are somehow ‘more honest’. Fifth, they are cheap (also due to the aforementioned low production and transport costs). Sixth, and this could be challenged as overly romantic, they seem to be made with love, or at least respect.
So, within our sophisticated and highly segmented market I hope there will be room for wines like this. Not glamourous or lucrative, just nice and humble enough to accompany rather than dominate food.
Each year in July our year 3 trainees present their Doctoral research. This is always an interesting day (and vinous evening) which serves an important purpose; celebratory closure. They do not have their ‘official’ graduation until November so it is a symbolic ending of their demanding training. Being a Psychologist can draw you into a deficit focus and so, as an antidote, we always try to reinforce their achievements to encourage resilience and wellbeing.
This year the presentations were outstanding. Many involved research with groups that are often termed ‘hard to reach’. I was moved to make an uncharacteristic, ‘tired and emotional’ speech about the potential for us to launch our own journal rather than negotiate the lengthy archaic processes usually involved. I also believe in ‘giving psychology away’ and the internet makes this easy through open access publication. On the web ‘content is king’ and we have a wealth of incredibly good content. The aim of what we do is impact and being able to quickly and efficiently share high quality research can maximise this. So one of my main aims for 2014 is to launch a new open access, high impact journal.
The trainees are incredibly generous with their comments and presents. This year I got a wonderful engraved glass (To Miles ‘In Wine Truth’), a bottle of Flick riesling and the quirky Metro wine map pictured. It really is the thought that counts.
My team also ensure we celebrate our successes! My colleague and friend Mark Turner is leaving to focus on his company RealTraining and helping out the Nurture Group Network. He is an inspirational Psychologist and we will miss him. The planned send off at Cafe Anglais later this week should give us the chance to reflect on his contribution and to enhance our wellbeing…
Uproot Wines is a California based set up with a novel approach to labels for the wines they source. Their mission is to “curate exceptional experiences for people through wine defined by each person’s taste, personality and lifestyle”. An admirable aspiration!
A recent competition with ColourLovers.com has been really fruitful. Each wine’s profile is converted into a colour bar such as the one on the left. This is a simple visual representation of the contents in terms of flavours and I can see it catching on.
There is of course the perennial ‘dumbing down’ danger but for most consumers a few clearly presented tags are welcome. Given the research on the words people find useful I can see this extending beyond ‘melon’ to descriptors like ‘fresh’ and ‘light’. This type of label may help people extend their lexicon of wine descriptors but might also prevent them from developing their own views of what the wine is.
Like all marketing technology it could be manipulated. The description might just become a list of those things shown to be attractive rather than a more honest depiction of the wine in the bottle. One that acknowledges ambiguity and the individual nature of taste.
The bike wine carrier pictured is one of those products that looks great as a sub-twenty quid impulse buy. I can see lots of ‘Shoreditch dandys’ and mamils (middle aged men in lycra) going for it. It is nicely made and the profile of the designer ‘Jesse from Montreal’ on the etsy.com website, very endearing.
However, a minute or two of critical thinking raises a number of questions. If you are involved in a scrape is it wise to have a glass bottle between your legs? The words ‘femoral’ and ‘artery’ spring to mind. Also scary is the prospect of the fastenings failing or the end of the bottle escaping the webbing design. As a regular bike user the last thing I want to see is more glass in gutters.
Slightly less scary is the idea of a decent bottle of wine suffering the indignity of being shaken up by potholes and speed bumps. If you were taking it somewhere to drink immediately it might not been in the best condition. The exposed design also leaves it vulnerable to heat and light. There is also the possibility of ’bottle jacking’ if you are hauling your Latour about…
There are solutions to some of the issues above though. One is systemic; less glass bottles! The fashion for super heavy ‘trophy bottles’ seems to have subsided a bit, and more mindful makers are using lighter bottles. This saves money and the planet but weight is associated with quality so it is unlikely all will abandon this ostentatious habit. Maybe a winebox carrier would work.
So visit the site and buy one of the other products. And maybe Jesse can be encouraged to make a ‘Mark 2′ version. The idea of having a single bottle carrier for a bike is pretty sound. It just needs to be protective for the rider and the wine.
An interesting graphical depiction showing the relationship between flavour chemistry and the perception of wine can be found here. I like it because blogger scientist Jamie Goode acknowledges the role of learning and the way in which perception influences how we experience a wine. What we know about wine generally, or a specific wine, will influence our perception. As Jamie points out, we are not ‘tasting machines’ and our models of the world impose themselves on our sensory experiences. We do not see a wine how it is, in many ways we see a wine how we are.
I guess ‘information’ in the diagram refers, at least in part, to context. We can be primed to expect certain flavours and environmental variables will influence our perception. Ambient temperature, background music, time of day or the company we are in, will influence us in subtle ways which we are rarely conscious of. Which is more influential in perceptual terms, the flavour of wild yeasts or the suggestion a wine is made with wild yeasts? I feel an experiment coming on…
‘New research’ by Laithwaites found that a 1,000 “reasonably well-informed about wine” participants said that many descriptions in 43 tasting notes from leading wine brands and critics were not that helpful. The worst included “firm skeleton” with 37% of respondents finding it unhelpful and “nervy” 31%. Other less-than-helpful terms included: “wet stone” (27%); “tongue spanking” (21%), “haunting” (21%), “spring hedgerows” (19%) and “brooding” (18%) as well as “vegetal”, “leathery”, “chunky” and “minerality”. The latter term is especially contentious not only in terms of the taste it describes but also because of the debates about transmission of minerals from earth to grape to wine. I find it quite useful but acknowledge that it is a slightly nebulous and overused descriptor.
Huw Johnson has suggested Anne Noble’s aroma wheel has introduced a formulaic element to tasting. It is essentially a ‘taxonomy of flavours in wine’ so this is the point of it. It is a useful tool in wine education, it stimulates discussion and exploration. The issue is that it is not that widely used and even less understood. It has to be combined with an understanding of individuality and taste profiles to really add value for consumers. I would also argue that it should expand to include many more descriptors such as the ‘exotic fruits’ and mushroom tastes being used by some critics so that notes are meaningful for a South East Asian audience.
Interestingly, in the Laithwaite’s study “Fresh” was regarded as the most useful word, along with “zesty”. Both possibly relate to people who like acidity. They find these words signpost wines that suit them and both are handy euphemisms where ‘acid’ might have unwanted connotations. I think “peachy” comes out well because it is a popular and well known fruit associated with summer but it also has other meanings which are positive e.g. ‘good’ and ‘sexy’. Whereas ‘vegetal’ which I sometimes find a positive quality in reds has less positive connotations and might suffer because of this rather than any descriptive utility. My guess is that this was a major confounding variable in this study. People simply like some words more than others.
Justin Howard-Sneyd MW, who consults for Laithwaite’s, points out that the subjective nature of taste makes the results ‘unsurprising’ but then goes on to suggest; “We have probably been guilty ourselves of using overblown language in the past but this is a wake-up call to the whole wine industry to make a change.” But, surely the answer is not to ‘dumb down’ but to help people understand their own tastes and the taste and language profiles of critics.
Andrew Jefford in Decanter has argued that while “a well written tasting note has practical worth”, even established writers are capable of turning out, “inadequate, boring, incoherent or risible notes”. Jefford is probably one of the most ‘flowery’ of critics. He uses a highly technical language and is prone to metaphor. Personally I am all for this approach. I can often work out what the wine he is describing would taste like to me because I have read lots of his notes and tasted lots of the same wines. I have got benchmarks and this is what we should be encouraging people to develop.
The ‘flowery’ approach can be amusing, creative and really useful but is not an approach that sits well on the back of a bottle. Given what we know about decision-making when buying, wine retailers will increasingly use those descriptors which stimulate purchases rather than those which really inform the diversity of ways in which the wine in the bottle might be experienced by different individuals. This is a shame.