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Women win by a nose

By mthomas

Research from Brazil has identified women as having significantly more cells in their olfactory bulbs. The authors are careful not to suggest a simple ‘more cells equals better at smelling’ conclusion but it is hard to resist making inferences given some of the male dominated discourses around wine tasting…

Sex differences in the human olfactory function reportedly exist for olfactory sensitivity, odorant identification and memory, and tasks in which odors are rated based on psychological features such as familiarity, intensity, pleasantness, and others. Which (sic) might be the neural bases for these behavioral differences? The number of cells in olfactory regions, and especially the number of neurons, may represent a more accurate indicator of the neural machinery than volume or weight, but besides gross volume measures of the human olfactory bulb, no systematic study of sex differences in the absolute number of cells has yet been undertaken. In this work, we investigate a possible sexual dimorphism in the olfactory bulb, by quantifying postmortem material from 7 men and 11 women (ages 55–94 years) with the isotropic fractionator, an unbiased and accurate method to estimate absolute cell numbers in brain regions. Female bulbs weighed 0.132 g in average, while male bulbs weighed 0.137 g, a non-significant difference; however, the total number of cells was 16.2 million in females, and 9.2 million in males, a significant difference of 43.2%. The number of neurons in females reached 6.9 million, being no more than 3.5 million in males, a difference of 49.3%. The number of non-neuronal cells also proved higher in women than in men: 9.3 million and 5.7 million, respectively, a significant difference of 38.7%. The same differences remained when corrected for mass. Results demonstrate a sex-related difference in the absolute number of total, neuronal and non-neuronal cells, favoring women by 40–50%. It is conceivable that these differences in quantitative cellularity may have functional impact, albeit difficult to infer how exactly this would be, without knowing the specific circuits cells make. However, the reported advantage of women as compared to men may stimulate future work on sex dimorphism of synaptic microcircuitry in the olfactory bulb.

Oliveira-Pinto AV, Santos RM, Coutinho RA, Oliveira LM, Santos GB, et al. (2014) Sexual Dimorphism in the Human Olfactory Bulb: Females Have More Neurons and Glial Cells than Males. PLoS ONE 9(11): e111733. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0111733

Full paper can be read (here)



NUS Alcohol Impact Project

By mthomas

A new initiative from the NUS (supported by the Home Office) is seeking to address problem drinking in UK Universities. The aim is to develop a new accreditation mark for a whole-institution approach to responsible alcohol consumption. It is interesting to note that it is ‘underpinned by social change theory‘ and focuses on promoting a culture of responsible drinking. To do this institutions need to meet criteria such as publishing a high-level statement on responsible alcohol consumption, restricting on/around-campus advertising and running awareness events.

One interesting ‘nudgy’ strategy is the need to evidence the promotion of  a ‘cafe-culture’. Presumably this will emphasise herb teas and intellectual debate rather than binging on sugar saturated caramel frappuccinos and caffeine drenched fizz. It is good to see  oppressive alcohol fuelled initiation rites being challenged in an informed and non-punitive manner. At the moment seven Unis are subscribed to the pilot but I expect many more to follow suit in future.

Link to the project website  here for more info.



Irrational decision making and wine

By mthomas

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.




Latest Journal of Wine Economics

By mthomas

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.



Supermarket Picks

By mthomas

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 Live

By mthomas

‘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 and use the code BLOG40 when booking.



Campaigning for lighter wines

By mthomas

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.




Celebrating Success and Psychological Wellbeing

By mthomas

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…




By mthomas

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 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.



Bike Wine Rack

By mthomas

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 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.