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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.
Robert Johnson continues his systematic critique of judge’s consistency in wine competitions in characteristic style in a paper just published in the Journal of Wine Economics. It is based on findings from his statistical analysis of medals awarded by judges across competitions in the US (which demonstrates correlations not dissimilar to fish predicting financial markets). He proposes criteria for evaluating and accrediting judges many would welcome, but some may not! The abstract follows;
A test for evaluating wine judge performance is developed. The test is based on the premise that an expert wine judge will award similar scores to an identical wine. The definition of “similar” is parameterized to include varying numbers of adjacent awards on an ordinal scale, from No Award to Gold. For each index of similarity, a probability distribution is developed to determine the likelihood that a judge might pass the test by chance alone. When the test is applied to the results from a major wine competition, few judges pass the test. Of greater interest is that many judges who fail the test have vast professional experience in the wine industry. This leads to us to question the basic premise that experts are able to provide consistent evaluations in wine competitions and, hence, that wine competitions do not provide reliable recommendations of wine quality.
I guess there a few obvious criticisms that can be levelled, such as the idea that wines will ‘show’ identically across competitions. However, the fundamental notion that judges should demonstrate consistency if awards are to be viewed as meaningful is pretty unassailable. His empirical evidence, that even with vast experience they tend not to, somewhat undermines confidence in all those medals plonked on labels.
Johnson, R. and Jing, c. (2014 ) Criteria for Accrediting Expert Wine Judges Journal of Wine Economics Vol 9 No. 1 p62-74
A slightly more philosophical/polemic piece on wine expertise in the light of ‘the long tail hypothesis’ by Arto Koskelo can be found here
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.
The UEL Research blog has highlighted an ESRC call for research on alcohol misuse with around a million pounds available for the right projects;
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…
‘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.
Great animation on Maria Popova’s site ‘Brain Pickings’ here illustrating effects of alcohol.
“Because glutamate sites become less effective, information flow becomes slow, and only the largest signals can make it through. This means you feel less, perceive less, notice less, and remember less”…
I tend to think that the simplification of the term terroir results from the word itself, which suggests territory, landscape or geography. Of course soil and weather are fundamental variables in determining winemaking outcomes but all but the most vehement traditionalists now accept the importance of ‘the human dimension’. However, these human variables are still seen as secondary with certain ‘territories’ celebrated, and privileged, despite evidence that they produce mediocre wines if the land is not paired with a winemaker who can problem-solve. Would a novice make great wine just because the grapes are from Le Montrachet? I doubt it. Is an experienced winemaker hamstrung by the environment? Of course their efforts can be thwarted by heat or hail but good winemakers in new terroirs are exploding an orthodoxy that is essentially a triumph of branding. As Prof. Warren Moran points out; “To attribute priority to the physical environment over the cultural is … a mistake. The expression of a place and its people in a particular wine is better captured in the term typicité – the distinctiveness of a wine from a particular place/appellation. “ Call it typicité or terroir, what is the human contribution and how can we best understand it?
Practices in the vineyard and the winery are often well-described in their contribution to the resulting wine. An obvious example is the use of oak, which itself can be broken down into the type of oak, the size of the barrel (surface area to volume ratio) and length of time the wine spends in it etc. etc. We can control this type of physical variable and generate data that is informative. Tom Harvey at Mclaren Vale commissioned 6 winemakers (3 of each gender) to make a wine from the same batch of grapes . This ‘winemaker’s series’ from ’Alpha Crucis’ allowed each to chose when and how to harvest, and then ‘treat’ the Shiraz. Andrew Jefford felt gender was not the significant variable and that choices around oak and yeast selection were most telling. But, he concludes “In the end I realised that winemaking resists dissection, just as I suspect woodcarving or stonemasonry does. If you tried to work out the significance of every tiny gesture, you’d go mad. It is the web of interactions which counts…” Of course wines are incredibly complex, and display emergent properties when we interact with them, but we should not abandon the struggle to isolate key variables. Given the money involved in wine, the exploration of such factors will continue despite the cost and complexity. The technology to carry out this exploration, such as mass spectrometry and frmi, will also facilitate this by becoming cheaper and more sophisticated.
More interesting (at least for for me as a psychologist) is what historically informed such decision-making and the current cultural influences influencing outcomes. Trial and error, superstition and intuition all contributed to the evolution of the wine trade. In her book The Meme Machine Psychologist Susan Blackmore builds on an idea from ‘selfish gene’ theorist Richard Dawkins by proposing a cultural replicator, or meme, functioning like a gene. Examples might be a playground game that survives across generations or an aphorism with proven utility such as a ‘A watched pot never boils’ (the mechanisms of which we now understand through a scientific perspective). Such memes are often community and culturally specific because they relate to the environment and the lived experience of groups. For example, the decision to pick grapes might have been informed by memes before the advent of meteorological data or tests of phenolic ripeness. Memes could explain much that is labelled terroir, not least its evolution as the apotheosis of branding (is the idea of Le Montrachet itself a meme as much as a geographical location?). Different approaches might be needed to unpick how these ideas shape wines but we have exciting qualitative methodologies that may help us in this. Such approaches may prove more fruitful than traditional paradigms which, for example, have failed to demonstrate what ‘minerality’ is and where it comes from…
Blackmore, S. (2000) The Meme Machine Oxford Paperbacks
I have just had an article on ‘personality and wine’ published by Fine Wine Magazine (here). It is a topic I get asked about a lot but tend to avoid in case I am misquoted. Any comment on personality and motivation can be a bit of a minefield but I hope Obama is not too put out by my speculations about his wine related White House decisions. Nixon, I am not too worried about…
On a similar note (what shapes our tastes and choices), yesterday I was contacted by Tim Hanni an MW based in Napa. He delivers training on food taste preferences and has some accessible content on his website (here) including videos on the topic. His ‘Vinotype’ taste profiler (here) is fun and very quick to complete. Despite a few methodological reservations I think it has something really helpful to say and Tim’s approach aims to empower individuals to explore their own profile and preferences. Always an admirable pursuit.