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Dec

17

Drink Me! How to Choose, Taste and Enjoy Wine by Matt Walls

By mthomas

I supect this book has a specific target audience in mind given that there is a section called ‘blagging it’ and the Contents Page starts with a quote from Withnail and I (a film made for the ‘drinkalong’ game, apart from the lighter fuel). It’s part of the New Voices in Food Series from Quadrille which already has contributions from cooks like Alice Hart. I really like the design and feel of it; relaxed and inviting. It has an attractive (recycled?) cardboard cover which shouts out accessability and sustainability.

In the introduction Matt Walls  (The Sampler) sets out his aim to write a ’concise book that covers all the things you really need to know in plain English’. On these terms this book is a clear success. Split into two parts; Part 1 is ‘Buying Tasting and Drinking ‘ (the basics), whilst part 2 is a bit of a catchall with ‘The World’s Most commmon Wines’, ‘The Old World’, ‘The New World’ and ‘Useful Stuff’.  There is a nice section on ‘tasting and some really grounded advice on different places to buy wine (and what to avoid). It’s amusing and easy to skim read but has enough content to make it a useful reference guide.

There are a few less successful sections, which feel slightly ‘fillerish’, and the odd bit of Homer Simpson inspired advice. The ‘bottle opening in an emergency guide’ should carry a safety warning; the downsides to the ‘bang-it-on the-wall’ approach are listed as ‘your neighbours will hate you and your teeth will hurt’ but experience suggests this should read ‘if you bang too hard your mum’s wallpaper will end up looking avant garde and your hand will need micro surgery’… But these are minor asides and, in their own way, are the things that make the book unstuffy.

This is not a book for the established geek who will pick up on small details related to the geology of Sancerre but is spot on for a relative beginner who wants to develop their wine knowledge. Most suitable, perhaps, as a stocking filler for a son or daughter at university needing encouragement to ditch the vodka Redbull for a much more interesting tipple.

Walls, M. (2012) Drink Me! How to Choose, Taste and Enjoy Wine Quadrille Publishing £12.99

Nov

26

Isolating the Human Variables Contributing to Terroir

By mthomas

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

Aug

15

The Juice

By mthomas

I thought I had reviewed Jay McInerney’s first wine book A Hedonist in the Cellar a few years back but having checked the site I have to admit that this is yet more evidence of my deteriorating memory. I enjoyed it but have read and reviewed a lot of wine books since 2007 so it is unsurprising my episodic memory is a bit unreliable. We all confabulate from time to time as this helps maintain the illusion of the self. (Note, I have just finished a piece on personality and wine and probably spent too long revisiting personality theories not to mention the Copenhagen hypothesis…)

So back to Jay. My search for my review of  ’Hedonist‘ was triggered by his new book The Juice. This is his second collection of wine ‘essays’ previously published in various (often prestigious) newspapers and  magazines. Having made his name with the zeitgeist capturing Bright Lights Big City in the 80s he not only survived the coke fuelled excesses of the decade but has since carved out an enviable niche as a wine writer (sublimation par excellence). His love of wine is evident and his talent as a writer even more obvious. He manages to combine the geekiness of a trainspotter with the hedonistic enthusiasm of a hollywood A lister craving a repeat of their first freebasing hit. If they ever make a film about him they should sign Robert Downey Jr as lead.

Both books are full of great articles but suffer from the same limitations. As a collection of stand alone pieces there is little narrative thread connecting each. However, his writing style is so individual and strong that the whole becomes coherent. Many pieces reflect his journey through the world of wine and reveal his tastes. He is a good guide with impressive connections and a nose for ‘the next big thing’. The focus is often New World, particularly California,  but he also wears his ‘Bad to the Beaune’ T shirt with pride and seems to have been, more recently, seduced (sejuiced if you’re from New York) by Bordeaux.

Jay takes on Biodynamics but ties himself up in a few philosophical knots by veering from empricicism to mysticism then back again. Lots of BD wines are good but this is not empirical evidence for the efficacy of BD approaches. I guess he is probably along the right lines when he writes about the way thoughtful producers tend their vines and how this can add value. However, at best BD is still a hypothesis, an interesting one, and the contribution of each ritual is yet to be understood.  When he cites Steiner’s belief in Lemurians and states ‘many oenophiles might well respond “wtf!”‘ he is not wrong. One day the net of science mught be fine enough to capture the mechanisms by which the dung filled cow horn and other BD techniques work. My guess is that BD is essentially a collection of memes, some of which are more effective than others but they have been sewn together, like Frankenstein’s monster, to become a system that obscures the contribution of each element. Until we unpick BD systematically it will remain a contentious  enigma.

An ethical storm erupted recently following self plagiarism accusations against Jonathan Lehrer. McIrnerney’s collections could be seen in similar terms but I think they are welcome for bringing together a disparate body of work (and if he makes a few extra bucks without having to reinvent the wheel then good luck to him). I tend to subscribe to the ‘Sinatra defence’ (singing My Way over and over again in a popular style you developed is fair enough). Artists, writers and academics build a body of work, have ways of thinking and expressing themselves and revisit themes. Words, ideas and phrases are going to reoccur like refrains. Recycling huge chunks of text for payment by more than one magazine is obviously not a good idea though. In academia ‘salami slicing’ (publishing multiple papers based on one set of data) is frowned upon. We also surprise students when we tell them about the dangers of plagiarism and the strict regulations in place. Many do not realise that lending someone an essay in good faith can get them into trouble if that person then uses it inappropriately. We use a piece of software called Turnitin to inform academic decisions on plagiarism. It basically runs a check on the content and gives a report that details percentages of repeated phrases.

It now turns out that Lehrer has admitted inventing Bob Dylan lyrics (article here). I guess following the self plagiarism accusations his output came under much closer scrutiny. He was pretty good at ‘Gladwelling’ but resented, by some, for ‘using their ideas’ and research to make a nice living. I guess the press, critics and reviewers are often seen as parasitic despite the nature of the beast probably being more symbiotic than exploitative. It is a fine line to walk though and some cross over into the dark side. Jay manages to remain in the light though.

McInerney, J (2006) A Hedonist in the Cellar Bloomsbury

McInerney, J (2012) The Juice, Vinous Veritas Bloomsbury

May

16

Anglo-saxon pharmacopoeia

By mthomas

A chance encounter with a colleague, Frances Watkins, whilst helping out with our University allotment led me to a couple of interesting references on Anglo-saxon and Roman herbalism. We have some innovative   Health, Sport and Bioscience courses and a wonderful medicinal herb garden (pictured) at the Stratford campus as well as a thriving green approach at UEL .

The ‘dark ages’ are often seen as void of culture and knowledge advances. This stereotype is reflected in the wine world with an emphasis on the classical civilizations and modern period. The long period in between was where winemakers (usually monks) learned over generations about grapes and terroir. Frances explained how she and others are revisiting old texts to look for forgotten knowledge and how wine was vital as a solvent when preparing medicines (pharmacopoeia). She kindly sent me her paper on the topic and a link to a pdf of a key book on plants and health by Pedianos Dioskourides (here). He was an ‘army doctor’ thought to have lived during the reigns of Nero and Vespasian. His book on the use of plants, De Materia Medica, is well worth a look.

Watkins, F., Pendry, B., Corcoran O. and Sanchez- Medina (2011) Anglo-Saxon Pharmacopoeia Revisited: A potential treasure in drug discovery  Drug discovery today  vol 16 No.s 23/24 December 2011

May

13

The Vineyard at the End of the World

By mthomas

I was sent a free copy of this soon to be released book about the rebirth of Malbec by the publishers but said that I might not have time to read it, let alone write a review. I also had a pile of unread psychology texts, kindly provided by Wiley Blackwell, which I was trying to get through, as well as a couple of drafts of doctoral theses to feedback on, so reading time was at a premium. However, I took it with me at the weekend on a camping trip to celebrate my mum’s 70th birthday and, unable to sleep as youngest son tossed and turned next to me and sleepwalking nephew Jamie wandered about the forest causing mayhem, I rattled through it in a couple of hours.

The author, Ian Mount, can write. His stories about South American wine and associated topics have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and Slate. This journalistic background shows in his prose. He has also lived in Buenos Aires since 2005 and seems comfortable with idiom and cultural nuances. The book zips along, punctuated with decent research and lots of rhetorical flourishes. Although the focus is Argentina this is essentially a book about the rise of New World wines and how a country with ambition revolutionized its infrastructure and approach to wine making.

The early history of Argentinian wine is set out. Then it is down to business with the modern period and the influence Parker, Mondavi and Rolland. The aspirations of Argentinian wine makers are supported by technology and knowledge exchange with California (and France to a lesser extent). Nicolas Catena and Paul Hobbs are at the heart of developments in the main body of the book. At times there is a slightly patronising feel to how events are depicted with the Argentinians depicted as lazy in their approach due to the security of an uncritical domestic market. Maybe there is an historical truth in this, much as there is when people generalise about Burgundy’s complacency in the 70s or Bordeaux’s avarice over the last few decades.  Stereotypical, but a useful handle on subtlety and complexity.

It is probably pretty uncontentious to suggest that Argentina is now making some great wines . Many single vineyard, high altitude, Malbecs are well made and distinctive. There is an avid global market for them. There is also lots of scope for further development in this part of the world. Argentina has had to deal with fascist dictators, earthquakes and economic collapse. Despite these issues the wines improve year on year and its reputation has never been higher. Mount outlines how this has happened and so succeeds with the aim of the book.

There is probably not enough ‘plot’ to make this attractive to readers looking for a page turner but anyone with a specific interest in New World wines will find it engaging and informative. There are a few photos of key players in the book and some really nice photos on Ian Mount’s website (here) that would have added greatly to it but aren’t used. Argentina has some of the most beautiful vineyards in the world and it seems like a missed opportunity not to show them. It would be a good read on a flight to Buenos Aires so I am giving it to a friend who travels there frequently. He is also in charge of organising a trip to the World Cup in Brazil for a bunch of us in 2014 and I hope he can arrange a few detours to vineyards in Argentina and Chile on the trip back. We can drown our sorrows with good Malbec following the predictable  dismal display by the England team. And Argentina will probably win…

Mount, I. (2012) The Vineyard at the End of the World Norton New York

Apr

23

British Psychological Society Conference 2012

By mthomas

The annual British Psychological Society Conference seems to come around more quickly every year. Luckily, the subjective nature of time perception was the focus of one of the talks so I gained a bit of insight into why this might be the case.  Claudia Hammond, who was receiving a media award from the Society, spoke about her new book (pictured right)  Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception, (click on title to see more information as well as phenomena such as the ‘Oddball effect’). Claudia is able to communicate really complex ideas in an engaging and accessible way. She gave a convincing account of time dragging for kidnap victims such as Alan Johnston and managed to stimulate a few ideas about primacy/recency effects in wine tasting. I can’t wait to read it.

Congratulations also to John Radford who received a Lifetime Achievement Award for Distinguished Contributions to Psychology Education. He is an inspirational psychologist who established Psychology as an  ’A’ level subject in 1968 and oversaw its development as Chief Examiner for 9 years. He also set up what has become the department I work in and I was lucky enough to interview him recently for an article in The Psychologist Magazine about his take on the last 50 years of Psychology in the UK.

Other good sessions included Diane Halpern on gender (she handled this perennial hot potato adeptly), Peter Hegarty on Foucault (part of a History of Psychology series) and Dan Gould on Olympic success. The latter made some really important points about encouraging kids to have fun and experience lots of different sports before you start ‘training them to win’. I found myself drawn to quite a few of the presentations from the Sport and Coaching section because they seem to be working at the forefront of applied psychology.  For example, Mark Bawden spoke about the contribution of Positive Psychology in his work coaching the English cricket team and his talk ‘Building super strengths and flooding weaknesses’  was superb in terms of delivery and content.  It is always good to hear the story of the African violet lady of Baltimore (look it up) and to see an underdog triumph through tenacity (Steven Bradbury – watch him on you tube here).

The venue for the conference this year was The Grand Connaught Rooms in Holborn, dead handy for me and also surrounded by good places to eat and drink. I managed to fit in an old favourite, Great Queen Street, as well as a great new Mexican bar and restaurant La Bodega Negra (website here) where I had one of the best ‘Old Fashioneds’ I have ever tasted. Given the state of the en primeur campaign and general state of disarray in the wine world I might stick to cocktails for a bit.

Mar

10

Wine Snobbery by Andrew Barr

By mthomas

This book is a bit of a curate’s egg. I picked it up in a second hand bookshop in Cambridge for the bargain price of 75p.  It’s a first edition and has a nice inscription to someone called Richard from ‘Dad and Barbara’. I’m always intrigued by the back story of old books and recently picked up a first (UK 1948) edition of The Naked and the Dead by Norman Mailer, although I had to spend £2.50 to take it home. Despite still collecting old books most of my new reads are on Kindle as I am a convert to this way of reading (especially when travelling).

Wine Snobbery is subtitled ‘An Insider’s Guide to the Booze Business‘. I read it on a recent writing trip to Portugal and designated it as research rather than a recreational read. In some ways it is anachronistic and very rooted in 80s issues such as the ‘antifreeze scandal’ but Barr is a good writer with a tight investigative journalistic style, so it is pretty engaging for someone interested in the history of the wine business, but is not an ‘everyday read’ for the average wine geek or someone seeking entertainment.

Barr covers the emergence of wine brands in the 1960s and the increasing power of supermarkets. It was this which enabled women to buy wine more readily. It also signaled the end for lots of ‘middle men’ because supermarket buyers with big bucks to spend could go straight to producers. They also launched own brands which had negligible advertising costs so were very competitively priced. When they did advertise they were harnessing ideas around authenticity and using them liberally. For example Barr cites Sainsbury’s Pink Champagne in 1984 being described as ‘made by a small family concern’. In fact this ‘small concern’ was Charbaut who were selling two million bottles per year. Their standard champagne was ‘made by Roger Duval’, actually by the house of Duval Leroy who like Charbaut were selling millions of bottles; so not really a cottage industry. Times may change but the spiel remains the same.

Barr rails against ‘advertorials’ and burgeoning product placement. He is very clear about many of the conflicts of interest endemic to the wine world and scathing about critics in the pocket of producers. Parker is mentioned as a paragon of virtue but others fare less well.

There is a brilliant swipe at wine writers and merchants… “To become the first you have to be pushy, to become the second you need lots of money” (page 61). Not much has changed and this is what makes this book fascinating. As with most things, there is an historical continuity and we learn much about the present through the fine detail of the past. It is a very detailed book but at times the research seems lacking and it reads as if it were written by a journalist committed to getting down many thousands of words per day. Admirable in professional terms but not always the recipe for a consistently good read.

Barr does do a pretty good job of sniffing out key issues, such as the complexity of the notion of terroir. He retains a healthy skepticism and ambivalence towards such multifaceted constructs and doesn’t dumb down with his arguments. (A glass of water over the keyboard has put paid to hyphens and question marks on this netbook so I feel like I am writing a lipogram like Gadsby; which has no ‘e’ in it!) For example he explores tensions between beliefs about marginal and cool climates.

One interesting paragraph focussed on a study carried out by the University of Piacenza which looked at wines made in 19 sites in the Tyrol from the Vernatsch grape which, according to Barr,  ”showed colour, acidity and aroma substances were all fundamentally affected by the mineral content of the soil” (page 183). I couldn’t find the reference but would like to see the paper if any one has it…

Nov

30

New References

By mthomas

I have added some new references to my Wine Books and Research page. There are a couple of interesting ones I hope to review soon.

Charters, S. (2006) Wine and Society: The Cultural and Social Context of a Drink Butterworth-Heinemann

Cross, R. Platinga, J. and Stavins, R. N. (2011) The Value of Terroir: Hedonic Estimation of Vineyard Sale Prices Journal of Wine Economics No.1 2011 p 1-14

Gokcekus, O. and Nottebaum, D. (2011) The Buyer’s Dilemma: Whose Rating Should a Wine Drinker Pay attention to? AAWE Working Paper No.91 Sept 2011

Goldstein, R., Almenberg, J., Dreber, A., Emerson, J. W., Herschkowitsch, A. and Katz, J. (2008) Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better? Evidence from a Large sample of Blind Tastings AAWE Working Paper No.16 April 2008

Outreville, J.F (2011) Does the Bottle Size Matter? An Investigation into Difference between Posted and Market Price AAWE Working Paper No. 86 July 2011

Sandler, M. and Pinder, R. (2003) Wine: A scientific Exploration Routledge

Nov

4

The Drops of God

By mthomas

Amazon finally got around to sending me the recently published English language version of  the first volume of  The Drops of God aka ‘Kami no Shizuku’ and ‘The Twelve Disciples’ by Tadashi Agi (a pseudonym used by a brother and sister writing team) and Shu Okimoto (illustrator). It’s an award winning Manga series with a wine focus that Decanter described as “Arguably the most influential wine publication of the past 20 years“. This is not as absurd as it first appears when you consider the rise of the Asian wine market and the importance of engaging younger wine drinkers. The Drops of God has been directly linked with price rises in specific wines but, more interestingly, has also captured the imagination of people who may not have previously considered esoteric Burgundys and sensory issues in wine.

I had seen a few of the original Japanese issues, and even skimmed a French one, but have been eagerly awaiting it in English so I could really immerse myself and assess the overall quality. First impressions are not mine though. Eldest son Luke ripped through it before I got home from work and declared it ‘really good’. He is an avid reader, really loves Manga (Bleach, Naruto and Toriko are favourites) and I respect his knowledge.  It is interesting that he is articulating more questions about wine than usual and is keen to read the next one. I guess it therefore passes muster when judged simply on ‘Manga merit’. Not a bad start…

Reading ‘backwards’ and right to left is a bit of a challenge for me, but in terms of narrative, it is pretty straightforward;  the son of an influential wine critic has to identify mystery wines to claim his inheritance. There are the usual supporting cast, mysteries and twists but the most interesting aspect is the take on wine and tasting. The protagonist Shizuku has been ‘trained’ to identify aromas from an early age but has never tasted wine. He is a blank slate and this allows us to join him on a voyage of discovery where he challenges orthodoxy and relates to wine in a unique way. During this voyage he is exposed to some of the rarest and most celebrated wines (First Growths and Burgundys from Jayer feature prominently) but also to cheaper, sometimes more interesting, alternatives. The story touches on the importance of context, drinking windows, terroir, the influence of critics, blind tastings and most of the other big issues in the world of wine. As such it provides a effective, novel and accessible introduction to wine.

In terms of artwork, there is lots to enjoy, especially in the use of illustrations that are used to create metaphorical descriptions of a wine. The Angelus (originally titled ‘A Prayer for the Potato Crop’) by Millet is Mouton Rothschild 82 and Mont Pérat 01 is Freddie Mercury and Queen. An image is a richer and more enjoyable description of a wine than any score will ever be and the use of imagery and metaphor like this should be encouraged.

There are some weaknesses. The dialogue, like many translations, does not always scan that well. Depth is limited by the genre and many comics suffer from a lack of space for words. Illustrations do supplement this and are why ‘graphic novels’ can succeed so well but these are not always the most dynamic or creative drawings out there. There are also minor factual inaccuracies and more than a few cliches along the way. However these should not put you off as there is much to enjoy and I couldn’t put it down. It also had me reflecting on past wine experiences and triggered a severe craving for pinot (review of the Potel Beaune I plumped for will follow). I have already ordered the second volume (out in December) and I guess that in terms of reviews that is a definitive statement.

Agi, T. and Okimoto, S. (2011) The Drops of God Vertical New York

originally published in Japanese by Kodansha as Kami no Shizuku (2005)

Oct

15

Wine Courses and Education Page Updates

By mthomas

I have added a few wine courses to the page (here) and a few more reviews and references on the research page (here). There are also some tastings coming up which I hope to find time to write up (including one at an intriguing  pop up bar and another in the Tower of London armoury). Often the venues are really interesting and wine has introduced me to some lovely, and sometimes strange, buildings. Recent forays to the Japanese Embassy were great in terms of the hospitality but the best thing was being able to see some of the paintings that live there. Lots of Sakura and Fuji in traditional and modern styles. The ‘Wish for recovery ‘ pictures from children expressing sympathy and solidarity following the earthquake that are displayed in the foyer are also well worth a look.

A recent private tasting with a bunch of collectors was interesting because the high values of some of bottles generally didn’t show when tasted. I am never sure how many private collectors are willing to pay the extra for good provenance or for storing their wines optimally. Some of the wines from the 80′s showed signs of poor storage and would not stand up to more recent (cheaper) vintages. I suspected at least one of being counterfeit but did not want to embarass the collector who enthused about it. It could be that a high percentage of investment wines are duds in terms of drinkability but as investment vehicles retain their momentum in terms of value. It’s a strange economic world as many in New York have been drawing attention to during demonstrations on Wall Street (pictured).

The local papers here are full of more counterfeit wine and spirits seizures. Scams exist at every level of the food, and wine, chain and it is always telling at which level the state chooses to focus its crime fighting resources. Crooked bankers and multinational fraudsters often seem to escape the scrutiny and sanctions that others find themselves under.