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‘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.
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
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.
Language influences us in all kinds of ways and there is a wealth of, sometimes confusing, findings relating to this in terms of consumer perceptions and preferences. Here is a video of a recent lecture given by Dr Antonia Mantonakis Psychologist and Professor of Marketing at Brock University in Ontario. In it she explores some of the research in this area and links it to a recent study she carried out. I am not sure if it is published in a peer reviewed journal yet but she describes its design in detail and also explores the logic which inspired it.
People generally prefer what is fluent and congruent (beef with carrots not grapefruit, French wine with French rather than Indian food). Studies such as the oft cited one by Adrian North and colleagues have demonstrated such effects e.g. German background music in a wine retailer will increase the sales of German wines. Mantonakis refers to this and other studies to frame her investigation into the influence of the name of a wine, or winery, on taste perception. She explores how typeface or font can alter behavioural responses due to ease of processing (more or less likely to participate in exercise) or perception of taste (rate an orange juice as tastier). See my previous blog on wine labels and typeface here.
Despite our preference for fluency, ease and congruence, she hypothesised that wine is different because it is hedonic and with this type of product we like rarity (see Veblen effects blog here). In linguistic terms dysfluency (hard to pronounce) seems to equate with rarer, and wine is perceived as better if it is rarer. This effect has been demonstrated in a study with cheese; hard to pronounce name equates with ‘more gourmet’, higher value and therefore better taste. So, Mantonakis and colleagues expected a wine with a more difficult sounding name might be perceived to be superior.
To explore this hypothesis they controlled variables and looked at ‘taste ratings’, ‘willingness to buy’ and ‘amount people would pay’ for what were identical wines (apart from the names). Mantonakis acknowledges design limitations (only Canadian participants etc.) and fields some interesting questions after her talk. Look out for the one on experts seeking more meaning in wines.
I will let the video speak for itself in terms of the findings but can’t resist highlighting the fallibility of experts (high wine knowledge consumers). Sometimes knowledge really is a dangerous, and costly, thing.
Happy New Year!
2012 looks like being an exciting year for psychology and wine. It will no doubt be as busy as ever though and my new diary is chockablock already. I am especially excited about the Olympics as they are so close to home and we were incredibly lucky with tickets (less fortunate friends prone to conspiracy theories suggest a postcode bias). It should be an incredible few weeks and I have no intention of renting out my house but will need to set up camp beds and tents for everyone who will be visiting us during the games. I also hope that the powers that be see that children in London must be allocated more tickets and that too much emphasis on the corporate element will destroy any meaningful legacy.
My New Year resolution is to enjoy as much time with my kids as I can whilst they are still young, hence the gap in my blogging. I had a brief experiment with Twitter in 2011 but really can’t be bothered with it. It seems that people are increasingly turning themselves into commodities and I value privacy and intimacy above rampant confessionalism and the pursuit of ’followers’. It never ceases to amaze me what people will share on the Internet and I deliberately avoid too much detail about family and friends. I am also conscious, and relieved, that people aren’t really interested in the mundanities of my existence.
I missed many more tastings than I attended in 2011 (most are tedious anyway) and blogged on even fewer. The recent 2010 Burgundy tastings have been impressive though and well covered in the media. I guess the USP of this site is the psychology and the research page is developing well. I am going to try and concentrate on research (and book) reviews in 2012. I am also getting some help with the tech side of the website as this often takes up a lot of my time and, even though I love it, it makes more sense for me to focus on writing.
2011 saw a proliferation in wine blogs and there was even a paper about wine bloggers!
Freitas Santos, J. (2011) Motivations and characteristics of international wine bloggers AAWE Working Paper 92 October 2011
This had a few points of interest in terms of the characteristics and motivations of bloggers but didn’t explore some of the important ethical issues around wine blogging (impact of alcohol consumption, conflicts of interest etc.) which are surely relevant. These were addressed in other papers though. For example;
Rikard, B.J., Constanigro, M. and Garg, T. (2011) Regulating the availability of beer, wine and spirits in grocery stores: Beverage-specific effects on prices, consumption and traffic fatalities AAWE Working Paper 95 December
Wine is reported to have numerous advantages over other alcoholic beverages but much of this is over hyped if not deliberately disingenuous. If you are intoxicated on wine or beer there is unlikely to be any causal relationship that would explain any differences in outcomes of traffic accidents! However, there are lots of confounding variables that might explain such an effect though. Perhaps wine drinkers tend to drive differently or drive different cars. What is clear is that people need to be careful about the way in which complex information is communicated. At the moment there are lots of people not drinking in January and others taking specific ‘days off’ during the week due to beliefs about alcohol consumption and their (for the next few weeks at least) desire to be healthier. Frequency is important but so is the AMOUNT you drink! If you are drinking the same amount but altering frequency then you are unlikely to see huge benefits….
It is interesting to note that the economic downturn has not impacted on spending on alcohol as much as might be expected. Statistics from the ONS show that the amount of duty paid by households has “changed little in recent years“. In fact spending on alcohol duty by the 20% ‘bottom earners’ has risen most over the last 15 years (56% more in real terms). Higher earners are only spending slightly more but it is a smaller percentage of their income.
Let’s hope 2012 sees more clarity around alcohol consumption, less of a gap between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ and the Olympic ideals lived out in London.
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
A new charity, building on the work of the Alcohol Education and Research Council (AERC), was launched last month. Professor Virginia Berridge guided the audience through a history of research into the use of alcohol and Professor Martin Hagger discussed his team’s (Alcohol Research UK funded) investigation into people’s attitudes, beliefs and responses to the possible introduction of a minimum price per unit of alcohol. The findings from the latter can be downloaded here and make for interesting reading.
Professor Robin Davidson then outlined the plans for the new charity, including the Flagship Grants Programme. Small grants (up to £5,000) are available to fund modest research projects, pilot research studies or demonstration projects. All should have a strong evaluation component. Projects which increase the capacity of individuals and organisations to deal with alcohol issues may also be funded. The following criteria are applied to all applications: Will the project make a difference to the alcohol evidence base or to the capacity of individuals or organisations? Are the aims well defined and achievable? Is there a sound evaluation component to check whether those aims have been achieved? This is a rolling programme with no application deadline.
At the launch an afternoon balloon debate, chaired by Rosie Boycott (a self declared ‘recovering alcoholic’), explored how best to reduce alcohol related harm in society. Participants included Professor Sir Ian Gilmore (Alcohol Research UK Trustee, Alcohol Health Alliance UK Chair and Consultant Physician, Royal Liverpool University Hospitals), Professor Malcolm Law (Professor of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine, Wolfson Institute of Preventive Medicine, Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry) and Campbell Evans (Director of Government & Consumer Affairs, Scotch Whisky Association). The debate is on utube here and is well worth a watch.
Website here and there are some interesting examples of grants here and an excellent ‘library’ resource here