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)



A couple of ‘Smelly papers’

By mthomas

Pretty good evidence that we all live in different smell/taste universes can be found here. The study, from Hiroaki Matsunami (Associate Professor of molecular genetics and microbiology) and colleagues, shows that a single amino acid encoded on one gene can mean a person finds a certain smell pleasant whilst others dislike it. They state; “We found that individuals can be very different at the receptor levels, meaning that when we smell something, the receptors that are activated can be very different (from one person to the next) depending on your genome.” Preference is individual and trends or patterns of activation would be of great interest to companies wanting to pitch products to consumers. However, beyond our tendency to like or dislike a smell, we are pretty limited in terms of our ability to discriminate between them. There appear to be ten basic smell attributes according to Jason Castro and colleagues. These are contextual and involve learning so our preferences are only the start of the story. How we describe the smells we are reacting to is another thing entirely.

Castro J, Ramanathan A, Chennubhotla C. (2013) Categorical Dimensions of Human Odor Descriptor Space Revealed by Non-Negative Matrix Factorization. PLoS ONE. 

Mainland J, Keller A, Li Y. et al (2013) The missense of smell: functional variability in the human odorant receptor repertoire. Nature. 2014

On a related topic I have just got a copy of Charles Spence’s new book The Perfect Meal and will review it soon



More on Student Drinking

By mthomas

Building on my last post (on student drinking) here is a link to some papers presented at the recent BPS conference. abstracts

Interesting findings from researchers at Northumbria and Sussex Unis include;

Students who engage in sports tend to be more hazardous in their drinking than the general student population but hazardous drinkers who participated in sport reported better cognitive functioning than hazardous drinkers who did not participate in sport. So the various sports clubs at Uni may be populated by hazardous drinkers (perhaps predisposed to binging and/or bingers due to the social context of sports clubs) but their sporting activities may provide a bit of protection against the cognitive effects of booze.

Hazardous drinking students reported lower scores on a measure of psychological well-being compared to non-hazardous drinkers. This contradicts the results of an American student survey.

Non-drinkers are perceived to be less favourable and sociable relative to regular drinkers, with this perception being strongest among heavier drinkers. Interventions that challenge these negative perceptions of non-drinkers (i.e. that they are less sociable) may lead to a reduction in undergraduate’s alcohol consumption.



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.



Criteria for Accrediting Expert Wine Judges

By mthomas

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



Plumpton Wine Centre

By mthomas

I recently visited Plumpton Agriculture College for a tour of the excellent Wine Centre. It was also a bit of a nostalgic trip because my mum worked there in the 70s and, as a small child, I used to go to all the open days. It has come on a lot since then and is now recognised as an outstanding wine education centre with an expanding curriculum on offer. What they teach goes beyond a focus on production and increasingly includes the business end of the wine trade.

Of particular  note is the Wine Consumer Behaviour module which  is part of the Wine business BA. It has the following learning outcomes for students;

1. Apply theoretical consumer behaviour models to practical wine applications
2. Demonstrate an ability to understand the psychological structures and processes involved in wine consumer choice
3. Provide a critical analysis of the literature on determinants of wine consumer choice.

This innovative course is run by Paul Harley (far right) who kindly showed Dr Paul Curran, who writes about wine and health, (pictured right) and me around the impressive facilities. These include state of the art labs and an excellent bespoke tasting room. Paul (H) is passionate about psychology and I hope to contribute to the course in future.

It would have been a shame not to pick up some of the wines produced at Plumpton and Paul (C) and I both ‘plumped’ for  one of the sparkling wines they produce there; The Dean (Brut NV) £22. An IWC silver medal winner in 2012 and likely to win more plaudits in future. It is crisp and refreshing with enough complexity to make you want to go back to it after the first glass. This and a visit to Ridgeview later in the day confirmed my view that Sussex will  deservedly increase its cut of Champagne’s market over the next decade.

The website is here if you want to look at the courses on offer, visit or buy wine.



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.




Marguet Champagne

By mthomas

Lovely grower champagne from Marguet (made by Benoit Bonnerave 5th generation maker based in Ambonnay) care of the Wine Society. Its an elegant Blanc de Noirs (78% pinot noir and 22% pinot meunier). Unsurprisingly, given the black grape content, it’s slightly austere and less floral than most fizz.  It does have some really subtle russet apple flavours underneath its initially quite ‘manly’ (sic) style.

This is a pleasure on its own but magical with a hard cheese. It’s seriously good stuff that knocks the spots of some equivalent price big brands. The Wine Society keep rooting out gems like this and I am gradually working my way through their range of grower champagnes because the quality is consistently high and there is wonderful variety amongst the range. This would be a great place to start;

Champagne Marguet Blanc de Noirs The Wine Society £22



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.



All About Albariño; The Rias Baixas Mini-Fair

By mthomas

I love Albariño (and the Portuguese version Alavarino) so did not want to miss this ‘Mini Fair’ held at Glaziers Hall. I also didn’t want to fail to write it up as it definitely deserves a bit of time and energy. Firstly, because the wines were really enjoyable. There was quality across the range as well as more than a few outstanding tipples. There was also real coherence, despite a variety of styles from the aromatic and peachy to the salty and austere.

Secondly, the Masterclass led by Peter McCombie was excellent. He is knowledgeable and enthusiastic without being gushing. He also shows a bit of humility and reminded the audience that ‘taste is individual’. When he got the year of a wine wrong he put his hands up rather than try and blag it as some experts do. He facilitated rather than lectured which is what people need from a tasting like this. The wines shown were;

Adegas Condes de Albarei Pazo Baion 2012 £20

Adegas Morgaido Morgaido 2012 £14

Bodegas Agro De Bazan Contrapunto 2012 £13

Bodegas del Palcio de Fefinanes Albarino 2012 £18

Bodegas Marques  de Vizhoja Senor de Folla Verde 2012 £20

Bodegas Terras Gauda Terras Gauda O Rosal 2012 £17

Eulogio Zarate Zarate 2012 £23

Grupo Vincola Marques de Vargas Pazo san Mauro 2012 £14

Hermanos Vazquez Abal Sete Cepas 2012 £12.50

Bodegas Maior de Mandoza 3 Crianzas £14

Pazo Barrantes 2012 £18.50

Bodega Pazo de Senorans 2012 £17

Bodegas Coto Redondo Senorio de Rubios 2012 £10.75

My benchmark for Albariño is Fefinanes from the Salnes appellation (orange on the map above) which showed well. It combined lightness with complexity. Lots of green herbaceous notes and a bit of consensus around ‘baked apple’. They also make an aged version but I am not convinced by aging beyond a year or two or by the addition of oak (although there are exceptions to every rule and the ambitious 2010 Comtesse from Pazo Barrantes at £40 is impressive).

Another consistent producer from Salnes, Zarate, had trademark salinity as did the Pazo Baion. I loved the Mendoza example which would wash down Pate Negra really well. I am a fan of the saltier less fruity style but if you like more weight of fruit go for the wines from Condado do Tea (blue on the map above). The blend from Vizhoja had a slight cannabis aroma some might enjoy and the Coto Redondo didn’t taste like the cheapest wine being shown but was (at £10.50).

The prices are retail guides and the lack of accents because it is a pain to put them all in!

These are superb food wines and the table of tapas from Iberica was just what the doctor ordered. Standout was a Pulpo Empanada with a bit of a chili kick. I could happily eat a plateful with a bottle of any of the above.