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
Martin Walker is probably best known as a Guardian journalist. He was Bureau Chief in Moscow and European Editor in the United States. He has also written a range of non-fiction texts including The Cold War and presented BBC programmes on Russia and ‘Clintonomics‘. He spends summers in his house in the Dordogne and writes detective novels set in the fictional town of St Denis.
The hero of this series of books, which includes the wine focussed The The Dark Vineyard, is Bruno Courreges a parochial gendarme. He is a paragon of French culture who teaches rugby and tennis to local children. He also finds time to tread grapes with neighbours, bed various women and catch villains.
An arson attack on a research centre with GM crops triggers an investigation involving a Californian wine corporation, young French would be winemakers and a hippy commune. There is also room for a selection of slightly stereotypical St Denis characters including the odd newbie Brit settler. It is all very easy on the intellect and has some nice touches for Francophiles. The wine content is pretty undemanding and in many ways peripheral but there are a few interesting passages including one linking the treading of grapes to a spike in birth rates 9 months later.
There is a Bruno website which even has pictures of Gigi, Bruno’s truffle sniffing Basset Hound. My dad had one when I was very young and I always assumed they were English so it was interesting to read that they are thought to have been bred by St Hubert (the patron saint of hunting) for boar hunting and their ears funnel up scents to their nose. I must look out for human versions at future tastings.
I spend a lot of time reading quite demanding texts so crime novels are a bit of a guilty pleasure. I often gravitate towards French and Italian detective novels, particularly those written by Fred Vargas but she can’t write them fast enough for me. In the interim I might dip into more of this series.
I had decided not to buy this book because it is expensive and I had read a highly critical review by the usually reliable W. Blake Grey at ‘Vinography’. However, a well-meaning pal bought me a copy and so I spent a few hours wading through it. If only I could have that time back again. I think they should have called it ‘Pretentious about wine: clumsy literary references are easier than careful evaluation and communication about psychological research and knowledge relating to wine’ . I found it is the most annoying book (tone and content) about wine that I have read in some time.
A few points before I start the review proper:
- I usually only review books, articles or papers containing information I think people will find useful and/or are well-written (this is evidenced by previous reviews – click on link to left to read them)
- Any views expressed are mine alone and not representative of my employers, publishers, family or any one else I haven’t thought of
- I am writing a book on psychology and wine and thus my perspective is a particular one
- There are some great writers out there who are working hard to demystify wine, and to increase participation and enjoyment
- I alluded to Blake Grey’s negative review of the book in a blog a few months back and one of the authors sent me an email that included the following passage ” ignorance of the implications of experimental design and methodology in the behavioural sciences is something you seem happy to share with your colleague. (Add to this an ignorance of two millennia’s philosophy of aesthetics, as your fatuous musings unwittingly show.)” Other passages were less flattering, even more pompous, inaccurate and, to be frank, very amusing – for the record I supervise Doctoral level research (including experimental methodology) in psychology and Blake Grey is not a colleague (we have never even met)
- Mr Mitchell did not respond to my offer to publish the email he sent, review the book or pass the book to another reviewer
- I withdrew the blog out of courtesy but stated an intention to review the book in future
So, what is this book like?
In my opinion it is self-indulgent, pretentious and ‘so bad it’s funny’. The worst indictment however is the paucity of psychology. I tend to subscribe to the Oxford English Dictionary definition; The science of the nature, function and phenomena of human mind. I know that there are different ‘psychologies’ and enjoy the diversity of these. If this book had outlined the relative value of nomothetic and idiographic approaches before launching in to a series of anecdotes I would have been unconcerned as there can be value in an anecdotal approach when executed with reflexivity, wit and insight. What this book appears to be is something it is, in my opinion, not i.e. a book to inform readers of psychological research and findings related to wine (which I guess is what most people might expect from the title).
The authors repeatedly fail to operationalise key areas under examination and show little awareness of the wealth of studies into sensory and neuropsychological aspects of our interaction with wine. References are literary and subjective, strung together with hyperbole and simplistic analysis “Wine is a multi-multi-billion dollar industry…”. The authors continually use three words, where one (perhaps none) would have sufficed, and indulge in rambling and interminable asides. Perhaps they should read Orwell on writing because I guess he, and their literary heroes such as Beckett, might have viewed their posturing style as anathema with carefully composed words being interpreted in such a self-serving and arbitrary manner.
The tone is set with a badly judged vignette where the authors imagine the ‘discovery’ of wine by a ‘Neanderthal’ called ‘Ugg’ who is later transformed into ‘Daisy’ in an apparent attempt to make a simplistic point about gender. In fact this trivialising of an evolutionary perspective, and complete failure to capture the incredible psychological implications of such an event only appears in ‘Chapter’ 3 following a tiresome eulogy to a glass of wine on Santorini (the one page first ‘Chapter’) and confusing passage on Caravaggio in ‘Chapter’ 2 where the authors find time (fill space?) by commenting “This film was marked by the appearance of the translucent Tilda Swinton, who subsequently graduated from indie film muse to Narnia white witch and oscar winner” (page 7). Now that’s what I want from a book about psychology and wine…
Vague allusions to ‘anthropological theories’ are made but never fully materialize. There are small sections on memory and language that are vaguely coherent but these are found in a plethora of cheaper, better written and widely available books, and serve only to highlight the absence of any central thesis regarding psychology and wine. The authors appear too busy producing flatulent comments on ‘fave films’ to include key information on the way we think and talk about wine.
The section on ratings berates us with the idea that scores are ‘all about authority’ but the authors demonstrate a complete lack of insight into the limitations of their own ‘authoritative’ stance as well as the irony of such a statement. Most psychologists recognise the role of statistics but the Mitchells seem content (complacent) in simply pontificating about ratings rather than pursuing any meaningful analysis in terms of the properties of scales or the limitations of such heuristics.
Chapter 8 consists of a list of grape varieties with the author’s ‘idiosyncratic’ take on each. Examples include ”Albarino – Wants to love you with seafood, in its Spanish manner.” (page 49) and Tempranillo – Ole’!!!” (page 51) This is so impoverished it beggars belief. The exclamation marks simply emphasise the vacuous nature of what is being stated (shouted) and are a perfect example of a ‘stain on the silence‘ (That’s Beckett by the way).
There are presumably unintentionally comic interpretations of quotations from Robertson Davis, Ian McEwan et al, ad infinitum to add weight to flimsy ideas. There are also a few more passages I found quite sinister, strange at best. One particularly disconcerting example (p38-39) flits from a meeting with an ‘old flame’ to Giacometti’s ‘Woman with her throat cut’ and then focuses on Jeremy Irons and gynaecological instruments from Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers. Descriptions of women in this book could keep a Freudian analyst busy for a few lifetimes (the authors often use Freudian concepts, thus illustrating their engagement with cutting-edge psychology). An update of bad commercial Chardonnay – ‘Dolly Parton’ wines is offered as ”Pamela Anderson wines” because, obviously, Pammy is ‘up to date’ in the eyes of the authors but is also described as not a “real woman”. Make no mistake, when the humour falls flat and the underpinning constructs emerge, this is I think quite ugly stuff.
This is a book that has Hannibal Lecter in the Index but omits any mention of Adrienne Lehrer, the most informative and relevant writer on the language of wine. There are a hundred more similar indictments that could be made but, as with reading this book, life is too short. There is, in my opinion, still no book that collects together key theories and experimental results from psychology for wine lovers but there are some that explore fascinating and complex philosophical issues in the world of wine. Those interested in these should read either of two excellent collections – Fritz Allhoff’s ‘Wine and Philosophy; A Symposium on Thinking and Drinking’ or Barry C. Smith’s ‘Questions of Taste; The Philosophy of Wine’. They actually have a lot of psychology in them too.
Allhoff, F. (Ed.) (2008) Wine and Philosophy Wiley-Blackwell (Review Here)
Smith, B. C. (2007) Questions of Taste; The Philosophy of Wine Signal Books
The Psychology of Eating and Drinking
I recently revisited Alexandra Logue’s Psychology of Eating and Drinking whilst on holiday. It’s a wonderful mixture of the academic and accessible. Starting out from her own early experiences with food Logue leads the reader through a journey of self-discovery rooted in the scientific method.
The book is made up of 15 chapters that explore areas such as food preference, the role of the senses and evolutionary influences. Latter topics include eating disorders, gender and, in the last chapter, ‘Cuisine, Beer ands Wine’. Throughout, the tone is engaging yet serious (as befits the topic).
The book is probably of more interest to psychologists than wine enthusiasts as only a couple of pages refer directly to wine. However, the way in which Logue makes fundamentals about our eating and drinking behaviour accessible should be engaging for anyone interested in why, and how, they eat and drink. Logue quotes Savarin’s challenge; “Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are” and Alice (in Wonderland) “I know something interesting is sure to happen whenever I eat or drink anything”.
Sections on specific anosmia (smell insensitivity) and genetic sensitivity to PTC/PROP (supertasters, tasters and non-tasters) should be required reading for wine educators wanting to understand individual variance in responses at tastings. As Otolaryngologist and Yale Professor Linda Bartoshuk states, “People inhabit separate taste worlds”.
Logue uses the clever device of including ‘Conversation Making Facts’ in text boxes throughout. These might relate to why porcupines get run over (it’s all about their appetite for salt), the success of Gary Hall, a diabetic Olympiad, or the amount of butter used by successful chefs in their cooking. This grounds the academic studies in lived experience and increases accessibility.
I was particularly interested in the debate between the ‘complete abstinence’ and ‘controlled drinking’ views on alcohol dependence. The AA approach seems to ‘catastrophise’ relapse and I am more sympathetic to the way in which some CBT approaches encourage controlled relapse to help people learn how to manage drinking more effectively. As with all ‘therapy’ it very much depends on the client’s profile and needs. What Logue manages to do throughout this admirable book is to set out the evidence and debates in a rigorous and balanced manner.
Logue, A. (2004) The Psychology of Eating and Drinking Brunner-Routeledge New York
ISBN 0-415-95008-0 (softback) or 0-415-95008-2 (hardback)