On junk science and my (former) dislike of Chilean wine

wpid-dsc_0592.jpgA quick glance at the science section of any major newspaper tells us two things. First, that there is no shortage of academics trying to find the answer to anything and everything in our observable universe. And second, that there seems to be a disproportionate number of scientists devoting countless hours, perhaps even years, to some of life’s least important issues.

Almost all of it is junk science with an agenda behind it, and this fact has been reported widely. It seems, for some reason, that the Telegraph is leading the pack when it comes to reports of junk science, perhaps because, in its endeavour to attract the most clicks and therefore higher ad revenues, it must print anything and everything.

It comes as no surprise that junk science about wine tasting appears frequently, hashing and then re-hashing the same tired topics. Case in point, this week’s round of wine tasting ‘science’ and ‘research’, as reported by the Telegraph and Harper’s Wine & Spirits. At the Telegraph, we read about how wines with lower alcohol are purported to have more flavour than those with higher alcohol. Sure, insofar as the alcohol isn’t masking the fruit and other aspects that make up the wine’s flavour profile.

Then, in Harper’s, we read that Naked Wines, the online retailer, claimed that consumers ‘prefer’ bigger, bolder wines with more alcohol. If consumers want flavour, then surely going for a wine with more alcohol is counter-intuitive? I can only conclude that something doesn’t add up here. I’m going to suggest it’s the science involved. No matter how deeply scientists study the process of wine tasting, no matter how often they might conclude that there is nothing behind it, they are clearly ignoring the fact that there is, and it’s entirely sensory and subjective.

Think of it this way: there are no scientific reviews that I know of that have debunked the science film reviews. Many of the most celebrated films ever made received bad reviews upon release — think Vertigo, Citizen Kane, Casablanca and my personal favourite, The Big Lebowski — but no one has claimed that this was because film reviewing is junk science. Nor does anyone say it when the reviews are overly positive.

On the topic of science and subjectivity, let me make a very bad segue and write about Chilean wine. It is no secret that I have an irrational intense dislike of Chilean wine. Mostly, I have found it to represent a vague middle ground in the wine world, a sort of indecisiveness, neither here nor there of flavour and complexity.

If, for example, a merlot from St Emilion represents restraint and a sense of place while a merlot from, say, California, has a reputation for being the opposite of restrained, then a Chilean merlot, by and large, will inevitably land somewhere in the middle. And the middle is not where anyone wants to be, for being in the middle really just means that you’re neither this nor that. It’s the beige minivan of wine, offering as much excitement as a night out at the library.

Except. Except there could be another way. And I might have found it, in all places, at Marks & Spencer. Look beyond the cashmere scarves and the navy blue blazers with those gaudy gold buttons and head straight for the wine aisle, where the selection is anything but stuffy. Indian sauvignon blanc? Georgian orange wine?  A crisp, white wine from Tikves in Macedonia? Check, check and check. On the Chilean front, the usual suspects make an appearance in the M&S aisles.

But what’s this hiding near the bottom of the shelf? A dry pedro ximenez from Chile’s Elqui Valley? Pedro ximenez is a white wine grape best known for growing in southern Spain, where it is turned into a sherry of the same name, often labelled PX for short. PX sherry is dark and sweet, the result of grapes that have been laid out to dry in the sun to intensify their sugar concentration.

With M&X Pedro Ximenez PX, things are rather different. The wine is dry and crisp, not sweet and unctuous. It reminded me more of a wine from the Maconnais region of France, not an oddball white wine made in Chile from an oddball grape. For somewhere in the region of £7, this wasn’t just an acceptable bottle of wine, this was one of the first Chilean wines I’d enjoyed in a long time (a recently tasted bottle of very expensive still wine made in a Champagne style notwithstanding).

Now, this isn’t a perfect wine by any means. Its price is in the lower half of the M&S product suite, so it isn’t necessarily profound or complex. It probably won’t cause any epiphanies any time soon. But it’s interesting and satisfying, something few Chilean wines have achieved for me in the past few years.

And there’s more. M&S also sells a reasonably priced wine made from Chile’s signature red wine grape, carmenere, and it, too, stopped me in my tracks. M&S CM Carmenere also hails from the Elqui Valley and, while slightly more expensive than the PX, represents good value. I expected it to be fruity and innocuous like a generic merlot might be, but instead it was so much more. Oak, spices, excellent fruit on the palate and a solid backbone all make for a bit of a surprise. So PX and CM. Who knew? Until recently I had avoided Chilean wine out of caution. But perhaps I was wrong all along. What I do know is that it had nothing to do with science.

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Wine investment: A worrying state of affairs

IMAG0028Bear with me, the link I am about to make is tenuous. It’s often disappointing when something that you wanted to believe was true turns out to be nothing more than a sham. In the case of the Wizard of Oz, that sham was a wizard who sustained the myth of his powers using smoke and mirrors, shielding his worshippers from the reality that he was just an ordinary man from Omaha who got lost. Thanks to the power of fiction, the wizard effected a happy ending by proving to Dorothy and her friends that the answers they were seeking were always within them.

When it comes to wine investment, there has been no shortage of instances when people wanted to believe something to be true. Rudy Kurniawan is perhaps the most famous recent fraudster, but don’t forget about the case of Labouré-Roi’s fake pinot noir or even the somewhat mythical Thomas Jefferson bottles, documented in the book The Billionaire’s Vinegar.

We need not travel too far to find cases of wine fraud. A daily visit to Jim Budd’s blog keeps us up to date with just about every instance of nefarious activity in the wine investment world, some elaborate and some not.

The latest story that caught my eye was that of opportunists attempting to capitalise on clients of the now-defunct wine investment company European Fine Wines. EFW was a company that many of us wanted to believe was the real deal and free from the troubles associated with other collapsed wine investment firms, but deep down there were plenty of suspicions floating around. This all came to fruition in 2014, when EFW’s phone lines went unanswered and the staff had reportedly been ‘sacked’.

Indeed, once the company went under, it left behind a trail of unhappy former clients and dubious practices. Sadly, they did so right under our noses. On three occasions in 2012 and 2013 it held tasting events where, looking back, it seemed to wish upon itself all the scrutiny and suspicion it could muster. I wrote about the first of these tastings back in May 2012, where the wines lined up on the table consisted of Haut Brion, Cheval Blanc, Yquem and more from the 1998 Bordeaux vintage. The event was peppered with clients and journalists alike, but any scrutiny that was in the air was drowned out by a fog of first growths.

Later that year, the company held a Christmas tasting. The first growths were fewer in number, but the volume of financial journalists attending was uncanny. If they had something to hide, they were doing an unbelievable job of hiding it out in the open.

It was at this tasting that an unhappy client’s story of cold-calling and potential mis-selling (unverified), began to raise my suspicions. What he told me was all too familiar. A slick sales person from EFW  cold called him and sold him a story about the thick profits that could be made by investing in wine and how EFW would handle everything for him. The person on the phone was pushy and persuasive, of course, and managed to part the client and his money with ease. And because this person knew nothing about wine, especially not Bordeaux, EFW sold him second-tier wines from lesser vintages at prices that were very likely unfavourable.

The unhappy customer was angry but realistic. He figured he had been duped, but thankfully didn’t lose a fortune. When he received an invitation to the Christmas tasting, he attended because he wanted to see for himself if the company was legitimate. I gave him my card and told him that if he wanted further help with his situation, I could recommend a few avenues for him to follow. He never did get in touch.

A year later, another tasting invitation landed in my inbox. It was near the end of 2013 and this time there were no journalists present and the wines were all lower-tier. The atmosphere was also much frostier than usual. Something had clearly changed at EFW.  Six months later, the company would be gone. Rather than follow the path of successful and trusted brokerages, companies like EFW seem designed to make quick profits by taking advantage of naive clients by promising fast profits. The problem is that if there is money to be made in wine, it doesn’t come quickly.

In a recent interview with the Telegraph’s Victoria Moore, famed American wine critic Robert Parker said that there is no way to make a quick buck out of wine, adding:

Speculation is one of the ugly down-sides to Bordeaux. I think these speculators have finally, especially the Chinese and some other wealthy people, recognised you can’t make money on them. Now if you’re buying it to sit on it for 10 to 15 years ….but speculators are looking to turn things over.

Truer words were never spoken. We all know the adage; if it seems too good to be true…

Not a drop worth drinking part II: The customer is always right

ID-1009400Harry Gordon Selfridge was famous for his eponymous department store, which transformed the humble act of shopping from an undesirable but necessary evil, to the unnecessary act of frivolity that is the engine of Oxford Street today. Perhaps.

Mr Selfridge has also been credited, along with Marshall Field, for coining — or perhaps just popularising — the phrase ‘the customer is always right.’ In the quest to secure as many sales, and therefore as much profit, as possible, the belief was that no matter what the customer said or did (perhaps short of theft), they were always right. Or for those who go to Burger King, they can always have it their way.

Taken to its logical conclusion, this mantra would be the undoing of retail. And perhaps, in a way, it has. Retailers these days give people what they want, not simply what they need. Why else do we have Primark selling cut-price clothing and household goods? Never mind where or how their products are made, and what it does to the environment.

As axioms go, this is as true for clothing as it is for wine. In their quest to satisfy their customers whims, supermarkets are stocking their shelves with whatever is cheap and sells well. Is it what the customer needs? No. Is it what the customer wants? Yes, but only insofar as they want something that is a) cheap, b) familiar and c) uncomplicated. The everyday person wants an everyday wine, so why make it challenging by stocking the shelves with Georgian saperavi or Greek assyrtiko? Only the nerdiest of the nerds will buy that.

If avoiding confusion were the objective, our supermarkets wouldn’t provide excessive choice at all. And yet, this isn’t the case at all. During a recent shopping trip as part of my quest to find a cheap and drinkable muscadet, it was in a tiny Sainsbury’s outlet in the London’s financial district where I was presented with a confusing site. While its small wine fridge at first seemed to contain one of all the usual suspects (one Chablis, one Sancerre, one Soave and so on), this was not the case for our old friend pinot grigio.

For there was not just one, but seven of the devils lined up all in a row, each one as uninspiring and insipid as the next. Logic would dictate that if Sainsbury’s sees fit to sell just one Chablis, one Sancerre and one Soave, then one pinot grigio ought to do as well. But it seems that, in an effort to pile it high and sell it cheap the customer who is always right, loading the shelves with pinot grigio is giving them what they want.

As Lettie Teague wrote in the Wall Street Journal, pinot grigio seems to defy logic:

Watery. Insipid. Neutral. Boring. Few wines underwhelm as thoroughly as pinot grigio. Yet it’s a consistent best seller—retailers tell me that they can’t keep the stuff in stock.

This is not simply a problem at Sainsbury’s, to be fair. And it’s not simply a problem in the UK either. At a vast supermarket of a wine store in western Canada, there stood an entire shelving unit loaded with pinot grigio, each bottle no more compelling than the others. When I asked why they needed to sell some 40 different variations of pino grigio, the shop assistant slumped her shoulders and gave a quiet, frank response: people buy a lot of it, so they stock a lot of it.

Not that pinot grigio is all bad. In the right hands, made with good grapes and with care and attention, it can become a wine of character. As Peter Grogan once wrote in the Telegraph,

Bad winemakers will make bad wine regardless of the grape varieties they’re growing. Poor old pinot grigio, being an obliging and productive old fruit, has fallen in with some rather undesirable types.

Undesirable indeed. Sainsbury’s take note.