The “quality” of heavy bottles and cross-modal sensory perception (Social construction of wine appreciation at ICCWS, part I)

When Dr. Charles Spence stood up to speak at the International Cool Climate Wine Symposium in Brighton a week ago, I was looking forward to the reaction of the audience as much as to his presentation. Spence is a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford, and I’ve read some of his published research. He documents examples of integrative multisensory experiences – connections amongst taste, smell, sight, sound, and touch – and experiments with ways to manipulate experiences in one sensory mode by messing about with what’s happening in our other sensory channels. The data he generates are important for marketers, who would obviously love to sell more X with an inexpensive trick like changing the music or the lighting or the colors surrounding a consumption experience.

Much of Spence’s research has involved wine quality, and most people in the wine industry are interested in marketing (not all winemakers are trying to sell more wine or sell the wine they have at higher prices, but many are); ergo, his conclusions might be useful for helping industry folk generate new marketing ideas, like harmonious wine and music pairings to sell new and different wine experiences that increase perceptions of wine quality. But more than that, crossmodal sensory perception is fun to think about, to play with the idea that how “crunchy” a chip is depends on the sound it makes and not just the physical way it feels in your mouth, or that music can “make” a wine more or less astringent. “Taste” or “smell” isn’t a fixed property of food or drink, and more environmental variables contribute to how we experience taste and smell than we usually consider. That’s good food for thinking about how attending to all of our senses in an experience can make for better living, too.

On the one hand, Spence’s observations are pretty darn mundane. Tasting with unpleasant, discordant music makes wine taste more sharp and angular. Duh? On the other, Spence’s work is unusual in this still-all-too-reductionist world, and he’s an eminent Oxford professor, and his conclusions are useful for the money-making types. So as a science communicator, I wondered, were session attendees going to be delighted? Bored? Surprised? I need to consider that a goodly proportion of ICCWS attendees were British, and as a culture the Brits aren’t exactly known for being expressive in public. But there was one moment at which I absolutely expected to hear a murmur in the crowd and didn’t.

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How to answer the question: is this good wine?

How do you decide whether something is good? Wine is a loaded subject, so let’s take a steak. If you’re looking for calories, steak is good: it has lots of them. If you’re looking for nutrients and specifically for protein, or for vitamin B12, it’s also good. If you’re looking for nutrients and trying to avoid fat, it’s bad. If you’re making a decision based on function, and you’re a nursing mother, maybe it’s good because you need the iron and those B vitamins. If you’re looking to support an environmental ideology, it’s good or bad depending on where the steak came from. If you’re making a meal for guests, it’s good or bad depending on whether the steak is the right degree of special for the occasion and whether it will communicate the right message to people you’re trying to impress. It may be bad to eat because you can’t afford it. If you’re a vegetarian or vegan, or observe a Hindu diet, it’s not good to eat because it isn’t food; end of story.

You can’t just call the steak “good” or “bad.” In general, this is a thing we recognize. I really like the – now regrettably old-fashioned – idea of “household management.” Good household managers adeptly maneuver amongst these value registers* to make “good” choices for their household constituency, balancing a budget and good care for people and personal or family values and time and a dozen other things. Household management shouldn’t be put down. It’s a complex bunch of skills, as might be observed by the number of start-ups Silicon Valley-types create to help the average person with disposable income not have to learn them.

People increasingly outsource those decisions. A lot of us really want someone else to tell us whether something is good to eat! Making all of those decisions is hard work, and it’s far simpler to have someone else tell you what to do. So, combined with a lot of insecurity about weight and health and the health of the planet, we have Atkins and Weil and and Michael Pollan and Slow Food and (the new, hip, engaging and interactive and multicultural replacement for the old stodgy American food pyramid). In the Netherlands, “healthier” packaged foods can carry little stickers with a phrase that means “I choose consciously” because the government wants to tell you what to eat without actually telling you what to eat.

Why could the household manager balance all of those many different values? First, if we’re talking about the old-fashioned house or farm wife, it was a big part of her full-time job. Second, she had fewer options. “What should I make for dinner?” For her, cultural constraints would define what “dinner” could be; for me, I might be German and Irish and Polish but I’m far more likely to think about Vietnamese or Greek for dinner or, more likely, combining a bunch of food traditions. I have way more options. She had ingredients limited by season and location; I can get most things most of the time. She had a limited number of dishes she learned from relatives and friends; I can access an infinite number of recipes on the internet. She may have felt some social pressure to make familiar things; I feel social pressure to make unfamiliar things and to keep experimenting and learning.

And she had fewer options in the store. “Let’s have ham for dinner.” “Which ham?” I can buy the cheap ham or the expensive ham, or I can buy Mr. MacDougal’s ham or Mr. Clyde’s ham (and we’re Irish, so I buy MacDougal’s ham because we know the MacDougals). Or we raise hogs so I’m going to pull a ham out of storage.

“Let’s have wine with dinner.” “Which wine?” The store (or stores, the six or seven different stores, at least, that you could visit on your way home) offers infinite options. Spending more money doesn’t get me better wine. I don’t buy German wine because I’m German. I can’t choose from “everyday,” “nice,” and “company’s coming” wine. (I do in fact choose MacDougal’s wine because I know MacDougal, but I’m in a bit of a privileged position on that one. And, yes, I realize that contemporary wine marketing is in part about making sure that the consumer has “met” MacDougal.)

I have a whole lot fewer cultural constraints, and I have a whole lot more options, so I have to become a wine expert. I have to become a household manager who specializes in wine. Fine, if I’m employed by some very rich person for exactly that purpose. Awkward if I have a full-time job and a few other hobbies and a kid or a dog or no dishwasher. Or, I have to outsource my value-making decisions to someone else. I have to get someone else to tell me: is this a good wine?

Here’s where I mix my own value registers. Thinking about how we value food in many different ways comes from a talk Annemarie Mol** gave at the University of Otago yesterday. Dr. Mol is a very, very well-known scholar from the Netherlands. Her PhD is in philosophy, and she’s a professor of anthropology, and her work is used a lot in science studies and sociology, and what all of that means is that she’s the kind of creative thinker who asks new questions and doesn’t fit well into the usual academic boxes.

But what she said about how we value food dovetails with the conversation the Wine Curmudgeon has provoked about how wine quality and wine price and wine value have become separated in ways that make his beat of finding and reviewing good, cheap wines increasingly hard. I, and some of the other folks who replied to the WC’s rant, think that good cheap wines are still plentiful but that finding them requires an increasing investment in time and education. We’re compelled to learn more and new ways of valuing things because “is this a good wine?” isn’t a question we can answer easily by looking at a price tag or a label or even a wine review, thanks to the incestuous relationship between wine writing and wine marketing.

Dr. Mol and the Wine Curmudgeon are both good writers, for different reasons. Knowing that requires a lot of education. So how to answer the question? How to decide “is this good wine?” We have some options:

  1. Take the time and effort to educate yourself. Become a good household manager. (This is what the wine world in general tells us.)
  2. Limit your choices. Decide that you want to learn only about Oregon pinot noir, or that you’re German and therefore you’re going to drink German wine, or that you only drink cheap wine and that’s just fine. (Another thing the wine world in general recommends.)
  3. Be okay with moving amongst different value registers. Let yourself say, “this is a good wine for today” without feeling like it needs to be a rule or the One Right Thing. (Kudos to the numerous wine writers championing this way of drinking.)

I actually don’t have an answer. On the one hand, it’s just wine. It’s just a steak. On the other hand, yes, our choices have consequences. Maybe making “the right” decision shouldn’t fall entirely on our heads – maybe someone else should be making all of this easier for us, and plenty of people are trying. But I think the bigger question, whether you’re memorizing the complete works of Jancis Robinson or looking for organic labels or picking up something with a critter on the label, might be: “is this a good way to live?”




*To use the technical term. Switching or moving amongst registers is how someone like Dr. Mol would talk about what the household manager does to think about whether the steak is good to eat.

**Mol may be a highfalutin academic, but she’s one of those rare few amongst that breed whose writing is fun to read. If you’re interested in how we make values happen in healthcare, or in patient choice, or how we make decisions about food or taking care of people, and you like reading non-fiction, look her up.

Fair trade and the complicated ethics of buying wine from elsewhere

My October article for Palate Press asks: “how fair is fair-trade wine?” Data exist to help answer that question, though the data are always partial, imperfect, and from a particular point of view. Other data could point to different conclusions. The data I looked at point to some of the structures of fair-trade wine and say that they’re not doing the things that ethically-minded consumers would hope or expect them to be doing.

It’s easy to think that the wine industry isn’t like growing sugarcane or coffee or rubber. I mean, most people at most wineries are pretty well off. Some are millionaires who live in mansions and sit in the front row during Paris fashion week. If you know any winemakers or vineyard managers, they’re probably comfortably middle-class people, better if you’re in a ritzy neighborhood. But the parallels are numerous once you start looking for them. Wine isn’t known for abusing child labor, but Mexican vineyard laborers working in California routinely faint from heat exhaustion, common vineyard chemicals threaten worker health (even in heavily regulated countries like France), and “employees” are often contract workers with inconsistent incomes and poor working conditions. Many operations take excellent care of their vineyard crews*, employ a year-round team, provide job security and treat their folk with dignity, but that sort of thing isn’t universal. Fair trade’s point is that enough vineyard workers in South Africa, Argentina, and Chile (where the program is active) are bad enough off to warrant an intervention in the name of social welfare. The point of the study I describe is that fair trade has a good point, but hasn’t created an intervention that does much good.

The obvious question at the end of that whole discussion is: if I’m a wine consumer who cares about what my money does in the world, if I buy free-range chicken and organic kale and go to the farmer’s market, what should I look for when I buy wine? One easy, obvious answer is to buy local. When you’ve been to the winery and know the people who work there, it’s easier to know what you’re supporting. But that solution begs the question: if all of the free-range chicken- and organic kale-eating people buy their chardonnay from their sustainability-minded regional wineries – and maybe if the people eating pasta and canned tomato sauce from the grocery store start doing the same thing – what happens to the Argentinian wine industry? Do all of those workers end up worse off because they end up out of a job?

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