Book Review: The Perfect Wine? Multi-sensory Lessons from Planet Food

Charles Spence and Betina Piqueras-Fiszman, The Perfect Meal: The multisensory science of food and dining. (John Wiley & Sons, 2014).

One of the many benefits of speaking at Wine Vision 2014 in London last year was being able to participate in a multi-sensory wine tasting demonstration presented by Oxford professors Barry Smith and Charles Spence. As the Harpers report of the event explained, “it is not enough to get the liquid right” because how we experience a wine depends on many factors that can have both positive and negative effects.

Nose Clips and Jelly Beans

I have talked about this as “wine in context” and I wrote about it on The Wine Economist and then again in the first chapter of my new book Money, Taste, and Wine: It’s Complicated. Professors Smith and Spence are way ahead of my experiments and they were able to make many useful points in just a few minutes.

One quick experiment invited us to match wine with music, a task that Sue and I repeated in greater detail a few weeks ago at a lecture by Callifornia winemaker  Clark Smith. He actually had us hold a particular Chardonnay in our mouths for a few seconds and, by switching musical selection, changed the sensation from sweet to bitter. Unbelievable!winevision

One of my favorite moments at the Wine Vision seminar (captured in this photo collage) came when we were asked to put special clips on our noses so that the sense of smell was suppressed. Then we popped jelly beans into our mouths and … there was no flavor. None!  Now take the clip off, Prof. Spence directed, and a world of intense flavors erupted.   I knew that aroma was important to taste, but I have never seen it demonstrated so effectively. (And it was hilarious to see all of us standing around with nose clips popping jelly beans!)

The overall message was that wine is about more than what’s in the glass and that this is important both to consumers who want to enjoy wine and to the Wine Vision audience, made up of people who want to make and sell wine. And, as the jelly bean case showed, it isn’t just wine that depends on the multi-sensory context, it is everything and there may be much to learn from analysis of other products that can be applied to wine.

What Can  Planet Wine Learn from Planet Food?

Given all this, you can understand why I was interested in reading Prof. Spence’s The Perfect Meal, which usefully synthesizes the vast literature on multi-sensory analysis over on Planet Food.  Topics include

  • menus and service,
  • the art and science of food description,
  • the impact of plating, plateware and cutlery,
  • the  multi-sensory perception of flavor,
  • the role of surprise,
  • dining in the dark,
  • atmosphere,
  • technology and finally
  • the future of the perfect meal.

The idea is clearly that a dining experience can be improved through careful attention to each aspect of the experience. This is obviously also true for wine and in fact I think you can probably think of a wine analog for each of the dining factors I listed in the previous paragraph (glassware = plateware, for example).

I learned a great deal about dining and sensory analysis from The Perfect Meal, but of course my real purpose was to open up my thinking about wine — to think outside the wine bottle, if you know what I mean. Wine appears just once in the book — on page 56 in a discussion about the enormous variation in restaurant wine prices (same wine, much different price at the restaurant down the street), but ideas popped into my head in just about every chapter.

The Organic Wine Paradox

Here’s one example just to whet your appetite. Here on Planet Wine we suffer from what I call the Organic Wine paradox. Consumers seem to be increasingly interested in all things organic and your typical upscale supermarket features more and more organic products. But wine seems to be  lagging behind. Winegrowers are increasingly interested in going organic, but they are pushing on a string. Why don’t consumers pull organic wine along to a greater extent?

The Perfect Meal‘s authors report that attitudes towards organic foods are quite context sensitive and it is not always easy to predict whether an organic indicator will be a plus or a minus. They  report (pages 87-88) that when American consumers were surveyed about organic fruits and vegetables a frequent (28%) attitude (especially among those who indicated a low concern for the environment) was that the organic products would be healthier but have poorer taste. So organic can be a turn off, at least some of the time. Other studies found that consumers could find no taste difference between the organic and conventional fruits and veggies in blind tastings, so where did that attitude come from? Go figure.

Another study looked at cookies. The test subjects were presented with the same cookies, sometimes labelled organic and sometimes not. They apparently enjoyed the organic cookies s lot and bestowed on them  a kind of  “halo effect” because they associated them with lower calories even when there was no objective difference in calories, taste, etc. It’s all in our heads, I guess, and that’s important to remember.

There is much more to be said about the research into perceptions of organic foods, but let’s stop here and think about what we’ve learned. The success of  organic foods generally masks some real complicated consumer behavior. When the food is inherently healthy (fresh fruit) some consumers will see organic as a potential negative, but when the product is unhealthy to begin with (cookies) organic can be seen as a plus. So where does wine fit into this? In different ways for different consumers, I’ll bet, and the impact of an “organic” designation probably depends on other context factors, such as whether the wine is sold in Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods or some other “green and organic” retailer. Organic wines face a very complicated consumer environment!

This is not the only example I could cite and probably not the best once, but it gives a sense of what The Perfect Meal offers to those of us on Planet Wine. An interesting read if you want to think outside the bottle!

Wine Vision, Tescogate and Shifting Wine Market Power

Wine Vision, the CEO-level global wine conference to be held in London next week, looks like it will be an unusually interesting gathering because of the issues that have risen to the top of the wine industry agenda as a result of the recent Tescogate scandal.

A School for Scandal?

Tescogate? The scandal, for those of you who don’t follow UK retailer news, is that the big supermarket chain Tesco is reported to have used various financial manipulations to overstate its earnings by a whopping £250 million.  The value of the company’s stock has come crashing down and high-level heads have rolled. Investigations continue.

Tescogate has changed perceptions of this big retail chain among investors, consumers and regulators.  A “word cloud” of web references to Tesco today might look much different from the innocent image above  that I found on the internet — maybe more like this one, which was created to display public opinion about bankers a couple of years ago. What do you think?

Inevitable Wine

Wine inevitably enters the Tescogate story because Tesco is the world’s largest retailer of wine and, although the wine program is not at the center of the investigation, the scandal has prompted many in the trade to give voice to long-held concerns. Their complaint is not so much accounting fraud as near as I can tell as a pattern of unequal relations between retailers and suppliers that is not just limited to Tesco and probably not just limited to wine either.

The issue is power and it is something that was already part of my planned Wine Vision presentation when the Tescogate news first broke. I’m still trying to decide exactly  how much attention to give it in my talk. A number of factors have shifted power in the global wine industry — away from those who make the wine in favor of those who can sell it. It’s not the first time that it has happened and its not just a wine thing, either. Because the wine gets sold a lot of people are happy for now with the situation. But power is power and you’ve got to pay attention to who has it, what kind and how it is used. Fill in your favorite Machiavelli saying here!

The Rules of the Game

In my other life as a university professor I have often written about power. Power comes in many forms. Hard power is the ability to impose your will. Soft power is about influencing the environment in which choices are made. Relational power comes from your resources versus those of your opponent. Structural power comes from the organization of the system — the rules of the game — and the leverage that results.

Tesco and other large-multiple retailers can be seen to have all of these types of power, but structural power is probably the most important. They write the rules of the game to an important extent. Because they are the gate keepers to the retail shelves, they really don’t need to throw their weight around to get lower prices and other benefits from suppliers. The suppliers will fall over themselves to make sure they stay in the game.

Wine suppliers in many cases drive down their own margins because they are afraid that someone else will do so first to grab scarce shelf territory or private label bulk wine sales.

An Opportunity for Dialogue

Concerns among suppliers are not new, but there is a sense that people were previously afraid to speak out and the Tescogate scandal has created an opening where the issues of producer-retailer power (and not just about Tesco) can be more safely and openly discussed. And that’s a good thing.

The Tescogate  chatter has brought the concerns and frustrations of the wine suppliers to the fore and there is a lot to be learned from listening to the discussion. But then what? It looks to me like Wine Vision is shaping up an interesting place to see how the conversation unfolds because of the people on the program (including Tesco’s Laura Jewell MW) and the people in the audience.

If there is every going to be an opportunity for an open discussion of the (un) balance of power in the wine industry, this will be it.

Wine Vision and the Future of Wine: Will Less Turn Out to Be More?

What is the future of the wine industry? Less or more? Or less and more?

I’m thinking about this question because Wine Vision 2014 is on the horizon (the conference is in London on November 17-19) and the agenda is all about the future of the wine business.

Affluence vs Sobriety?

Barry Clark of the Future Foundation, is set to talk about “The Future of Wine: Impacts of affluence versus the drive to sobriety” and the preliminary program makes it sound like he sees the global glass as at least half full, but with significant changes and challenges ahead.

The “drive to sobriety” suggests less wine, but there are other factors to consider, creating a complex blend. If the future of wine is that there will be less of it, because of anti-alcohol influences, but with an affluenza-driven upmarket movement, what are the implications? Can less be more or maybe better? Who will wine and lose?

What Do You Think About the Future of Wine?

I’ll paste the description of Clark’s talk below — read it over and see what you think? I’m curious about his Big Data point — will be interesting to hear what he has to say.

What do you see as the most important trends in wine’s future? I’m interested to see what readers say about future trends in the Comments section below. Cheers!

As a consumer product wine enjoys advantages that no other alcoholic drink can rival – multiple price points, an equal appeal to both genders, flavours to suit every palate and a sufficiently wide product range to cater for any social occasion. A fast-growing global middle-class and rising incomes offer the chance for significant growth and a desire for greater sophistication.

However the industry faces significant head-winds and the forecast is for increasingly inclement conditions. Few governments are unconcerned by the effects of alcohol consumption and ageing populations add urgency to the issue. Partly prompted by government, consumers are moderating their own behaviour and embracing sobriety in many different areas of their lives.

Barry  Clark, formerly of the Whitbread Beer Company and now a consultant to over 200 clients, considers the possible problems and potential opportunities for the international wine trade. His presentation will cover:
• Occasional preference – how wine drinking occasions are changing
• Big data, big impact – how the coming revolution in consumer data will change attitudes and habits
• Conscious of cost – how governments will act to curb consumption through price

Wine Vision 2014: Focus on the Future of the Global Wine Business

The preliminary agenda for Wine Vision 2014 has been announced and I am excited to be included in the list of presenters. The event will be in London from 17-19 November. Click here for more information and to receive updates about the event. You can view videos of Wine Vision 2013 here.

Wine Vision is meant to be an opportunity for members of the global wine business community to come together to think about the challenges and opportunities that the wine business faces today and consider how best to prepare for the changing future industry environment.

We speakers have been challenged to throw out ideas that will challenge the conventional wisdom, sharpen thinking and stimulate discussion. I have been asked to help set the scene by analyzing the state of the global industry today and, since the next speaker,  Jean-Guillaume Prats, President and CEO, Moët Hennessy Estates & Wines, will be talking about the future of wine I decided to look at the present from a slightly different angle that I hope will generate some interesting insights. Here’s the description of my talk — what do you think? (You can read more about my presentation here.)

An unlikely future? Today’s wine world – and the forces that shaped it

Fifty years ago it would have been hard to predict the world of wine we live in today. In this presentation one of the world’s most provocative commentators will consider both its most surprising characteristics and the historical forces that have shaped it. Mike will challenge conventional thinking and suggest new ways to predict the future based on a fresh interpretation of the past. He’ll shake up the way we see the wine world – both as it is today and might be tomorrow – with topics that include:

  • Redrawing the wine map – who makes it, buys it and drinks it, and why the market’s borders have shifted so dramatically
  • Lost in translation – the wine world’s lingua franca has changed dramatically, how did that happen and what are the implications?
  • Deconstructing disintermediation – how market structures have shifted and where power lies today
  • New friends, new foes – in a complex competitive landscape, who are the enemies and allies for today’s wine makers?

The program is still coming together — I’ll provide occasional updates as news is released. In the meantime, here is the current speaker/panelist list  and here is a link to the current agenda. Hope to see you in London!

Jean-Guillaume PratsPresident and CEO, Moët Hennessy Estates & Wines
Dan JagoUK and Group Wine Director, Tesco Stores PLC
Mike RatcliffeManaging Director, Warwick Wine Estate and co-founder and Managing Partner of Vilafonté
Kevin ShawFounder and CEO, Stranger & Stranger
Tyler BallietPresident and Founder, The Second Glass and Wine Riot
Mike VesethThe Wine Economist
Prof Charles SpenceHead of Crossmodal Lab, Oxford University
Prof Barry SmithDirector, Institute of Philosophy, University of London’s School of Advanced Study
Dominique PersooneThe ‘Shock-o-latier’, Founder, The Chocolate Line
David Schuemann, Owner and Creative Director, CF Napa Brand Design
Robin CopestickManaging Director, I heart wine – Copestick Murray
Jonny ForsythGlobal Drinks Analyst, Mintel
Barry ClarkThe Future Foundation
Mike Greenefounder of Him!, business mentor and author of ‘Into the Eye of the Storm’


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