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!

3 responses

  1. Hi Mike

    I started importing organic wine into the Uk in 1985. Everyone thought we were mad radicals (we were) and told us it would never catch on. The company I started then, Vinceremos Wines, is still going strong today under the careful guidance of my friend Jem Gardener. Vinceremos attracts independent retailers and private individuals who are already sympathetic to the organic point of view.

    In the early 90’s I started another business to sell both organic and conventional wines to the multiple sector (supermarkets and alcohol chains) where consumers are not specifically looking for organic wines, just wine. Some of the big retailers created organic sections within their wine ranges, others sold the organic wines amongst the normal selection of Cotes du Rhone, Australian Chardonnay and so on. Sales were always better in the latter case because the number of people looking for wine per se is massively greater than the minority looking specifically for an organic wine. They bought the organic Cotes du Rhone primarily because it was Cotes du Rhone and not because it was organic.

    This is because, as you indicate, wine is not a category where most people have health at the forefront of their minds. Baby food, on the other hand, has become massively dominated by organic products for the obvious reason that people want their babies to have the healthiest diet possible.

    Many of the best organic producers (and bio-dynamic too) use organic methods because they think it is an integral part of making the best quality wine, as well as being better for peopel and the environment. For them organic methods are a subset of the greater objective, which is to make individually crafted highest quality wines. They seek to promote the identity of their brands/estates as such. These are people on a quality mission. Organic methods are a means to an end not an end in themselves. in my experience many of the best and most individual wines are also organic or bio-dynamic.

    I do not think people see organic wine as a plus because non-organic wine is at root an unhealthy product. In fact people tend to think wine is anyway a natural product. In my view the key is that when people are shopping for wine they are primarily focused on whether they will like the taste or not. Point. If they buy an organic wine, or one with the Fair Trade logo that appeals to ethically concerned shoppers, it is because they already have some degree of allegiance to those world views.

  2. The idea that organic produce has less taste comes from consumer experiences during the two most recent organic food booms—the 70s and the late 90s—when organic produce would almost inevitably arrive at supermarkets looking bedraggled and tasting flat.

    I presume the problem was that the organic growers didn’t have the relationships, expertise, or equipment to get their produce to market before it had started to break down.

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