Friday, April 15, 2011

A bit of real world home
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The "news" yesterday, that people don't know slosh from sancerre when it comes to judging wine quality created widespread ferment. I contacted Richard Wiseman, the professor at the University of Hertfordshire who made the claims, to discuss them and ask how the tests were conducted.
Apparently some 578 lucky visitors to this year's Edinburgh International Science Festival were given two glasses of wine, told that one of them was cheap and the other expensive, and asked which was which. The findings showed that, with uncanny consistency, around half were right and half wrong for nearly all the wines. Wiseman originally said of these "remarkable" results: "People were unable to tell expensive from inexpensive wines, and so in these times of financial hardship, the message is clear – the inexpensive wines we tested taste the same as their expensive counterparts".
In fact, inasmuch as everybody was choosing between the two wines, precisely nobody was saying they tasted the same, and Wiseman concedes on reflection that that point doesn't really stand up. One could further argue that what the findings show is that around half the respondents could tell the difference, but Wiseman's extrapolation is that because 50% is the statistical probability, the same results could have been obtained by tossing a coin.
I wondered whether there's any point in comparing an immature vintage of an expensive claret, as the survey did, with a cheap generic bordeaux. The wine that isn't ready yet will be rigid with tannin, and tasting hard and raw. Wiseman agreed, but said that most people don't keep wines to let them mature anyway, which is of course true, but doesn't in any way license the conclusion that the cheaper wine is the smarter option. It's only the smarter option if you don't drink the dearer wine at its best.
But these conclusions speak of a more far-reaching cultural proclivity. It is deeply appealing to the British to believe that anything that smells like connoisseurship in matters of food and drink is probably horse poo. And so-called wine experts are the worst offenders of the lot.
It can't be denied that there is still a sediment of rank elitism about the wine business. When single bottles of the wines of Burgundy's and Bordeaux's most celebrated estates can sell for more than most people earn in a month, this is not a milieu noted for its inclusiveness. (But then neither is the luxury car market, or designer-label fashion.) A healthy suspicion of pretentiousness is what immunises the British from the rhapsodic flannel with which the French PR industry talks about its own wines.
That cynicism, though, on the British side has its fatal weakness, in that it habitually encourages people to settle for mediocrity. There is a kind of dogged joylessness in wanting to believe that anything that claims to be better must be trying to put one over on you. Why pay £10 for a bottle of wine, Wiseman asks, when you won't enjoy it any more than one that cost half that?
Far from being a message of hope, this is a counsel of despair. Its roots reach back to the idol-smashing puritanism of the Cromwellian era, when a righteous hatred of the luxury and entitlement in which the aristocracy lived bred in us a morally tinged distrust of anything seen as a cut above. Class privilege is of course no less grotesque than it was when they lopped off the king's head, but it has led to a confusion of quality-consciousness with arrogance.
It led to the refusal of foreign food as 'fancy' in the post-war austerity years, when it was thought that moussaka was just a food snob's term for shepherd's pie. And, despite the enormous boom in wine consumption in the past 30 years, it has resulted in a firm belief that people who pay over the odds for a bottle are helpless suckers who can't see beyond the label.
"Alcohol is alcohol," says one of the commenters on the Guardian's news story about the Edinburgh survey, the implication being that you may as well settle for any old gut-rot as long as you get the result. There is a heartbreaking defeatism about this that Wiseman's interpretation of his own findings does nothing to dispel.

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