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2000s Archive

Shattered Myths

continued (page 3 of 4)

And now comes the moment of truth.

The first of several glasses filled with Cabernet is strapped to a little platform just below your immobilized head; Pelchat says it might be a Riedel Chardonnay glass, or a Riedel Bordeaux glass, or a water goblet, or just “one of my cheap wineglasses that I use at home when relatives come over.” The scientist flips a switch and the platform starts to jiggle, which makes the wine swirl around the glass. This is important: The machine does the sloshing for you while you keep your hands in your lap, because if you touch the glass you might be subconsciously swayed by how it feels. Finally, you rate the aromas on half a dozen sliding scales.

When Pelchat and Delwiche run the answers through a computer, the cold statistics tell a dramatically different story than Riedel’s tastings. The subjects couldn’t tell any differences from one glass to another in how fruity or oaky or musty the same wine smelled. The tasters did find a small but notable difference in how “intense” a wine smelled in different glasses, but—oops—it smelled less intense in the Riedels than it did in the cheaper glasses. More important, there was virtually no difference in how much or how little they liked the aromas.

It’s certainly possible to dismiss the Monell study as too limited, since they tested only a few dozen subjects, and the subjects only smelled the wines. Maybe that explains why Riedel pressed his luck by asking another scientist to examine his glasses.

Riedel called on Thomas Hummel, a prominent physician and a researcher at the University of Dresden, in Germany, who spends part of his time treating patients with diseases that impair their senses of taste and smell. The way Hummel tells the story, Riedel asked him to do a major experiment to prove that his glasses work the way he claims—and Riedel said he’d pay the bill. Hummel said fine, but he had to have scientific freedom. To his credit, Hummel says, Riedel agreed.

This study was much bigger and more elaborate than the one at Monell. Hummel and his colleagues recruited almost 200 subjects. They gave everybody a physical to make sure they were healthy. They subjected them to psychological and intellectual tests, to make sure the subjects were, well, “normal.”

Hummel had subjects compare the flavors of wines from dramatically different glasses. We’re not talking about comparing minute variations between, say, Riedel’s glass for mature Bordeaux and his glass for Zinfandel. Hummel wanted to see if the subjects could find any difference between a traditional, round-shaped Riedel wineglass and other glasses, shaped more like squares and tulips.

As it turned out, the test subjects couldn’t detect any difference at all in how sweet or salty or bitter the wines tasted from one glass to another (they were able to detect small but “statistically significant” differences in sourness).

The tasters said that the wines tasted somewhat more “pleasant” from the traditional-shaped wineglasses than they did from the square and the tulip shapes: eight percent more pleasant, to be exact. But Hummel says this finding merely suggests that extremes can make a small difference—which basically means that, all things being equal, you might like a Cabernet’s flavors somewhat better if you sip it from a wineglass than from a jelly jar.

“Here’s the big question,” I ask him. “You say that there’s some difference between glasses with extremely different shapes. But suppose I compare a standard wineglass that I got on sale for $3.95 with a Riedel that I bought for $39.95? Would I notice any difference there?”

“I don’t really know,” Hummel says. “This is something we cannot answer from our study.” He pauses, and then shapes the next sentence slowly, as though searching for the most judicious words. “I’m not convinced that very subtle differences between glasses would make a significant difference for untrained wine lovers like me.”

It was time to call Georg Riedel.

I tell him that I have been unable to find a single study that proves his claims—and several researchers have tried. What’s more, world-renowned scientists have denounced the vaunted tongue map as a joke.

Riedel sounds unmoved. “I don’t know the studies in such detail that I can really comment on them,” he says. As for the tongue map, he cheerfully pooh-poohs it as “not scientifically sound.” So, I had to ask, why does his company continue to cite the bogus tongue map in its brochures and at tastings as one of the key scientific reasons why the glasses “work”? Because, he says, the map makes it “easier to explain” his products. Science isn’t the point, Riedel tells me just before we hang up. “Ask consumers if my glasses make a difference. And the consumers say, ‘Wow!’ ”

The more I talked with researchers who’ve examined this issue, the more I faced a perplexing riddle: How do we know who is right? Do we believe the thousands of passionate wine lovers whom Riedel has converted? Or do we believe stark statistics?

Scientists say we probably know part of the answer from psychology and medicine. It’s the dynamic that gives rise to the placebo effect. For decades, as you probably know, researchers have found that when you tell patients that you’re giving them medicine, many report that their symptoms are alleviated, even if they’re only taking sugar pills. But don’t dismiss that as just their imagination at work: Studies show that many people respond physiologically to placebos, based on their expectations. In other words, when you tell them that they’re taking stimulants, their pulse and blood pressure actually go up.

There may be a few more clues to this puzzle in the wine country of France. Let’s go to the sensory laboratories at the University of Bordeaux. In 1998, a neurophysiology researcher named Frédéric Brochet and his colleagues riled the wine world when they proved that they could fool wine specialists into thinking that a white wine was red simply by adding a tasteless food coloring. That test was widely reported.

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