The Case of the Magic Wine

By Neuroskeptic | October 20, 2018 11:58 am

I just came across a strange but quite charming scientific study claiming that human thought alone can make wine taste better.

winemagic

This miracle of vinomancy is reported in a paper in Explore, a unique if often credulity-stretching Elsevier academic journal dedicated to “healing arts, consciousness, spirituality, eco-environmental issues, and basic science as all these fields relate to health.”

In the article in question, author Stephan A. Schwartz describes how he carried out an experiment to test the hypothesis that human intention could alter the properties of wine to make it tastier. So he set up a series of wine-tasting parties and presented guests with two carafes, A and B:

The Party Host arranged for seven people to come in to ostensibly taste two wines, and then have a party. The story the Tasters were told by the Party Host was that a friend was considering buying several cases of wine and had winnowed it down to two candidates. Before spending several hundred dollars he wanted to see which was the preferred one. It was explained that he was not present, and all labels and other quality hints had been removed to avoid any possible cueing, so the tasting was just down to taste.

Both carafes contained the same wine, but one of them had earlier been the target of “intense meditation” by a group of meditators from a local spiritual organization – in the hopes that the concentrated thought-patterns would improve the vintage:

The two carafes in their styrofoam carriers were put into the Researcher’s car and both driven to the site of the evening’s meditation group. Except for the intention session, each carafe had the same timeline history.

Upon arrival at the meditation site, the group had their discussion period. When it came time for the group mediation with which they closed their meeting, the Researcher would go out to the car and bring back the carafe designated as “Treated” for the subsequent Taster session. The carafe was taken out of its styrofoam sleeve and put on a table or chair placed in the middle of the room where the group was gathered. They were asked by the Researcher to, “Please dedicate your meditation to holding the intention that this bottle of wine is improved during the course of the meditation.”

I found the whole methods section enjoyable to read, and the paper is full of cute details:

The wines were all mid-price range California Cabernet Sauvignons of the quality one might serve at a dinner party amongst good friends, pleasantly palatable but not lastingly memorable.

Or:

The meditations lasted between 20-30 min. At the end of that time, the Researcher thanked the group. The carafe was put back in its sleeve and taken back to the car, but separated from proximity to the control carafe by placing one in the front seat and the other in the back seat.

Over the course of four years, Schwartz organized 12 of these wine-tastings. In 11 of them, the majority of guests preferred the ‘treated’ wine, while the remaining session produced a tie. Schwartz calculates that the chance of this happening, under the null hypothesis that both wines were indistinguishable, was 1/2048 or p=0.00049, which, as he points out, is well beyond the normal threshold for statistical significance (p=0.05 or, some would prefer, p=0.005).

As I said, this is a very fun paper. And the study actually appears to have been well-designed, with blinding to prevent any placebo effects. The statistical analysis seems valid also.

I still don’t believe the meditation had any effect on the wine, though. I think it is more likely that Schwartz got lucky (at p=0.00049) than that some inexplicable supernatural event occured to make some Cabernet Sauvignon slightly tastier.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: papers, science, select, Top Posts, woo
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  • Aina Puce

    Shame I cannot get access to the paper. Makes me wonder though about how the ambient temperature, light level and humidity differed between the car & meditation room – where each respective carafe was stored for the experimental manipulation. I would have thought that it would be paramount to rule out changes in these 3 critical variables that are known to affect how wine ages before claiming that anything supernatural was responsible for the effect…

    This would be a fun study to do though :)))

    • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/neuroskeptic/ Neuroskeptic

      Here’s what is said about the wine was stored:

      “The meditations lasted between 20–30 min. At the end of that time, the Researcher thanked the group. The carafe was put back in its sleeve and taken back to the car, but separated from proximity to the control carafe by placing one in the front seat and the other in the back seat.

      The meditation sessions typically took place on a Wednesday or Thursday, and the tasting sessions on a Friday or Saturday. The two carafes were taken into the house and put in different rooms. The morning of the tasting session the carafes and 14 identical red wine glasses were taken to the location for the tasting session, usually the home of the Party Host, and given to them. The Party Host was not told about the meditation sessions and was blind as to which was the “treated” carafe and which was the “control.””

      So unless one room was warmer than the other, I think the temperature would be equal… although we only have the author’s word for all of this, because no other researchers seem to have been involved at any stage.

  • http://www.pbase.com/davidjl David Littleboy

    The thing to remember about wine is that “experts” can’t tell the difference between white and red wine if they’re blindfolded. (This has been verified several times.)

    As someone who is painfully sensitive to the (whatever) in red and unable to drink it (but likes white), I find that hilariously funny. But the bottom line with wine is that it all BS. (There was a New Yorker article about “supertasters” a while ago, and it seems that actually being able to taste things and liking wine are mutually incompatible.)

    • OWilson

      With your nose pinched and eyes closed you can’t differentiate between a Guinness, a lager and ginger ale.

      (Old Dublin parlor trick!)

  • http://dcscience.net David Colquhoun

    If the prior probability of a real effect were 0,1 (generous in the circumstances) you’d need to observe p = 0.00045 in order get a false positive risk of 0.05.
    All this shows is the folly of ignoring priors, and citing p values rather than false positive risk.
    http://rsos.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/4/12/171085#sec-9
    and
    https://arxiv.org/abs/1802.04888

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  • andrewp111

    Even if both wines are identical, the one you taste first may taste a bit different from the second one – irrespective of the temperature and how long it has been exposed to air. Drinking wine affects your perception of taste. This is why wineries set out their tasting menus in a particular order.

  • Mavis

    The fact that anyone would take the nonsense in Elsevier at face value disturbs me. Like the other essentially paid to order, research sites, Elsevier has whatever BS you might want to amp up whatever ridiculous views you want to reinforce. Elsevier has become the source for well placed propaganda and nonsense, leading to less science credibility. A fine crystal glass full of dog pee, could fool a roomful of these Oenophiles, if staged properly. These “experts’ can’t tell the difference between Propylene Glycol, and radiator fluid either.

  • UnhappyVoter

    “…separated from proximity to the control carafe by placing one in the front seat and the other in the back seat.”

    That explains it. Everyone knows wine is much better in the back seat than in the front. This is why the bars in the best limos are always in the rear. It is also why one with an educated palate never drinks wine while operating a sports coupe.

  • NeuroBert

    Almost certainly this observation generalizes. For convenience, the meditation session can be done even after the party, as established by Leibovici in 2001. Considering journal and date of publication, application to the wine of last year’s Christmas dinner is recommended. Some of the rapid responses make a delicious dessert.

    https://www.bmj.com/content/323/7327/1450

  • http://kapitano.blogspot.com/ Kapitano

    Were the tests _double_ blind? Did Mr Schwartz know which wines had been “treated”? Sounds like he did know, and the guests picked up on his haptic signals.

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.

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