Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The Wine Jip

I initially heard about The Wine Clip through the James Randi Educational Foundation. It is a device that -- according to it's advertising -- "can enhance the taste of wine, making it smoother, less bitter and more refined". Supposedly this occurs because..."When wine passes through a magnetic field, a physical change occurs. The magnetic field has an effect on tannins which are suspended in the wine. The tannins are broken down into smaller tannins. We believe that the taste of many small tannin molecules is smoother than the taste of fewer large tannin molecules." The advertised price on the Wine Clip website is $49.95 per clip.

I wrote a letter to the company to ask for a better explanation, since I saw no reason to think that a magnetic field would have any effect on the flavor of wine. A very nice fellow named Tony, who is an expert on magnets, wrote back to me saying "The way I understand it, there sometimes is very loose coercive bonds between Tannin molecules that get dispersed through the magnetic fields." Tony expressly stated that he was not an expert on chemistry and that he would be referring my question to one of the company's chemists, but I never heard from any chemist working for EA Magnetics, the makers of The Wine Clip.

Let's just say I didn't flunk chemistry in high school or college. None of the company explanations made any scientific sense, but I still figured there was an outside chance that tannins had some peculiar properties that might come into play. I therefore looked up a biochemist, Dr. Ann Hagerman, who specializes in tannins, and asked her about it.
"Tannins are not 'loosely bonded' --whatever that means--but are normal covalent molecules. Tannins are chemically reactive by normal processes including oxidation, conjugation and hydrolysis. During normal wine aging and processing, the tannins found in the original grapes are chemically changed, in some cases degraded and in some cases polymerized with other components of the wine.
"There is no evidence that putting samples in a strong magnetic field will chemically change them--nmr and epr are typical examples of using high magnetic fields to examine the structures of molecules without chemically changing them."
So, in a nutshell, making wine "smoother, less bitter and more refined" requires a chemical reaction in the wine, whereas the makers told me that "There is absolutely no chemical change and nothing is introduced or taken away from the wine. It's the physical change which accounts for the enhanced flavor and bouquet." They just told me that their product does not have the effect that is known to "improve" the flavor of wine as it ages.

Does anyone else see a problem with this?

To put it succinctly, my PhD source said, "I would certainly not buy this device nor recommend that anyone else buy it--it is harmless sounding but also useless sounding."

A quick look at the Wine Clip website will quickly show two dubious characteristics of their advertising: lots of testimonials and lots of pseudoscientific jargon. Testimonials are easy enough to obtain whether a product really works or not; you just need to find people who are reasonably suggestible. Likewise, scientific language is easy to imitate without actually saying anything of substance. There is a video clip of a taste test, but it's not the kind of controlled, double-blind test that would actually produce meaningful scientific results. In short, they present no real evidence that the Wine Clip has any effect on wine at all.

The JREF has already said that they will pay their $1 million prize to the makers of The Wine Clip if they can just show that the use of the wine clip is detectable in a controlled, double-blind taste test conducted before neutral observers. So far, the company has refused to accept the challenge. Personally, I think that being able to claim the JREF prize would be a huge advertising coup with a $1 million bonus, so I can't see any legitimate reason for the company to pass up the opportunity if the product actually works.

The Wine Clip certainly isn't the only company to use tactics like these. These days you can buy "energized" water, Kabbalah capsules, homeopathic remedies, and a host of other products and services that cost money but don't deliver any results. The Wine Clip is probably one of the least offensive such products on the market; what it fails to deliver is something you didn't really need, anyway. The tactics are what you need to learn from this example, before you spend precious resources on a really important product, like a disease treatment, that has no basis in reality.


Anonymous said...

have you actually considered carrying out a blind tasting in circumstances controlled to you own satisfaction?

Lord Runolfr said...

I have, but I don't own a wine clip and, knowing what I do, I'm unwilling to pay $50 to get one. Other people have conducted double blind taste tests, and they've found that use of the wine clip is undetectable. Furthermore, as I noted, the EA Magnetics could get a $1 million bonus just by demonstrating to the JREF that use of the device is detectable to wine drinkers in a double-blind test. With no plausible explanation for how it works and no independent corroboration of their claims, I'm unwilling to pay them for the privilege of testing their product.

Anonymous said...

Silly me. I fell for the marketing fluff when I saw it in a catalog. Lo and behold one appeared for Christmas. Apparently for me, knowing it is there has the psychological effect of making the wine 'better'. Although I'm sure if pressed or if my wife performed a blind test, I'd be no better than a coint toss at picking the difference.

Just the same as the recent blind testing of the same wine at different stated price points made the more 'expensive' wine taste better.

Unfortunate as it is, perception can become reality.