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Book Review: The Psychology of Wine by Evan and Brian Mitchell

psychology_of_wine_cover.JPGReview by W. Blake Gray

I hate this book.

I hate this book primarily because its title is misleading. Though one of the authors was once a psychologist, there's very little psychology here.

If it were titled, "Logorrheic Lit Major/Sommelier Muses On Wine And Literature," that would at least be truth in advertising. Psychology is a science; this book has no charts and graphs, but it does have 298 footnotes, most of them to books of fiction or literary analysis.

Even if it were better titled, I would still hate this book, because I hate the writing style. The Australian authors, son-and-father team Evan Mitchell (lit major turned sommelier, and apparently principal writer) & Brian Mitchell (former psychologist, now a management consultant), never use a single phrase when a paragraph or two could do. And they never miss a chance to cite Plato or Lewis Carroll or other noted authorities on winemaking and psychology.

Wow, boys, you read a lot. Good for you!

Then there are the personal sections. This is from page 38, at least 20 pages after I began wondering if these guys would put any psychology into The Psychology of Wine:

"Dinner in New York, with an old friend from Sydney I hadn't seen for years. Not really an old flame, since any combustion had been wholly one-sided. She'd moved there at the time I'd been carrying an entirely unrequited torch for her. A kiss hello at the bar, just the slightest brushing of lips, still enabling me to taste cherry with an intriguing bitter note. Put me in mind of a pinot. (She liked pinot. I knew that from our very first lunch, an excellent Mount Mary wine, which had echoed the shade but not the flavor of that day's lipstick.) I ordered a damn fine Rully (at a damn fine price.)

Two days later, in the cab to JFK Airport, her face in the dinner candlelight came to mind. A mind's-eye portrait. I didn't wonder what she was doing at that moment, since I believed I knew. She was at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), at the Picasso portrait exhibition. I'd given her a spare ticket (they came as part of a deal I'd had with my hotel). Picasso painted the women he loved through his life -- and clearly continued to paint them when love was well on the wane. You could chart the disintegration of yet another marriage by each wife's representation turning more sinister and insectile."

I'm going to skip the next 3 1/2 paragraphs, in which we learn the authors have seen the sculpture of Alberto Giacometti and the films "Dead Ringers" and "Brideshead Revisited."

"... And thought too that I wished I wasn't leaving in two days. A phrase from an early Ian McEwan short story voiced in my mind -- 'Overwhelmed with nostalgia for a country I had not yet left.'

I don't know if my friend's expression, as we parted from each other, was knowing or teasing. I could still taste the wine on my tongue. So, I knew, could she. I stood there unable to move forward towards her. My hesitancy made this pause seem interminable, I couldn't collect my thoughts, further distracted by another phrase from another McEwan story -- 'in the pallor of her upturned throat he thought he saw from one bright morning in his childhood a field of dazzling white snow which he, a small boy of eight, had not dared scar with footprints.'

I recalled that our very first lunch had ended very much the same way, with my timidity and vacillating intent."

I'll stop there because I can't stand typing this blather anymore.

Words of advice to lit majors everywhere: encyclopedic knowledge of Ian McEwan's short stories is not especially sexy, even to Ian McEwan. And event tickets you're not using aren't the world's greatest gift; believe it or not, the recipient might not use them either.

I suffered through the whole book like this, wanting to talk back to it. There is just so much pretentious crap here that has nothing to do with wine and everything to do with ego.

Another example: I just flipped to a page at random and here's what I found:

"And to return a moment to Flaubert -- his protestation is, such is his genius, really the greatest proof against itself. The ultimate perfectionist of language, his own words don't lumber ridiculously as his so-rich image would have it, but do indeed soar to the heights of revelation."

Bully for Flaubert! But what does it have to do with wine? Or psychology?

And would it be too much trouble to take pity on readers occasionally with a sentence like this one: "Flaubert was a genius: a revelatory writer and a perfectionist of language"? It still isn't relevant, but at least it isn't fluffed up with useless verbiage like an undergrad paper with a minimum word requirement.

What really ticks me off about this overwrought, anti-scientific book is that I'm fascinated by the psychology of wine.

Example: Often I'll bring a mediocre bottle of wine to a party and let everyone taste it. Then, when they've finished knocking it, I'll tell them it cost $75. I don't have to lie, because I get plenty of mediocre $75 wines. Most people will taste it again and reappraise it upward. To me, that's interesting (and a pretty good use of $75 wines I know to be mediocre.)

I'd like to see a scientific analysis of the phenomenon -- you know, controlled experiments, quantifiable results. But without a McEwan or Flaubert reference, it would never interest the authors of this book.

I'd like to read a book about topics like these: Do people taste wine differently if they see the label? Does wine taste differently with different music playing? (Hint: yes.) Would different color wallpaper make wine taste different? Can a topic of conversation change the perception in the taste of wine?

How well can we actually remember taste profiles from years ago? Does taking notes help or hinder your palate memory? Do women experience wine differently from men? Do people experience wine differently as they age?

The problem is that because this ego trip has taken the most straightforward title, "The Psychology of Wine," it will be hard for any real psychologists to publish a real book on the topic. So I'm back where I started: I hate this book.

I'm reminded of a section of a video of a speech by Derrida ....

Evan Mitchell & Brian Mitchell, The Psychology of Wine: Truth and Beauty by the Glass, Praeger, 2009, $33.67 (hardcover)

W. Blake Gray lives in a glass house, as he has just published his own book about wine, "California Winetopia." His cockiness in hurling this stone of a review may be because it's in Japanese language only. But one may strike back with McEwan and Flaubert references on his blog, wblakegray.blogspot.com.

Comments (20)

Jack Everitt wrote:
09.09.09 at 9:51 PM

Sounds like you're being too kind in this review, Blake.

And, I'd like to read the book you want to read, not the one these two guys "wrote".

09.09.09 at 11:04 PM

where's the link to the Derrida? that sounds much more interesting than the brick wall of a book you slogged through

maybe it should be sub-titled the psychology of my whine

09.10.09 at 6:58 AM

Great review, mainly because it's exactly what I thought of the book--although I couldn't go all the way.

It did bring up a minor psychological point with me: it that I hear fingernails going down a blackboard whenever someone refers to Pinot Noir as Pinot. It leaves me wondering if the person even knows about the other Pinot varieties, and it has an air of "officespeak" to it, not to mention that it is 50 percent of a proper noun.

Mark wrote:
09.10.09 at 8:04 AM

Based on the sappy excerpts taken from this book, maybe a more appropriate title would have been Masterplonk Theatre.

Paul Mabray wrote:
09.10.09 at 11:17 AM

It was a dark and stormy night . . .

09.10.09 at 12:04 PM

Guess I'll be skipping this one. LOL.
I've been reading your blog for a little while now, and I think this is my favorite post. Great opening and closing. This is good writing, which makes for good reading. Cheers!

Blake Gray wrote:
09.10.09 at 2:03 PM

Thanks for the comments, folks.
Paul: No, if these guys wrote that intro, it might start like this:

"Night is a time of fear, of lonely pillows in the eve, that puts me in mind of George Eliot, who wrote, 'O radiant Dark! O darkly fostered ray!
Thou hast a joy too deep for shallow Day.' As Promethean storms, brimming with lightning unseen since the Globe in Shakespeare's era, bellowed their force against the too-thin protection of my window pane ..."

Gee, this is more fun than I expected. I can see now why they would write this say; all it requires is the absence of concern about anybody actually trying to read it.

FKL wrote:
09.10.09 at 3:35 PM

Blake - So you hate this book...

Fine. Why didn't you just write 150 words and move on? Instead, you've spent hours hammering home a very simple point (where, ironically, you accuse the author of being long winded).

AND, even more strangely, at the end of the post, you become a shill for the book with your Amazon buy-it-now button.

Does daddy need the money that bad?

Alder wrote:
09.10.09 at 3:45 PM

Just for the record, the "buy it" button appears at the bottom of every book review on Vinography as a courtesy to readers who want to buy, or even just look at the book on Amazon.

Blake wrote:
09.10.09 at 3:50 PM

FKL: It's a fair point. I wasted many more hours of my life reading the thing. Writing the review gave me great pleasure. So I guess I've become what I set out to criticize.

Evan Mitchell wrote:
09.10.09 at 6:35 PM

The review's a hoot! Cheers.

09.10.09 at 6:53 PM

I think you clearly state your position in the first sentence, which is fair enough, you are entitled to your opinion. At first blush it may seem ironic that you then include a 'Buy from Amazon' button beneath the review. However, one of the features of Amazon is it's user reviews/ratings system, which will give people a broader idea of the reviews this book is receiving and I think there is value in linking to Amazon (even with an affiliate link) for this reason. Perhaps the link could have been a text link with link text such as 'read more reviews on Amazon' instead of a 'buy now' type of link.

Blake Gray wrote:
09.10.09 at 9:48 PM

Evan: You're a gracious man. Cheers to you too.

Dylan wrote:
09.11.09 at 5:38 AM

Wow. This is the first negative review of anything I've seen on Alder's blog. However, I don't make light of your contention. Based on the examples you've given from the book it appears as though it's a writer, writing to themselves, rather their audience. I'm sure this was only compounded by the misleading title of the book which drug you through a tale far from self-effacing.

Francesco wrote:
09.11.09 at 12:11 PM

Now that's a book review!

Claire G wrote:
09.12.09 at 1:59 PM

That was a very entertaining review, thank you for saving me from reading that pompous drivel. You're right, the title is terrribly misleading and I might have actually picked it up had I not been fore-warned of the content!

Marla wrote:
09.13.09 at 4:04 PM

Loved your review!

Eric wrote:
09.14.09 at 8:09 AM

Read twice with consistent notes?

Igor M wrote:
05.17.11 at 8:14 AM

I am just starting off with researching the field of wine appreciation, taste, etc., and was very amused by the review. Anyway, here is something I came across just after reading your review:

The Psychology of Wine Tasting: Perception and Memory by Angus Hughson

@Blake: I don't know, if you know it, but I wouldn't mind knowing what you think about it :)

Blake Gray wrote:
05.17.11 at 8:31 AM

I don't know it and would like to read it. Certainly an interesting topic.

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