Subscriber login Close [x]
remember me
You are not logged in.

What's the attraction?

Published:  23 July, 2008

Can magnets affect the flavour of wine? A MW student stands to in a prize of US$1 million if his dissertation proves that controversial magnetic wine-improving devices actually work as claimed.

BevWizard, one of several such wine magnet devices on the market, is a magnetic wine pourer marketed by medical doctor and MW Dr Pat Farrell. Common to all these devices is the claim that magnetic fields affect the tannins in wine. When I was first approached with the concept that magnets could influence wine, I was nearly certain that there would be no effect and was shocked to discover that bitterness and astringency were reduced,' Dr Farrell told Harpers.

But he is now convinced otherwise. His BevWizard website claims that the combination of aeration and high-intensity magnetic fields instantly causes the hard small tannins to bind together. This process results in softer, larger tannins, which allow for the underlying flavors to emerge and delight the consumer!'

However, scientists are puzzled how magnetic fields could have these effects. Wine is not magnetic. And hundreds of thousands of people have had magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans that use magnets infinitely more powerful than the permanent magnets used in BevWizard without any lasting chemical changes to their cells.

Dr Markus Herderich of the Australian Wine Research Institute is a tannin expert: I can't see any way this device could plausibly work, at least not based on the magnet,' he said. I would relate any effect to aeration of the wine while pouring. Also, one could speculate that the plastic might remove some tannin through adsorption while pouring.'

There is one published study testing the effects of magnets on wine. In 2005, Dr James Rubin and colleagues from Kings College, London, published a paper entitled Drawn to drink: a double-blind randomised cross-over trial of the effects of magnets on the taste of cheap red wine' in the Journal of Wine Research. They tested the effects of The Perfect Sommelier - a similar product to BevWizard - on a Bulgarian wine. Of 60 participants, 29 preferred the magnetised wine and 31 the non-magnetised one. The study was clearly inconclusive: Unfortunately, our research leaves us no nearer to an understanding of how to improve the quality of cheap wine and more research into this area is now called for.'

When asked whether he thought magnetic devices could have any effect on wine, Dr Rubin said: It's hardly rocket science setting up a decent study to find out. I would say the fact the producers of these devices haven't done that speaks volumes.'

The MW student doing his dissertation on the effect of the BevWizard asked to remain anonymous, but said he was testing at ETS laboratories as well as running randomised blind tastings. He was unable to suggest a mechanism. I have carried out an extensive literature search, but cannot state possible mechanisms until my research is complete.'

If he comes up with significant results he could win the U$1m prize offered by US sceptic James Randi, whose educational foundation is committed to providing reliable information about paranormal claims. We will pay U$1m to anyone who can tell the difference between wine that has been treated with any of the so-called "wine magnet" devices, and the same wine untreated,' claims Randi.

If the scientists are right, and there is no mechanism by which magnets could affect the tannins in wine, how do we explain the fact that people are convinced by practical demonstrations of these devices, some of them experienced tasters?

One clue comes from the work of Frdric Brochet, a cognitive psychologist. Brochet served the same average-quality wine to people at a week's interval, first labelled as a Vin de Table and then as a Grand Cru wine, and analysed the terms used in the tasting notes. He found a lot' replaces a little'; complex' replaces simple'; and balanced' replaces unbalanced' - all because of the sight of the label. This is a phenomenon called perceptive expectation', where a subject perceives what they have pre-perceived, then finds it hard to back away.

Another clue comes from a study by Dr Read Montague, who showed by MRI studies on brains of subjects tasting Pepsi and Coke, that knowledge of what they were drinking changed their perception of the drink. Thus when we don't taste blind, our preferences are liable to be shaped by pre-existing information about a wine