Magnets And The Orgone, Quackery And Snake Oil - September 21, 2006
Snake oil has a long and glorious tradition as a legitimate relief for joint pain. Google "snake oil" and you'll find the complete story. W.C. Field's film portrayal of a snake oil salesman in 1936 made the term synonymous with fraudulent products, supported by pseudoscientific evidence, and accompanied by overblown hype. Snake oil salesmen are not unique to the field of medicine. They are prevalent in the wine world as well. In today's column, we take a look-see at some of these products being foisted off on gullible wine connoisseurs. Today's topic was prompted by a recent article in the Los Angeles Times espousing the BevWizard. Patrick Comisky tossed out a few scientific buzzwords and then quoted several famous sommeliers touting the use of the device. Did he contact any competent enologists for a scientific explanation for the efficacy of the BevWizard?? Nope…of course not!! He merely parroted the "explanations" in the promotional literature that accompany the device. W.C. Fields lives!! So what the heck is BevWizard (www.BevWizard.com)?? It's a small device, containing "powerful Neodymium magnets", that "encourages" (like a high school cheerleader, perhaps? "Rah Rah Rah...Go Tannins Go") the hard, small tannins to combine (polymerize) into soft, large tannins.
The thing also has a small air hole in the neck to promote aeration, "markedly accelerating" the process. The process is likened to protein fining used to drop tannins from wines. Fining, a recognized tannin reduction technique, works on the principal of electrical charges. It has nothing to do with magnetic fields. It's all described by James Clerk Maxwell's equations, promulgated in 1864.
There IS some scientific fact here. Tannins produce unpleasant bitter (a taste sensation) and astringent (a tactile sensation) flavors, particularly in young red wines. The dissolved oxygen in wine polymerizes the low molecular weight tannins into long-length tannins, which eventually precipitate out, over long times, as sediment, reducing the tannin content of the wine and making it more pleasurable drinking. But it takes time, years, because the chemical reaction rates are so slow.
The BevWizard propaganda claims to do this rapidly as the wine pours through its spout, resulting in a softening of the wine and "allow for the underlying flavors to emerge and delight the consumer!" Yeah...fer sure!!
The device was invented by Master of Wine and physician Patrick Farrell; two credentials that hardly inspire confidence in either his chemistry or physics. As a scientist, the promotional literature is an absolute hoot to read. It bandies about scientific terms and anecdotal endorsements to weave a sordid tale that is positively, uproariously amusing.
Checking with some of my chemistry and magnetics friends, they chortle at the thought that these small magnetic fields could induce chemical reactions in the wine's phenolics. The fact of the matter is....there is NO SCIENTIFIC BASIS in fact on which the BevWizard should do its hocus pocus.
However, as a scientist, one is taught to keep an open mind. So...I plunked down my $30 to check it out. My intention was to do a controlled A/B comparison with several wines, tasting them blind with my tasting group, do all the appropriate statistical analysis, and demonstrably show (I assumed) that the device was a fraud, that it had no discernible effect. As I played around with the BevWizard for several weeks, I and several others in my group, struggled mightily to detect an effect. Occasionally, we thought we'd catch a flicker of difference, but when we'd repeat the comparison, it had vanished into thin air. I decided a formal tasting of the BevWizard would be a colossal waste of time.
So....bottom line...there is no scientific basis why the BevWizard should work. In all my testing of the device, I could not detect the amazing effects the thing promises. I'm convinced it's a fraud.
But...wait...it gets more kookie!! Let's look at the Catania Wine Enhancer (www.WineEnhancer.net). This is a device that clips onto your wine glass or you rest the bottle upon. Their Web Site provides some of the greatest guffaws I've had in quite some time. And priced at $40-$130, depending on the model, an absolute steal. The device, which is NOT patented in order not to reveal the "trade secrets", works its magic by "tapping into natural atmospheric energies". It "collects this natural energy, amplifies and then broadcasts these life supporting energies in an organized coherence" into the nearby beverage, be it "wine, coffee, or energized(??) water". Say what???
But...wait...not only does it claim to "enhance" the wine and soften the tannins, it is also touted to eliminate red wine headaches and acid reflux!! Furthermore, each one of these amazing devices "is an individually hand-crafted piece of art". WooHoo!!
The Catania device is based on the orgone energy in the atmosphere. A Google of "orgone" or its inventor "Wilhelm Reich" makes for some of the most bizarre reading I've found on the Net. He died in Federal prison in 1957, jailed on contempt charges for refusing to obey an injunction against selling his quack medical devices.
Ohhh...but we're not done yet. There's the Wine Prism (www.WinePrism.com), a glass (stainless steel is alleged to alter the flavor) straw with aerating holes that "magnify the wine's characteristics". It allows you to actually watch the air and the wine mixing together as you imbibe, an orgasamic experience. Only $20. I'm buying!!
Or consider the Wine Sceptre (www.MistralImports.com). This is a "surgical" stainless steel(so as not to affect the flavor of the wine) wand you sequester in your freezer. You then plunge it into your pre-chilled white wine and pour through the spout (again...with holes to aerate the wine), eliminating the need for those messy ice-buckets to maintain the wine's temperature.
A simple back-of-the-envelope calculation indicates my Mom's knitted sock is more effective at this task than the Wine Sceptre, though obviously not as classy (sorry, Mom! That sock is sorta ugly). Only $139-$185 in a lacquered hardwood box.
Or $150 will get you the Touchstone VS1 Allergy Scanner, which employs the "principles of biofeedback and applied kinesiology" to predict if the wine is beneficial to you via colored LED lights. I can hardly wait for the VS2 model.
Or the new Eisch Breathable Wine Glasses, whose "microscopic air-blasted holes" allow the wine to "breathe" while it's consumed, making the wine "more open and generous". Endorsed by none other than the famed Robert Parker!!!
So...do I feel like I've been flim-flammed by all these gadgets?? Not in the least. I plan to splice my BevWizard into the gas line of my ol' Dodge Caravan. It should boost my gas mileage to 60 mpg, easily recouping the $30 spent.
I've also finalized a design, using the Catania Wine Enhancer, to tap directly into the orgone energy pervading the atmosphere. It's called a perpetual motion machine. It'll make me millions. I can abandon my day job. Hail to the end of the tyranny of entropy. Who knows....I may even order some snake oil from W.C. Fields, apply it to my creaky knees, and let it propel me to a National Championship in epee this year!!