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SKEPTOID BLOG:

Magnetic Wine Aging

by Eric Hall

November 3, 2013

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Donate Energy, electric fields, and magnetic fields are difficult concepts for anyone to understand, even a student of physics. It takes practice to calculate these quantities, and to also understand how they are all related. Chemists also use some of these concepts, and similarly it takes practice and experience in order to understand and apply the concepts. Those selling woo take advantage of this, using a word salad of misunderstood terms to sell us stuff. Everything from grounding pads to homeopathy are all sold on this nonsense that science doesn't understand water and or chemistry (hint: we understand it pretty well). I am surprised it has taken so long - but now this nonsense has extended to our precious alcoholic beverages. I'll give you a hint here: a magnet cannot quickly age wine.

Yes, people are actually buying magnets to age their wine. In fact, it has even gone beyond wine and has been extended to whiskey and other types of alcohol which is normally stored for a period of time in wood barrels, imparting tannins over time which provides flavor and aging simultaneously. I will stick with wine in this post since that is the primary focus of these sham contraptions, but the science is similar for that of any other alcohol.

The proposed pathway for this to work is via the tannins in the wine. Tannins are biological molecules that are found in the grape skins and leaves, as well as the barrels in which the wine is aged. Many of the tannins are mildly acidic and they serve both a flavor function, but more importantly a preservative function. They are complex molecules, with high molecular weights ranging in the hundreds to a few thousand. While they are not the primary flavor components, they do contribute to certain aromas and can also contribute to the "mouth feel" and the later flavors (the aftertaste) during the sipping of wine as they interact with the proteins on the tongue. Over time, these tannins react (though very slowly) forming new larger tannins which changes the flavor and feel of the wine. Supposedly, a magnetic field can dramatically speed up this process.

One of the devices that often comes up in searches is called the BevWizard, started by physician Dr. Pat Farrell. From a 2006 article, he states:
Farrell started out tying magnets to the neck of a bottle at the urging of business acquaintances who were distributing magnets to try to improve water quality. At the time, he thought the chance magnets would work on wine was "about the same as seeing pigs fly."

But, he says, "I took the thing home, put it on a bottle of shiraz from Australia and was shocked to see it made it taste smoother and fruitier. So then I went down to my cellar and I got a bottle of Bordeaux from the Medoc and it made it taste softer and fruitier."
The first red flag is his inspiration from the magnetic water crowd. Studies have been done on these magnetic water softeners, and no change in chemistry is measured when using one of these devices. He thought he would try it, without actually seeing if the premise on which it is based had any truth. His proof? His own anecdote.

This is probably a good time to remind everyone of the science on wine tasting in general. I think we can all agree (ok, most of us) that different brands of wine, different grape varietals, the weather of the vintage year, and many other factors can affect the flavor of wine. It is also fun to try different varieties of wine for their different flavors. One of my favorite wines I can usually find for about $15/bottle. I have other nearly as good reds I enjoy that range from $7/bottle to $38/bottle. In the end, I think Dave Gamble at Skeptical Science sums it up best:
In the end the truth appears to be that what constitutes a "good" wine is very subjective and not in any way objective at all. It means that you can pay 100 and discover it is something you hate, or pay 5 and be delighted to find something you love, and so perhaps the best way forward is to just try, and if you like it, then great and if you don't, well no matter who pronounces it to be "great", just ignore them.
Dave's article gives a nice listing of the science of wine tasting. It turns out it is highly subjective, and full of confirmation bias. In all double blinded studies, wine tasters not only couldn't tell the difference between expensive and cheap wines, but also were bad a detecting when they were drinking the same wine.

The Atlantic published a nice article in September 2013 titled, "The Science of Snobbery: How We're Duped Into Thinking Fancy Things Are Better." In the article, they lay out the case of how we use all 5 senses in "tasting" our food, or in pretty much any other activity. They give the simple example of a study done on adding yellow food coloring to vanilla pudding, and people detecting a lemony taste in it. Expensive wine tastes better because people expect it to taste better. In fact, white wine colored red fools even wine tasters into thinking they taste red wine. Perception is a huge part of what we taste.

When Farrell believed his wines tasted better, it is because he believed they did. This appears to be the case for those selling wine and wine accessories as well. WineX Magazine used the same non-blinded method and had magical results:
Guess what? The Flav-O-Ring actually worked! After pouring a 1997 California sauvignon blanc through the Flav-O-Ring, all tasters agreed it tasted softer, fruitier - and definitely better! The nonvintage California cabernet we tested gained a tangy bite after being poured through the "tangy" side of the magnet; it also became smoother, softer and tastier when poured through the "smooth and sweet" side.
We can start the counter-argument with another wine experts anecdote on the subject. Wine expert Jamie Goode wrote this about trying one of these magnetic contraptions:
I've also tried the BevWizard at home, and I'm ashamed to say that my palate must be pretty bad because I couldn't spot any difference between the treated and untreated wines.
Jamie does a simple explanation when the device was first marketed as to what the real explanation might be:
Dear readers, unless what we know about science is false, I reckon there is as much chance of this device doing what its manufacturers claim as there is of Stuart Pearce phoning me up and asking me to play centre forward for Manchester City in their opening game of the season against Chelsea... The reason people have been convinced this device 'works' is that it is aerating the wine. Pour the first glass and taste it. Then pour a second through this device, and it may well taste a little different because it has been aerated.
Ben Goldacre actually setup and published a study in the Journal of Wine Research. In the study, some bottles of a lower-end wine were magnetized and others were not. Subjects were given wine from each group, some magnetized first and others the non-magnetized first and then asked to compare each wine. As Goldacre states:
There was no statistically significant difference in whether people expressed a preference for the magnetised wine or the non-magnetised wine. To translate back to the language of commercial claims: people couldn't tell the difference between magnetised and non-magnetised wine.
So what about the plausibility? As I pointed out earlier, tannins are large molecules. They are generally weakly acidic. The properties and shape of these molecules would indicate they are not highly susceptible to magnets. While I could spend significant time detailing the basics of how magnets and magnetism works, let's just say wine does not have a chemistry that would respond in any significant way to a magnetic field, even one produced by rare-earth magnets.

These devices come in a wide variety. Some wrap around the neck of the bottle or serve as a pouring spout, thus only briefly exposing the bottle to a magnetic field during the pouring process. Others are a coaster or a set of coasters for the top and bottom of the wine which the wine is supposed to be on for several minutes to take effect. There are even magnetic racks which say can do this process in as little as an hour, but for maximum effect should be used for a day or 2. If there really was good science on this process, it should seem that the time exposure range would be much narrower than this.

Matthew Francis has a nice set of rules he repeats on many posts on the Double X Science site, slightly adapted for each product to which he is referring. In reference to wine aging magnets:
So, let's wrap up: why should we be suspicious of paying $60 or $100 for an "Aging Accelerator"?
  • The concept misuses a well-understood physical principle — magnetism. Just because someone doesn't understand how it works doesn't mean it can perform miracles.

  • The aging process is chemical, and we understand how that works — it involves tannins, sugars, and other molecules. There are no secrets, in other words, and nothing simple to make your wine taste better.

  • Basically, if it sounds like a magic trick, it probably is — but its main result will be to magic money out of your pocket.

My own anecdotes tell me to just go with what tastes good. If a wine tastes bad, just buy a different bottle of wine next time. Spending $30-$100 on devices to "age" the wine is simply a waste of money that could instead be spent on more wine. Don't forget setting is important. A good steak off the grill, maybe some Frank Sinatra on the stereo, and good company will all work to make the wine taste better. If spending a few extra bucks on a bottle also helps, go ahead and spend it. The science says our perception is just as important to taste as is quality. Enjoy your wine. Find what you like. Skip the magnets.

by Eric Hall

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