Guest Post: Woo-ing Wine Drinkers

Guest Post: Woo-ing Wine Drinkers

In today’s guest post, Julia Burke talks about dowsing and pseudoscience marketing in the wine industry. I guess when you’ve had a little to drink, believing in magical sticks doesn’t seem so far-fetched.

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When I took an editorial position at the Center for Inquiry and became immersed in the skeptic/secular movement, I had no idea how relevant to my other life––as a wine lover, budding winemaker, and sales associate at a large wine retailer––skepticism would prove to be. Having worked in the wine industry since college, I had picked up on the fact that wine’s romantic qualities often tread into the realm of pseudoscience. What I hadn’t realized is how easily wine’s mysterious qualities can be used to manipulate consumers, banking on the perception of mystery and often taking the already fuzzy concept of “natural” into the realm of “supernatural” in order to sell products. And since, just as with food, everyone seems to want a more “natural” wine (due in part to the widespread misunderstanding of sulfites, a topic for another article) but not everyone seems to know what that means, there’s plenty of room to capitalize on consumer misunderstanding. While a lousy wine won’t harm you (unless you abuse it, of course) the way, say, a so-called miracle cure or the use of homeopathy instead of actual medicine could, it wastes your money and perpetuates the notion of wine as an inaccessible, enigmatic luxury that only select, privileged people can understand. As long as wine is confusing and overwhelming to the consumer, those seeking to take advantage of this situation have a place to thrive.

Marc Mondavi is one such trickster. If his name sounds familiar, it’s because he’s related to the legendary Robert Mondavi, who dedicated his life to the promotion of California wine, solidifying its reputation as a legitimate wine region. That Mondavi name carries weight, and Marc Mondavi, who is also vice president of Charles Krug (an iconic sparkling wine producer) is happy to use it as he promotes his own craft: water witching.

That’s right, he’s a dowser. Specifically, a vineyard dowser.

Vineyard porn, Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Vineyard porn, Stellenbosch, South Africa.

Thanks to a link from my friend Tom Mansell, a chemist and wine science writer, I discovered that Mondavi was in the news recently for his “ability” to locate water in California vineyards. In a relatively warm wine region like California, vineyards require varying amounts of irrigation––ideally, just enough to keep the vines alive. Digging wells to find water is expensive, so there’s a market for swindlers to offer an “alternative” to scientists when determining the best place to dig. Though the San Francisco Chronicle article on Mondavi doesn’t mention how many wineries use his services, it states that growers “repeatedly call on Mondavi to seek out water for their industrial-size wells.”

These include Rombauer Vineyards, a lauded Chardonnay producer; apparently the winery “even had rods custom-created for Mondavi.” The article waxes poetic, describing Mondavi’s process: “As if possessed, the rods start moving until they cross over one another. ‘Here,’ he says. ‘Here’s where the water is.’” It goes on with a vague appeal to popularity: “It is speculated that there are thousands of dowsers operating in the United States, according to the Department of the Interior’s U.S. Geological Survey, the federal agency responsible for assessing the quantity and quality of the nation’s surface and groundwater.” Unfortunately, there’s no mention of how many successes versus failures Mondavi has managed. Since the USGS has found no evidence of dowsing as any more effective than pure chance, that would be a helpful statistic. The USGS explains in its very helpful paper on dowsing, “The natural explanation of ‘successful’ water dowsing is that in many areas water would be hard to miss. The dowser commonly implies that the spot indicated by the rod is the only one where water could be found, but this is not necessarily true.”

The USGS paper explains that most dowsers believe water occurs in veins, like the human circulatory system. “Most dowsers attempt only to locate the positions of the so-called water veins. But many of their clients ask: How deep will I have to drill, and how much water will I get? Some dowsers, therefore, do attempt to estimate the quantity of and the depth to water.” As is typical when pseudoscience is shown to fail, practitioners have a few handy excuses up their sleeves. “If the well driller does not find water at the indicated spot, the failure may be blamed on interference of hills with the dowsing, a short circuit of ‘current,’ incorrect drilling, or the crushing or deflection of the delicate water veins by the driller.”

But who needs science when pseudoscience is so much more fun? If I spin around in a circle with my eyes closed and a finger in the air, then stop and discover I’m pointing at a cloud in the sky, I don’t call myself a cloud witch. But now that I think about it, “Cloud Whisperer” would make a delightful wine label. And indeed, not content with the money of superstitious winery owners, Mondavi has parlayed his dowsing reputation into his own wine label. The Divining Rod wines, which sell for $15 at the wine retailer where now I work part-time, certainly can be said to, as the Chronicle article explains, “celebrate his powers as a diviner”––the wine is heavily marketed to conjure ideas of the supernatural. I endured the Flash circle-jerk that is the Divining Rod website to find an image of Mondavi furrowing his brow while holding dowsing rods, while vaguely occult-ish symbols dance in the background. The site tells the story of “Water Witch Extraordinaire” Mondavi’s “unexpected, mysterious talent,” extolling “wines that aren’t just natural, they’re supernatural!”

10-year-old cabernet franc vine at Eveningside Vineyards in Western New York's Niagara County wine region.

A 10-year-old cabernet franc vine at Eveningside Vineyards in Western New York’s Niagara County wine region.

I was able to roll my eyes and laugh at all of this until I found this link, urging readers to check out “Marc’s children’s book”!* I was speechless to find an illustrated book for children telling the story of a young boy named Marc, who lives “in a world where magic and the supernatural are often misunderstood, a world where people are frightened by things they don’t understand.” I could see where this was going, and sure enough, page 11 depicts a couple of silly-looking geologists angrily shrugging and frowning as they watch a young man using dowsing sticks. “Some scientists, particularly geologists, remain skeptical of Marc’s magic which they do not understand,” the accompanying text reads. “Often Marc finds water in places where geologists cannot and this makes them very unhappy.”

That’s right, kids. Scientists just don’t understand.

There are myriad examples of areas of misinformation in the wine world––sulfite-free wine, the scoring system, wine aging, to name a few. And just as with food and nutrition, wine marketing often hedges its bets on customers having no idea what goes into winemaking (it helps that wine labels are not required to contain an ingredients list) and instead making their purchases based on labeling, which focuses heavily on the perception of magic, prestige, status, romance, and rule-breaking (browse the aisle at any wine store and you’ll see what I mean: “Seven Deadly Zins”? “The Supernatural”? “Apothic Red”?). I believe that current information on the confusion surrounding wine labeling in consumer choices (here’s a good article on that, in Wines and Vines), combined with my own observations from my experience helping customers navigate wine shopping, warrants concern for the promotion of pseudoscience and a false sense of “natural-ness” in wine marketing.

*I was unable to find this book in publication; it seems to exist only on the website––which is perhaps how the writer got away with telling children how “yummy” the Divining Rod wine is.

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About the Author

Julia Burke has worked in the wine industry for four years. She lives in Buffalo, New York, where she drinks to support her writing habit.

All images used in post were taken by Julia.

Avatar of Mary
By Mary
Mary Brock is a scientist who works on drugs you've hopefully never heard of. She enjoys cooking to Blue Grass music, messing with her cats, and hosting the Boston Skeptics' Book Club. She was born in the South but loves living in New England (despite the lack of chocolate chip pizza). Mary does not use Twitter and don't even try to follow her, because she is always looking over her shoulder.

8 Comments

  1. Avatar of benjaminsa

    I love wine, but always have the problem of when at the bottle store I am swamped with choices and no good way to tell the difference. Normally when ignorant of choices people default to price to differentiate, assuming the market place knows what it is doing, I don’t think that applies very well in most markets and I think it is disastrous with wine. So that leaves me with the label, and the description. I have some favourite grape varieties and through trial,error and asking the sales people have discovered some wines I like, love and loath.

    So, I am not surprised that wine companies are jumping on the
    natural/organic/nonGM/spiritualwoo woo train to differentiate themselves, because when I look around I think most customers are like me, confused and looking for any way to tell the difference, with not many good options to do so.

  2. Avatar of knitty

    My spouse, a geologist and a groundwater specialist, does dowsing as a party trick. It is amazing how the mind can work. Educated guesses based on knowledge can trick the brain into making what looks like a non purposeful action happen. He successfully dowsed the location of the water line. But that was because he had actually seen the basement on a previous occasion and had a pretty good idea where it was. I’ve done it too – with a wire coat hanger cut in half shaped into two rods and it does seem like the movement is happening on its own.

    It’s fun but it has to be clear that most “successful” dowsing is not divine. Just educated guesses.

  3. Avatar of Giliell

    15 bucks a bottle?
    I’d expect some pretty good stuff for that, like a young Chateauneuf du Pape.
    Mr. and I have settled for a Bordeaux from the plastic bag. Yes, you heard me, a plastic bag. Because it allows us to have a glass each on Saturdays and not having the rest of the bottle going bad over the week.
    You should see some people turn their noses at us…

    • Avatar of marilove

      All wine tastes basically the same to me, lol, which is to say I don’t like it much. I’ve bought $15 bottles of beer, though (bombers). :)

      • Avatar of Giliell

        Hehe, and I don’t care for beer much. Looks like we’d be the perfect friends ;)

  4. Avatar of skeptech

    Love it. So much product marketing (in tech or wine!) is just hype that melts under the blazing eye of skepticism. It’s particularly amazing that someone would go to the lengths of writing a children’s book about it–creating his next generation of customers, I guess!

  5. Avatar of P. Phillips

    I live in NorCal, in a county with a lot of vineyards and wineries – and silliness around wine abounds. One of the hot things these days is ‘biodynamics’. The Demeter Corp makes money by certifying vineyards as biodynamic (which essentially is coupling organic farming techniques with astrology & other woo). In some circles, advertising a wine as made from biodynamic grapes has become quite popular.

  6. Avatar of sjunto

    There are always so many choices of wine at the local store that I have no idea which one to choose, lol. Interesting post.

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