Major Prize for ‘Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting’

CGWBTL

My co-author James Flewellen and I were honoured a few months ago when our ‘textbook of wine’ won ‘Best in the UK’ in the the drinks education category of the prestigious Gourmand Awards.

All the national winners entered the final, which was held this month in Yantai, China, and we are delighted to announce that our title won ‘Best in the World – 2nd place’.

For several years, James and I were heavily involved in the popular Oxford University Blind Tasting Society. James presided over the society and led the university blind tasting team to victory in several international competitions. We wrote ‘The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting’ to crystallise the knowledge and expertise that we had acquired and share our passion with a wider audience.

The book was published in March last year, and soon began receiving rave reviews, including, to our astonishment, from the Times Literary Supplement, which dubbed it ‘a comprehensive education in wine’. It also gathered a strong following among people studying for wine qualifications, not least the highly-regarded wine degree at Plumpton College.

The book aims to provide readers, including novices, with a strong foundation in wine, which they can then build upon with their own, unique tasting experiences. Although all the major wine styles and regions are covered, the emphasis is firmly on blind tasting, which, by removing unconscious bias and suggestion (from the price, from the label, and so on), sets a standard of objectivity in wine.

A blind tasting in progress.

Aside from this, there is much pleasure to be taken from the process of blind tasting, in:

  • Testing, stretching, and developing our senses
  • Applying our judgement
  • Relying upon and recalling old memories
  • Comparing our analysis with that of our peers
  • Getting it more or less right (or ‘wrong for the right reasons’)
  • Discussing the wine and learning about it, and about wine in general
  • Imbibing the wine with the respect and consideration that it deserves.

In refining their senses and aesthetic judgement, blind tasters become much more conscious of the richness not only of wine but also of other potentially complex beverages such as tea, coffee, and spirits, and, by extension, the flavours in food, the scents in the air, and the play of light in the world. For life is consciousness, and consciousness is life.

Laziness Vs Procrastination Vs Idleness

We are being lazy if we are able to carry out some activity that we ought to carry out, but are disinclined to do so on account of the effort involved. Instead, we remain idle, carry out the activity perfunctorily, or engage in some other less strenuous or boring activity. In short, we are being lazy if our motivation to spare ourselves effort trumps our motivation to do the right or best or expected thing—assuming, of course, that we know, or think that we know, what that is.

Synonyms for laziness include indolence and sloth. Indolence derives from the Latin indolentia, ‘without pain’ or ‘without taking trouble’. Sloth has more moral and spiritual overtones than either laziness or indolence. In the Christian tradition, sloth is one of the seven deadly sins (the other six being lust, gluttony, greed, wrath, envy, and pride) because it undermines society and God’s plan and invites all manner of sin. The Bible inveighs against slothfulness, notably in the Book of Ecclesiastes: ‘By much slothfulness the building decayeth; and through idleness of the hands the house droppeth through. A feast is made for laughter, and wine maketh merry: but money answereth all things.’

Laziness should not be confused with either procrastination or idleness. To procrastinate—from the Latin cras, ‘tomorrow’—is to postpone one task in favour of another or others which are perceived as being easier or more pleasurable but which are typically less important or urgent. To postpone a task for constructive or strategic purposes does not amount to procrastination. For a postponement to amount to procrastination, it has to represent poor or ineffective planning and result in a higher overall cost to the procrastinator, for example, in the form of stress, guilt, lost productivity, or lost opportunities. It is one thing to delay a tax return until all the numbers are in, but quite another to delay it so that it upsets our holiday plans and lands us with a fine. Both the lazybones and the procrastinator lack motivation, but unlike the lazybones the procrastinator aspires and intends to complete the task under consideration, and, moreover, eventually does complete it, albeit at a higher cost to himself.

To be idle is, not to be doing anything. Idleness is often romanticized, as epitomized by the Italian expression dolce far niente (‘it is sweet to do nothing’). Many people tell themselves that they work hard from a desire for idleness. But although our natural instinct is for idleness, most of us find prolonged idleness difficult to bear. Queuing for half an hour in a traffic jam can leave us feeling bored, restless, and irritable, and many motorists prefer to make a detour even if the alternative route is likely to take longer than sitting through the traffic. Recent research suggests that people will find the flimsiest excuse to keep busy, and that they feel happier for keeping busy even when their busyness is imposed upon them. In their research paper (Hsee CK et al. (2010), Idleness aversion and the need for justifiable busyness. Psychological Science 21(7): 926–930.), Christopher Hsee and his colleagues surmise that many of our purported goals may be little more than justifications for keeping busy.

We could be idle because we have nothing to do—or rather, because we lack the imagination to think of something to do. If we do evidently have something to do, we could be idle because we are lazy, but also because we are unable to do that thing, or because we have already done it and are resting and recuperating. Lastly, we could be idle because we value idleness or its products above whatever it is we have to do, which is not the same thing as being lazy. Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria’s favourite prime minister, extolled the virtues of ‘masterful inactivity’. As chairman and CEO of General Electric, Jack Welch spent an hour each day in what he called ‘looking out of the window time’. Adepts of such strategic idleness use their ‘idle’ moments, among others, to gather inspiration, develop and maintain perspective, sidestep nonsense and pettiness, reduce inefficiency and half-living, and conserve health and stamina for truly important tasks and problems. ‘To do nothing at all,’ said Oscar Wilde, ‘is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual.’

Adapted from Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions.

Why Patience is Power

Patience can be regarded as a decision-making problem: eat up all the grain today or plant it in the earth and wait for it to multiply. Unfortunately, human beings evolved not as farmers but as hunter-gatherers, and have a strong tendency to discount long-term rewards. Our ancestral shortsightedness is borne out by the Stanford marshmallow experiment, a series of studies on delayed gratification led by Walter Mischel in the late 1960s and early 1970s. These studies, conducted on hundreds of mostly four- and five-year old children, involved a simple binary choice: either eat this marshmallow, or hold back for 15 minutes and be given a second marshmallow. Having explained this choice to a child, the experimenter left him alone with the marshmallow for 15 minutes. Follow-up studies carried out over 40 years found that the minority of children who had been able to hold out for a second marshmallow went on to enjoy significantly better life outcomes, including higher test scores, better social skills, and less substance misuse.

patience

Even so, patience involves much more than the mere ability to hold back for some future gain. Exercising patience (note the use of the verb ‘to exercise’) can be compared to dieting or growing a garden. Yes, waiting is involved, but one also needs to have a plan in place, and, moreover, to work at that plan. Thus, when it comes to others, patience does not amount to mere restraint or toleration, but to a complicit engagement in their struggle and welfare. In that much, patience is a form of compassion, which, rather than disregarding and alienating people, turns them into friends and allies.

If impatience implies impotence, patience implies power, power born out of understanding. Rather than make us into a hostage to fortune, patience frees us from frustration and its ills, delivers us to the present moment, and affords us the calm and perspective to think, say, and do the right thing in the right way at the right time—which is why, with psychotherapy, both patient and therapist can require several years together. Last but not least, patience enables us to achieve things that would otherwise have been impossible to achieve. As La Bruyère put it, ‘There is no road too long to the man who advances deliberately and without undue haste; there are no honours too distant to the man who prepares himself for them with patience.’ Exercising patience does not mean never protesting or giving up, but only ever doing so in a considered fashion: never impetuously, never pettily, and never pointlessly. Neither does it mean withholding, just like ageing a case of fine wine for several years does not mean withholding from wine during all that time. Life is too short to wait, but it is not too short for patience.

Patience is much easier, perhaps even pleasant, to exercise if one truly understands that it can and does deliver much better outcomes, not just for ourselves but for others too. In 2012, researchers at the University of Rochester replicated the marshmallow experiment. However, before doing so, they split the participating children into two groups, exposing one group to unreliable experiences in the form of broken promises, and the other to reliable experiences in the form of honoured promises. They subsequently found that the children exposed to honoured promises waited an average of four times longer than the children exposed to broken promises.

In other words, patience is largely a matter of trust, or, some might say, faith.

References:

Mischel W et al. (1972): Cognitive and attentional mechanisms in delay of gratification. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 21(2): 204–218.

J de la Bruyère (1688), Les Caractères, Des jugements, aphorism 108.

Kidd C et al. (2013): Rational snacking: Young children’s decision-making on the marshmallow task is moderated by beliefs about environmental reliability. Cognition 126(1):109–114.

Adapted from Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions.

Empathy Vs Pity, Sympathy, and Compassion

empathy

In 1909, the psychologist Edward Titchener translated the German Einfühlung (‘feeling into’) into English as ‘empathy’. Empathy can be defined as a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person, fictional character, or sentient being. It involves, first, seeing someone else’s situation from his perspective, and, second, sharing his emotions, including, if any, his distress.

For me to share in someone else’s perspective, I must do more than merely put myself into his position. Instead, I must imagine myself as him, and, more than that, imagine myself as him in the particular situation in which he finds himself. I cannot empathize with an abstract or detached feeling. To empathize with a particular person, I need to have at least some knowledge of who he is and what he is doing or trying to do. As John Steinbeck wrote, ‘It means very little to know that a million Chinese are starving unless you know one Chinese who is starving.’

Empathy is often confused with pity, sympathy, and compassion, which are each reactions to the plight of others. Pity is a feeling of discomfort at the distress of one or more sentient beings, and often has paternalistic or condescending overtones. Implicit in the notion of pity is that its object does not deserve its plight, and, moreover, is unable to prevent, reverse, or overturn it. Pity is less engaged than empathy, sympathy, or compassion, amounting to little more than a conscious acknowledgement of the plight of its object.

Sympathy (‘fellow feeling’, ‘community of feeling’) is a feeling of care and concern for someone, often someone close, accompanied by a wish to see him better off or happier. Compared to pity, sympathy implies a greater sense of shared similarities together with a more profound personal engagement. However, sympathy, unlike empathy, does not involve a shared perspective or shared emotions, and while the facial expressions of sympathy do convey caring and concern, they do not convey shared distress. Sympathy and empathy often lead to each other, but not in all cases. For instance, it is possible to sympathize with such things as hedgehogs and ladybirds, but not, strictly speaking, to empathize with them. Conversely, psychopaths with absolutely no sympathy for their victims can nonetheless make use of empathy to snare or torture them. Sympathy should also be distinguished from benevolence, which is a much more detached and impartial attitude.

Compassion (‘suffering with’) is more engaged than simple empathy, and is associated with an active desire to alleviate the suffering of its object. With empathy, I share your emotions; with compassion I not only share your emotions but also elevate them into a universal and transcending experience. Compassion, which builds upon empathy, is one of the main motivators of altruism.

Adapted from Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions.

One on flowers

I found a good use for my TV aerial: as a trellis…

wisteria

#wisteria

Envy or Emulation?

Envy is also a question of attitude. Whenever we come across someone who is better or more successful than we are, we can react with indifference, joy, admiration, envy, or emulation.

Envy is the pain that we feel because others have good things, whereas emulation is the pain that we feel because we ourselves do not have them.

This is a subtle but critical difference. By reacting with envy, we prevent ourselves from learning from those who know or understand more than we do, and thereby condemn ourselves to stagnation. But by reacting with emulation, we can ask to be taught, and, through learning, improve our lot. Unlike envy, which is sterile at best and self-defeating at worst, emulation enables us to grow and, in growing, to acquire the advantages that would otherwise have incited our envy.

Why can some people rise to emulation, while most seem limited to envy? In the Rhetoric, Aristotle says that emulation is felt most of all by those who believe themselves to deserve certain good things that they do not yet have, and most keenly by those with an honourable or noble disposition. In other words, whether we react with envy or emulation is a function of our self-esteem.

Adapted from Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions

Coping with Envy

envy

How to keep a lid on envy? We envy because we are blind to the bigger picture. For example, when we envy our neighbour for his shiny convertible car, we mostly ignore all the efforts and sacrifices that have gone into affording it, to say nothing of the many risks and inconveniences of driving such a car. In the words of Charles Bukowski, ‘Never envy a man his lady. Behind it all lays a living hell.’ In life, we are rich not only by what we have, but also and above all by what we do not. It is all too easy to forget that the investment banker or hedge fund manager has effectively sold his soul for his ‘success’, with so little spirit left in him that he no longer has the vital capacity to enjoy the advantages that he has acquired. Such a man is not to be envied but pitied. To keep a lid on envy, we have to keep on reframing, and reframing requires perspective.

Adapted from Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions

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