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The Oenophile’s Dilemma at Wondermark

I was catching up on my favorite webcomics last night and I read this beauty from Wondermark:

It’s not his drop-dead funniest work, but it is awesome and its appearance on the site illustrates a classic web comic phenomenon. He offhandedly made up an academic theory and then a bunch of nerds like me responded with a whole slew of already existing theories in the realms of mathematics, economics, philosophy.

So I thought I would chime in because I am an oenophile and a winemaker to boot. Hey, David Malki, did you know French winemakers read your comics?

Oh, by the way, this is one of those drunken run-away posts that ends up being way too long.

The comic

The comic’s heroine suggests that there is a behavioral quandary related to how a person manages a finite supply of a consumable object which increases in quality over time. The heroine further suggests that in the face of a difficult choice, it might be best to show a healthy amount of restraint.

Responses to the comic include:

Now, after being flooded with all that information, author David Malki asks:

Is the quality of improvement over time a necessary condition of the Oenophile’s Quandary? Is the question of enjoyment one that can be answered with economics, or should it be left to philosophy? What occasions have caused you to crack open a special bottle of whatever?

Aha, questions that I will take it upon myself to answer.

Is the quality of improvement over time a necessary condition of the Oenophile’s Quandary?

Complicated! Without the quality of improvement over time, the Oenophile’s Quandary is reduced to a simple expression of optimal stopping. However, if we accept the quality of improvement over time to be real, then the Oenophile’s Quandary becomes a totally different problem.

Let’s explain why everybody is trying to compare the Oenophile’s Quandary to the Fussy Suitor Problem. There are similarities but the fact is that wine is nothing like suitors. In the Fussy Suitor problem, you can only pick one person to marry. But there are so many candidates for marriage that you worry you will settle on the wrong one. That’s why it’s interesting for the fussy suitor to study optimal stopping. The Fussy Suitor needs to study when it is most advantageous to stop shopping and settle on a suitor, parking place, dice roll, etc.

If you want to translate the Oenophile’s dilemma in terms of stopping problems like the fussy suitor, you have to realize that the bottles are not the suitors. Oenophiles know exactly what their bottles are at the start of the game. Whereas a part of the stopping problem is that you don’t know if there will be a better suitor, parking place, dice roll, etc. later on. Also, oenophiles can eventually consume all the bottles whereas the suitor has to stop once they’ve made a selection. Hell, the oenophile even has the option of drinking all their wine at once. Needless to say, this is not an option to the fussy suitors who will be breaking a lot of sodomy and decency laws if they try. :D

If optimal stopping applies to the oenophile’s quandary, it’s because the oenophile must settle on a date to consume each bottle. In that sense, each bottle has a stopping problem where the oenophile must decide to wait for a better occasion to drink the wine. So really, you’re not choosing wines. You’re choosing dates. And the quality of the wine has very little to do with the enjoyment. It’s more the context in which you consume the wine. In this sense, the quality of improvement over time is less relevant and the oenophile’s quandary is reduced to an expression of optimal stopping. Is quality of improvement over time a necessary condition? No. You can lose quality of improvment over time and you’ll still have a basic stopping problem because some days will be better than others for drinking that special bottle.

On the other hand, if you accept that a wine can get better over time (and many wines do, for a certain span of time), then the Oenophile’s Quandary is in no way an expression of optimal stopping. You see, in optimal stopping, the sequence of choices (of suitors, parking places, etc) must be random or at least unknown. If the fussy suitor knows that each suitor will be better than the last, it becomes an exercise in dating as many people as possible in quick succession and then just marrying because you’re so tired of working your way up the pyramid of suitors. If you know that the wine gets better every day, then the mathematician says “This is not a problem of optimal stopping at all. Just wait til the very last minute of your life when the wines will be at their best and drink all the bottles at once.”

Which brings us to the next question:

Is the question of enjoyment one that can be answered with economics, or should it be left to philosophy?

A lot of people will say that economics is the study of enjoyment, or at least the study of choices which are driven by enjoyment and desire. But for every cool dilemma and thought experiment economists contrive to make us think about our desires and our choices, it is important to remember that alcohol deserves a special thought experiment all on its own.

If we allow economists to answer these questions, we need to remember the complex nature of alcohol consumption, which involves a special kind of diminishing return. Economists will quickly admit that the richer you are, the less you can derive from each additional dollar earned. But their dilemmas rarely take into account that one more dollar will make you vomit all over Monty Hall‘s shoes and you’ll wake up hung over next to a goat and a huge orange door with the number three on it. And you won’t understand anything. And you’ll want to know why that goat is being so loud.

So perhaps the solution is to realize that wine requires us to balance two important factors: the quality of the wine and the context in which we drink. The Oenophile with only one case of wine left must balance the optimal stopping decision about the special occasions to drink with the Oenophile’s Quandary of the wine getting better and better. Don’t go too extreme in either direction as you don’t want to be sick as you guzzle all the wine or be a teetotaller who will only toast to celebrate the end of the world.

What occasions have caused you to crack open a special bottle of whatever?

Aha! I knew this moment would come. You’re asking me to use personal experience to demonstrate that balance I was just talking about. Well I have an interesting answer.

While I advocate a reasoned route avoiding extremes of saving all your wine or binge drinking all of it, I also advocate a bit of epicureanism.

Let’s put our mathematician hat back on to see if we can make this work. Oenophiles can’t drink all of their wine immediately because they won’t have any bottles for future special occasions. But oenophiles shouldn’t wait too long lest they miss out on several opportunities. The whole problem is really based on a scarcity of time and wine. Well it’s tough to control the amount of time we have on earth, but we can definitely increase the amount of wine we own. Increase the amount of wine in the oenophile’s collection and the quandary becomes negligble.

That’s why I became a winemaker. I make 50,000 bottles of wine each year. WAY more than I can drink even if I invite all of my friends to every semi-special occasion for the rest of my life.

What occasions have caused me to crack open a special bottle of wine? Is waking up an occasion? It is now.

Additional Notes:

Another expression of optimal stopping that an oenophile might face is the act of shopping for a special bottle. Let’s say the oenophile has a big celebration coming up and has a small budget to buy a very special bottle. He keeps an eye on online auctions. Each time a special bottle comes up, he has to decide whether he will buy that one or wait a little longer to see if a better special bottle comes along. I think that is a more classic presentation of optimal stopping.

You can argue that the oenophile is uncertain of how each bottle will age, and that is reasonable. Since we don’t know when a wine peaks or even if its spoiled, the decision becomes slightly more random. But it’s not sooo random that it becomes an expression of optimal stopping. You can have a decent idea of the quality of the bottle without opening it; ESPECIALLY in the case of oenophiles who tend to buy a whole case of that special bottle and check in by drinking one every few years, decades, or whatever.

I would object to using the link from Professional Friends of Wine regarding the Myth of Wine Aging to disprove the oenophile’s quandary. While “most wine” in terms of volume does not age well, a huge amount of wine still does benefit from aging. And the article is addressed to “directed to the average consumer, that sometime-wine-drinker whose contact with wine is mostly on special occasions and holidays” while the Oenophile’s Quandary relates specifically to Oenophiles. I’m pretty sure the grandparents of the heroine of our comic know that oenophiles run into age-able wines with a great frequency than the “sometimes-wine-drinker”.

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  1. Graham Says:

    Quite a tome Ryan. I’m in the camp “oenophiles who tend to buy a whole case of that special bottle and check in by drinking one every few years, decades, or whatever.” Although these days I tend to buy wines (Languedoc) that will be past their best after around 10 years. Following the development of a case is parallel to observing anything develop over the years – people, pets, gardens, cities. The pleasure is never one event, it’s the whole experience. I could be accused of not celebrating enough and that would be a fair comment.

    If one only has one bottle of a wine then putting in a pedestal to perform on that special occasion can often be too much for it, especially if non-oenophiles are involved – which is much of the time in my life.

    Interesting comment on your 50,000 bottles. Putting aside you probably need to sell some to pay the bills, how many do you hold back for your personal library and do you hold back some to offer to consumers as mature ready to drink bottles – the winemakers dilemma?

  2. mroconnell Says:

    Hahaha, the winemaker’s dilemma is a worthy “Volume II”

    We kept about 1,000 bottles of the five main cuvées of our first vintage. Subsequent vintages, we’re probably going to keep something closer to 600-700. Then some cuvées are such odd ball one-offs that we only start off with like 1500 bottles so it’s hard to predict what we’ll do.

    And we probably consume about 4 bottles per day between our meals, visitor tastings and give-aways (tips for truck drivers, bonuses for folks who sell a lot of our wine, etc). Although that’s not always literally a bottle. What we drink is often carafes taken straight from the cuves (ie younger stuff).

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