Is There Value in Inconsistency? Modeling Wine

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Both a virtue and a vice of eating at chain restaurants is the greater sense of certainty that at any single restaurant, the meal you havew will taste like it did the last time you had it, no matter where you happen to be. In the mind of the consumer, there is obviously some value to this, else we wouldn't see the vast number of fast food restaurants that we do. For the gourmand, however, the replication is usually a signal for poor quality. Perhaps its that there is an ease in making formulaic dishes that makes the connoisseur turn up their nose. Add to this the true foodie's attempt to constantly find new places. Why not return to a place that is reliable, and simply not order the same item until the menu has been exhausted? Perhaps there is some utility to be gained from the uncertainty in the quality of the meal; the consumer might enjoy the period of not knowing how the meal will taste.

Not terribly new or controversial, I would hazard to say. But it does raise questions in light of the new attempt to model the fermentation process in wine in order to achieve a greater uniformity in quality (flavor, in the general -- I'm sure wine lovers will have a huge number of variables against which they would prefer to optimize). Is there an interest on the part of the consumer to see that every bottle of wine is evened out to whatever degree science might allow? Obviously, for the seller there is some interest in being able to make broad claims about the wine (as well as avoiding spoilage). I wonder if this might not become a method employed mostly by large-scale wineries that attract casual shoppers, much like chain restaurants.

Partially related side note: For a successful restaurant, is there an optimal number of locations to open? Highly successful downtown restaurants often open suburban locations, to much success and little loss in reputation. But open scores of them, and suddenly the place is a "chain", with all the baggage that brings (for some consumers more than others, obviously).

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You offer some interesting speculations.

A true foodie will tend to seek out new places, but not for the uncertainty per se. Consider, for a given restaurant, would an increase in the variance of meal quality make you more or less likely to eat at the restaurant?

But I guess the essence of your point is to consider that, along some margin, there is a trade-off between the predictability of a restaurant meal and the quality of the meal. A chef can devote his time to increasing predictability (through staff training, simplifying recipes, finding stable and forgiving ingredients) or to exploring for alternatives (trying new recipes, new ingredients, new tools, hiring staff of diverse backgrounds and learning from them). Among chain restaurants there is a bias toward predictability, so that consumers know what to expect. A restaurant for foodies does seek a kind of predictability, too, of course, but not the “replicable” kind. Instead, the foodies’ favorite restaurants are predictably striving for something new and interesting.

I think the winemaker’s interest in uniformity plays out in a similar way for mass market v. boutique wineries. The “mass market” wine drinker wants relatively cheap, replicable wines. If it says merlot on the bottle it better darn well taste like merlot. The winemaker will typically blend grapes from several fields in order to average out (or cover up) the distinctiveness of individual fields. The boutique wine drinker, on the other hand, may well seek out the distinctiveness of individual fields (or individual winemakers, or production techniques). A pinot noir from the Carneros region will differ from a pinot noir from Santa Barbara, and the differences are interesting to the boutique wine drinker.

However, improving uniformity is really about improving the control available to the winemaker, and I think that control will be valuable to both the mass market and the high end producers. It’s just that the mass market producers will use increased control to obtain a large quantity of replicable wine, and the high end producers will use it to produce a wider range of distinctive wines.

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This page contains a single entry by published on January 31, 2006 3:52 PM.

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