Revisiting the Oenophile’s Quandary

In last week’s comic #654, my characters discuss a philosophical question known as the Oenophile’s Quandary — when to enjoy something that is being saved for a special occasion, and which in fact even improves with time. Of course, I made up the Oenophile’s Quandary, as I do every plausible-sounding fact that somehow worms its way into Wondermark (including this fact stating that fact), but a few kind readers followed up with me with additional information on the topic.

In a tweet, @flyingpawn pointed me to an economist’s answer to essentially this exact question:

Dear Economist,
I have inherited six bottles of excellent wine, which I plan to consume, over time, on special occasions. But how do I know when to open a bottle when I don’t know what occasions lie ahead? I don’t want to use up all the bottles within a few months on mediocre occasions, but neither do I still want to be hoarding them until I die.

I am pleased to announce that the question is answered definitively in the article, with numbers, the answer attributed to economist Avinash Dixit. There are some base assumptions made in the calculation, so it may not apply to every unique situation, but at least someone’s taken a stab at it and for most people it’s just nice to have someone else tell them an answer that sounds pretty authoritative.

In trying to track down the actual calculations done by Dr. Dixit, or any substantiation at all of the answer, I learned that the Oenophile’s Quandary may not be a question of philosophy but rather of mathematics — in particular, the theory of “optimal stopping” as applied in statistics or economics. An article in American Scientist puts it this way:

A decision maker observes a process evolving in time that involves some randomness. Based only on what is known, he or she must make a decision on how to maximize reward or minimize cost. In some cases, little is known about what’s coming. In other cases, information is abundant. In either scenario, no one predicts the future with full certainty. Fortunately, the powers of probability sometimes improve the odds of making a good choice.

Economists put equations to these questions, assuming that each variable has some hard quantifiable element to it. For Oenophile’s Quandary questions to rest in the realm of philosophy, then, they must deal with purely subjective issues. May the quality of aging wine be measured objectively?

A tweet from @OldMiner pointed me to this article about the aging of wine:

MYTH: Old wine tastes better than new wine.
REALITY: Although all wines change with age, very few wines noticeably improve beyond a few months and wine maturity does have its limits.
MY CONTENTIONS: Part of the problem is that some wine increases in monetary value as it gets older. The public fails to grasp that the value only rises because of the wine’s increasing rarity, not its increasing quality.

So where does this leave us? Wine may still be good (as in the question at the top of this post) without necessarily improving with age. 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? Leave a comment and let us know!

27 thoughts on “Revisiting the Oenophile’s Quandary”

  1. You could also solve this as an application of the “fussy suitor problem” (more politically correctly known as the “secretary problem”), which as originally stated asks how many women a man should date before marrying one (the answer is n/e, where n = the number of eligible women in his town, and e = 2.71828…), but could equivalently be reworded as how many special events one should experience before choosing one to honour with a bottle of wine.

  2. If the wine myths article is to be believed, it’s an even more devilish problem — each sip actually increases the rarity of the very wine you’re drinking. Therefore, you cannot actually consume the most valuable wine until you take the last remaining sip of the last bottle.

    The conclusion is clear, then: consume all wine in your possession as quickly as possible.

  3. I had purchased a bunch of Star Wars figures and kept them in the packaging because the store owner said that would preserve their value.

    I ended up opening them about a day later.

    Sure NOW they would be valuable, but I would never had enjoyed them.

  4. I guess the baby in the picture doesn’t want to be over-hydrated, eh? Heh, heh.

    Or is that cupid, or one of Bacchus’ nymphs? I can’t keep all that crap straight.

  5. I think the movie Sideways said it best: “You know, the day you open a ’61 Cheval Blanc … that’s the special occasion.”

  6. What about when the commodity you’re valuing is time itself? Consider choosing between waiting for a bus that’s late, or starting to walk: in both the wine case and the bus case, you’re waiting for some peak of value gained, that may or may not come, and the longer you wait the more likely it is that you’ll find that peak.
    In a sense, it’s not just the Oenophile’s Quandary, but in fact a quandary of any time you’re waiting for an event (where you could choose to continue waiting, or to give up prematurely).

  7. At what point do you stop gambling?
    When is the best time to sell a stock?
    How long can I keep eating like a pig before I start my diet?
    When should I ask that girl out on a date?

    Life is just full of such questions. I go by the maxim expressed by Jack Aubrey: “There is not a moment to lose!”

  8. During a 2001 trip to Europe, my wife bought me a bottle of Premier Cru. It sat in my wine rack for years and years, waiting for “the special occasion.” We went on a cruise with friends last year and I finally decided the time was right. Turns out I was right.

  9. I have saved six–well, five, now–very special bottles of Barbancourt Reserve du Domain 15 year old Haitian rhum. Why are they special? For a number of reasons. To rum collectors and aficionados this is one of the finest rums in the world, but more than that, these particular bottles are a little more rare. Not just because Barbancourt lost a third of it’s product in the Haiti earthquake, but also because these were increasingly rare *before* that happened. The company changed the label for this bottle, which is only available in the islands of the Caribbean, and the new ones are no longer a numbered series. I don’t see the bottles price increasingly as rapidly as say, a Cheval Blanc or some such, but as the old bottles become more rare, so does the price go up. I didn’t have it in mind to sell them, but interested parties will pop up at some point, I’m sure. I just wanted to save the bottles for a later date and really savor every last bit of the wonderful rhum inside. I guess there’s a line between aficionado and affliction. I like to think I walk that line, every day, with a bottle of rum in hand.

  10. I actually save such things for horrible occasions rather than special ones; last night my fridge broke down and my internet stopped working, so I decided to assuage my frustration by opening a new video game.

  11. I don’t know. I’m too practical with such things. The real trick is knowing when to give something up for a special occasion and what merits that occasion. Wedding? 25th anniversary? Grand child? great grand child?

    Honestly, I would sell half of the bottles- Buy 40$ bottles of wine and use the other half for those absolutely rare occasions that you want to remember for the rest of your life or that will make it a memorable event for someone else special in their life.

    Keep half, Sell half and you won’t be a fool any way you slice it.

  12. I don’t know if your blog runs one of those spaceaged trackbacks but I wrote up a long ramble about some of this on my website. I might be one of the preeminent winemakers reading wondermark so it might be worth a look ;D

  13. This falls apart when you actually have wine that is age-worthy. The “myths” presented are only myths when you have wine that is meant to be consumed young (which is, undoubtably, most wine sold). But let’s say you have a 6 pack of a classed growth Bordeaux, pretty well painful to drink on release, but sublime after 10 years. Then do the analysis. It would have meaning then. As it is, this reads like an op ed piece on a topic about which the author knew nothing to start with, and relied on a very limited amount of questionable information to make conclusions that are predictably flawed. What is valid is the assessment of the events, not the wine. The 21% rule has merit only if you are able to rank the level of the importance of the event in your life.

  14. Indeed wine tends to get some bad notes after 6,7 years. Trust me, I sort of work in this business. There are very few wines that actually remain their taste or may even improve over a perios of say, 10 years. So I wouldn’t advise anyone to save a bottle for 20 years, because he is heading for dissappointment when he actually drinks it.

  15. Seems to me that this dilemma is a variant of the starship paradox. The paradox is that if we build a starship, a faster one will be built before the first one reaches the destination, and the second will arrive first, so why bother to build the first ship? But the same thing will happen to ship two when ship three is built. Result: no starships get built at all.

  16. I’m sure someone else has noticed that both the barrel, and the ‘boozer’ are ‘peeing’… or that the child definitely ‘is’, and the barrel is only so metaphorically. Technically, the goblet is relieving itself into the receiver’s mouth. “WINESPORTS!”

  17. I did look up to see if the Oenophile’s Quandary was real when I first read the strip. The notes on “continuously improving” thus far have pretty much covered that angle… very *very* specific conditions have to be met to merit any particular bottle of wine being held for more than a few years, and most bottles should be drunk with minimal aging. For instance, the 2010 vintage, when it’s bottled, will likely be one to drink in under 2-3 years. This is due to the exceptionally hot summer, leading to earlier and more complete ripening on the vine. Caveat: I’m an enthusiast, not a professional like those above, and my understanding of this is based on my experience with the 2003 vintage which had a similarly hot summer, wines that came out fantastic early on and began to fall flat in the 2007-2008 timeframe.

    That said, given enough information (namely, access to current tasting notes on your particular bottles), the wine quality could be a reasonable approximation of objective, and its future should be a reasonable approximation of certain. If the plan is to drink the wine, not sell it, proper course of action is to assign an ending date before which all of the wine should be drunk. Any improvement in quality prior to that time is irrelevant, as the premise of saving the wine for occasions means that you’re highly unlikely to have all of your best occasions during the wine’s peak.

    With this ending date in mind, this is very similar to the mentioned “Secretary Problem”, with the added wrinkle of multiple bottles rather than a single one.

    Ultimately, I find it far better to work with Jim’s quote from Sideways. An occasion will be an occasion no matter what bottle of wine I drink with it. I drink nice bottles of wine when I’m in the mood to drink a nice bottle of wine. That may mean that I’ll no longer have a nice bottle of wine one day when I’m in the mood, but that is a far lesser tragedy than not drinking a nice bottle when I had the chance.

  18. My snarky answer is “drink it before your mother-in-law needs a gift for some stupid coworker’s barbecue and grabs it out of your wine fridge.”

    Frickin’ hundred-dollar bottle of wine my wife and I got in Napa we were intending to drink ten years later. Made it about six years… it even had a big “DO NOT DRINK” label I stuck to it to avoid this type of situation. Somehow she missed it.

  19. I don’t know for sure about wines, but I do know that whiskeys stop improving after they are bottled, because the “aging” for whiskey is due to reactions with the oak barrels and chemicals in the wood, as well as some limited oxygen and moisture transfusion through the wood. If you have a bottle of 15 year old scotch that has been in your cabinet for 5 years, you don’t have a “20 year old scotch”, just 15 year old scotch that has been sitting around.

    To the quandry, just drink it when you feel like having nice wine. I’ve had some pretty darn special occasions drinking 2-buck chuck out of the bottle, so I don’t think the wine itself improves the occasion. But when you want nice wine, boy you want it.

  20. I’m not as experienced as Gax perhaps, but at one of the many wineries I’ve visited, we tasted one of their signature annual wines from 10 yrs, 5 yrs and the last harvest. Definite improvement in the 10 yrs batch. It didn’t seem to be a fluke either – they run a similar taste on the wines from this line every year.

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