The Paradox of [Wine] Choice

I always look forward to the week between the Christmas and New Year holidays because that’s when the pace seems to slow down a bit and I can settle in to read The Economist‘s special double issue.

Of particular interest this year is the essay on page 123 called “Tyranny of Choice: You Choose.” The main point is simple, but the implications are quite broad, with particular relevance for today’s wine markets.

Good — Up to a Point

The simple point? Choice is good, but only to a certain degree. Too much choice is, well, too much and can sometimes stop decision-making dead in its tracks. I say that this is a simple point because we have all suffered from the problem of too many options overloading our preference systems. Or am I the only one who sometimes has trouble ordering coffee at Starbucks or a sandwich at Subway?

Government is a good example of this Paradox of Choice. One party rule is notoriously problematic.  Multiple parties provide useful competition. But at some point more political choice is really less –particularly less in terms of stability.  Fragile, shifting multi-party coalitions mean short governmental half-lives with no one looking after the whole since everyone’s focused on their own tiny slice of the electoral pie.

What makes The Economist article interesting is that it ties together so many elements of this dilemma, from literature to academic research and from potato chips to human reproduction.

Rollerblading Monstromart

Super-abundant choice is a fact of modern life. The Economist suggests that you …

Wheel a trolley down the aisle of any modern Western hypermarket, and the choice of all sorts is dazzling. The average American supermarket now carries 48,750 items, according to the Food Marketing Institute, more than five times the number in 1975. Britain’s Tesco stocks 91 different shampoos, 93 varieties of toothpaste and 115 of household cleaner. Carrefour’s hypermarket in the Paris suburb of Montesson, a hangar-like place filled with everything from mountain bikes to foie gras, is so vast that staff circulate on rollerblades.

One cost of this embarrassment of riches is confusion or, put another way, higher transactions costs. Making a choice means comparing the qualities and value of different options, which is difficult enough when there are only two brands of breakfast cereal, but mighty time-consuming and complicated when there are 200.

The Economist explores several dimensions of this problem, citing a Nobel Prize winning economist (Daniel McFadden), an Italian novelist (Italo Calvino) and cartoon character Marge Simpson!

Expectations have been inflated to such an extent that people think the perfect choice exists, argues Renata Salecl in her book “Choice”. … In one episode of “The Simpsons”, Marge takes Apu shopping in a new supermarket, Monstromart, whose cheery advertising slogan is “where shopping is a baffling ordeal”. “How is it”, muses Ms Salecl, “that in the developed world this increase in choice, through which we can supposedly customise our lives and make them perfect leads not to more satisfaction but rather to greater anxiety, and greater feelings of inadequacy and guilt?” A 2010 study by researchers at the University of Bristol found that 47% of respondents thought life was more confusing than it was ten years ago, and 42% reported lying awake at night trying to resolve problems.

Greater choice first delights us, then overwhelms us, then it can sometimes drive us crazy. There must be a “best” among all the rest. Which is it? And how will I know? The quest for the best can sometimes destroy the pleasure of the very good by introducing an unwanted but unshakable sense of doubt.

The Age of Anxiety

Which brings us to wine. It does seem like the problems of exaggerated choice apply especially to wine. Of those 48,000 items on the upscale supermarket shelves, chances are that 1500 or more are bottles of wine. Wine is the largest choice space in the modern grocery store, ten times richer in terms of the number of options than the #2 area (breakfast cereals) and much more complex.

Wine buyers have never had it better in terms of the number of choices available from around the world. And we’ve never had it worse regarding the possibility of confusion and the pressure to find our perfect wine. It’s the Age of Anxiety for wine.

I find it interesting that some of  the hottest products in the wine market seem to simplify wine just a bit and perhaps unintentionally  address this anxiety. Gallo’s inexpensive Barefoot brand wines have very done well in the last few years; most people view this as a price thing — the result of trading down. But Barefoot also offers consumers a more casual idea of wine that would appeal to anyone who wants to get out of “perfection” rat race and just enjoy wine without over-thinking it. (And every Barefoot bottle features a “Gold Medal” from a wine competition, giving buyers the security of a sense of quality.)

The hottest wine sectors today are Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc and Argentinean Malbec; is it a coincidence that these wines are easy to understand, with many good producers at various price points? The problem of choice still exists for buyers of these wines, of course, but perhaps more of the pleasure of choosing survives.

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Several people have asked about the series on BRIC wines.  Fear not — it will resume in a few days with a report on Russia,

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8 responses

  1. I limit my time studying wine to this and a couple other blogs. Read one or two books a year. This gives me time to have some grasp on Pacific NW value wines, which comprise the great majority of my purchases. To branch out to other areas and price ranges simply would take more time than I care to spend.

  2. Mike, I always enjoy your blog. It gives us all something to think about as we look for new business models to sustain ourselves through these turbulent times. The BRIC stuff is great too! Keep up the nice work. Cheers, Tim

  3. Simple names, where the name is the same as the wine, do help a lot. All Brunello is Brunello. You don’t have to try to guess what all those proprietary names are. All Argentine Malbec is just that, only 2 things to know: 1. Argentina seems to be good at a particular grape. 2. The grape is called Malbec. Again, you don’t need to study the Burgundy village map or the family tree to see which Colin or Jadot is running the show now. Too bad that critter brand creators didn’t understand this. Only Yellow Tail survives and only because it is sweet without saying sweet. Can you imagine how hard the brand managers at well run consumer companies like Proctor & Gamble or Kellogs must laugh every time the discussion goes into branding in the wine industry?

  4. Mike an interesting view point. The younger demographics in some emerging markets mean that these new imbibers of wine want to try different wines each time rather than repeat what they liked. A sort of immersion in the new found wine culture. If you don’t give them a choice they may go else where.

    When they see a large range of products these youngsters with decent disposable incomes feel empowered and that’s where they want to shop!

  5. You quoted, “Expectations have been inflated to such an extent that people think the perfect choice exists, argues Renata Salecl in her book ‘Choice’.” Luckily, when it comes to wine, “the perfect choice” depends on budget, situation when you’re drinking the wine– fine dining or just fueling up at meal, with your boss or with someone you love are examples, personal taste, availability (Falernian isn’t commonly available) and a variety of other fctors, including season of the year.
    With wine there is no perfect choice, but there are many that are delightful.

  6. Thanks for the thoughtful post.

    It was 2003 when psychology professor and author Barry Schwartz addressed this topic pretty fully in his book The Paradox of Choice: How More is Less
    ( http://www.amazon.com/Paradox-Choice-Why-More-Less/dp/0060005688 )

    It has obvious implications for the wine business. Most notably, that ‘enthusiast’ shoppers who appreciate hyper-choice can more fully indulge in their interest (aside: or CAN they? Is this real choice or just the appearance of choice??). The book above starts off with a story about shopping for jeans. The proliferation of brands and styles is theoretically good–there is an implied promise that you can get your ideal fit. The reality is that shopping for jeans, like shopping for wine is an exercise in frustration for most people. Merely having more information at the point of sale actually doesn’t help either. I believe ultimately that the value we place on our time is higher than the value we place on the perfect choice (if there even is such a thing in wine).

    A whole set of business models exist in the US (a la the erstwhile Amazon one, all existing varieties of Snoothiness) that attempt to satisfy the most curious among us. Theoretically that’s what we want right? Only up to a point, it turns out, that our time cannot be better spent enjoying the wine or the winery itself. Businesses that on the other hand SAVE you time and increase your enjoyment all while imparting a little more knowledge and experience are a different animal.

    The example of the success of Trader Joe’s stands as a uniquely powerful counterpoint to the proliferation of choice. There’s still a treasure hunt going on by the shoppers, but it’s a much much smaller one, bounded instead by a totally different philosophy of retailing based not on choice so much as niche brand trust.

    To anyone who wants a deep dive on this topic, I recommend the book above.

  7. interesting you mention it……………I read the article in the economist, then went to work and pulled 4 wines off the tasting bar

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