Simply Irresistible? “Second-Cheapest” Restaurant Wine in Theory & Practice

secondLast week I wrote about the theory that you should always order the second-cheapest wine on a restaurant’s list. The second-cheapest wine rule as it is usually explained, is a naive application of game theory to the problem of ordering restaurant wine.

The premise is that the restaurant is trying to gouge its wine-drinking customers and that it does this by putting incredibly high mark-ups on the cheapest wine on the list. Diners are drawn to the cheapest wine because of the high general level of wine prices, the theory goes, and so the restaurant rakes in the dough when diners opt for the least expensive bottle.

So where does the second-cheapest wine theory come in? Well, since you are smart and know that the cheapest wine is a rip-off, you can “stick it to the man” by ordering the second-cheapest wine instead. Second-cheapest wine — the sweet spot in every wine list!

Game Theory in Circles

Now there is a lot that is problematic with this scenario, beginning with the premise (see below), but the game theory is bad, too. It implicitly assumes that restaurants are ignorant of the second-cheapest theory, which they obviously are not, and do not adopt a counter-strategy, which they probably would.

If an evil restaurant wine manager knows the theory and wants to rip you off, he or she can manipulate the situation by simply raising the mark-up on the second-cheapest wine, making it the worst deal of the list. It’s tit for tat, as they say in game theory (economics note: there really is a non-cooperative “prisoner dilemma” game theory strategy called “tit for tat.”)

Your logical response, I suppose, would be to shift to the third-cheapest wine since the second-cheapest is now a loser. But once the restaurant figures out your new strategy you will need to move up a notch again to avoid being ripped off. Play this out ad nauseum and you arrive at ultimate ridiculous rule-of-thumb: always buy the most expensive wine on the list.tumblr_lrp6a2atud1qmxjbzo1_400

And once the evil restaurant masterminds figure that out, your only recourse is obvious — buy the cheapest wine! (Or maybe just buy a beer.) That’s the problem with these rules of thumb  — they sometimes lead you in circles until your head spins.

More Than One Way to Play That Game!

The real problem with the second-cheapest rule is the premise — that the restaurant is always out to gouge you. Megan Krigbaum at Punch published an empirical investigation of second-cheapest by-the-glass wines at New York restaurants a couple of days after my column went live last week and she found several sommeliers who play the game by a different set of rules.

These restaurants want to get their diners to try interesting wines that will bring them back again and again and so they price them on the low side to induce otherwise cautious diners to sample them. Sometimes they even intentionally make them the second-cheapest wine because they think some of their customers won’t be able to resist the bait and will be rewarded with a very pleasant surprise.

Does this prove that the second-cheapest rule is valid — always buy the second-cheapest wine? Well, it shows that sometimes it will get you a nice wine at a restaurant that wants you to have a great experience and come back for more. And, to be honest, you probably don’t need a rule-of-thumb to have a great wine experience at a restaurant like that!

An Alternative Strategy

I have a one-word rule of thumb when it comes to restaurant wine: communicate. When in doubt, start a conversation. Talk about what you’d like to eat, like to drink, prefer to pay and challenge your server or sommelier to help find the right wine.

Some people don’t like to do this because they fear it shows their ignorance. They are the same people who won’t ask for directions when they get lost, I suppose.

The conversation strategy doesn’t always work — sometimes it will get you an up-sell pitch or expose a server’s lack of wine knowledge — but it strikes me as a better opening gambit than any price-based rule.

What’s the best way to talk with a sommelier? Read this article by Carson Demmond in the current issue of Food & Wine for some ideas.

2 responses

  1. Great article! Particularly liked this line – “They are the same people who won’t ask for directions when they get lost, I suppose.” Sometimes I think we forget that somms are actually there to help, and if you give them clear guidelines, they should do just that. It’s just a case of finding places where you feel comfortable, where you feel in good hands and can trust the somm. Not always easy to find!

  2. There are ways that restaurant owners/management and staff can make the “wine” selection drama of their customers when handed the wIne list, a pleasant no bs carefree adventure. This would assume that a restaurant cares about its customers enough to not overcharge them for the wines they sell to said customers and are savvy enough to have a terrific wine by the glass selection to please wine drinkers of all stripes(novice to pro). Really, how hard is it for a restaurant to put together a decent wine list and teach the staff enough so that they are comfortable enough with the wines on it to be of “service” to customers?
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