Hamburgers, Hairballs & Cabernet (Oh My!): Opening Wine’s Overton Window

windowI started thinking about the Overton Window for wine after reading Tim Hayward’s “Food for Thought” column in the Financial Times a few weeks ago (“The steak-and-chips straitjacket” March 26, 2016). Hayward was talking about food but I can’t help thinking about wine.

The Overton Window is a political concept named for think-tank guru Joseph P. Overton (it is also apparently the title of a 2010 political novel by Glenn Beck).

The idea is that at any given time there are policies that the general public finds acceptable and politicians and policy-makers who work within this window will find more success than those on the outside. The window shifts over time as conditions and attitudes change either on their own or in response to the work of political philosophers or entrepreneurs.

Creative Tension

Hayward clearly likes the analytical framework that the Overton Window provides (once you first learn about it, he says, it’s hard to stop thinking in these terms) and his FT column attempts to apply it to the restaurant scene.  Many fine dining restaurants like to define themselves by their creativity, he writes, but they risk straying outside their customers’ Overton Window. It’s a difficult situation.

Add a fancy hamburger or steak-and-chips to the menu, he says, and you’ll make your customers very happy because they will know that they can always find something to eat. But will you lose your identity in the process and become just another place with good steak and chips? But, on the other hand,  can you afford to ignore the economic benefits of providing widely popular “safety” options?

Hayward knows the British restaurant scene very well and he argues that the Overton Window has broadened quite a lot over the years, which has made it possible for creative chefs to provide a wider range of interesting foods. A good thing!

But he reminds us that the window’s “straitjacket” still holds. Wander too far outside its constraints (without that hamburger or other “safety dishes” to anchor you) and you risk being a critical success but a market failure. The most successful chefs, he argues, don’t think “outside the box” (to mix metaphors, but you get the idea), but rather work at the edges of what is generally acceptable, keeping creativity alive if contained.

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Like a Giant Hairball?

Hayward’s analysis reminds we of one of my favorite management books, Orbiting the Giant Hairball by Gordon MacKenzie. For MacKenzie, corporate bureaucracy, which defines acceptable policy, is a giant hairball and if you don’t fight against its gravitational pull you will be sucked into mediocrity.

But you need that pull to anchor you. Without the hairball and the discipline it imposes, creative people fly off into the cold reaches of outer space (and chefs, I suppose, fly off to bankruptcy court).

The trick, MacKenzie concludes, it to strike just the right balance and to orbit the hairball rather than zooming off into space or crashing into the hairball’s oily net. I think we all know people who suffered the two sad polar fates as well as some lucky ones who got the orbit balance just right, which I guess is equivalent to working happily and profitably around the edges of the window.

Windows and Hairballs in Action

My purpose in talking about windows and hairballs is to try to apply these flexible concepts to wine much as Tim Hayward has done for food. But before I go there it is necessary to circle back to base a bit. The Overton Window was conceived as a political idea and MacKenzie’s hairball was all about business in particular and organizations generally. Before we apply these concepts to wine, we should ask if they still apply on their home turf?

The political climate here in the United States is chaotic, with challenges from the left (Bernie Sanders), the right (Ted Cruz) and … well, where exactly is Donald Trump coming from? Has the Overton Window of acceptable ideas expanded (as Hayward suggests at one point in his column) to include all of this, which amounts to nearly everything? That’s not a window, it’s more like an amphitheater!

Or maybe the problem is that the population has fragmented and there is no single window any more, but rather a mosaic of windows that don’t really connect. Switching frameworks, has the hairball just lost some mass, so that the orbits are wider and more eratic? Or has it collapsed leaving us lost in space?

Isn’t This Supposed to Be About Wine?

Hayward is interested in how and why the restaurant menu Overton Window has expanded and why some previously exotic items are now clearly in the frame (think sushi, kimchi and kale) while others remain locked out (he cites cerviche, for example). We could ask the same sort of questions about wine. I know that Riesling fans always wonder when a broader audience will discover their favorite wine and move it more toward the center of the window.

Another application would be to look at the choices that wine shops and supermarket wine managers make when they decide which wines to stock and which to leave off the shelves. Some store selections are very conservative, sticking to the most widely purchased SKUs from the best-known makers, while others push the edges a bit.

Perhaps wine stores that go bust are, like Hayward’s über-creative chefs, guilty of pushing too far outside of the window, leaving their customers with an inadequate supply of “safety wines?”

But, inspired by Hayward’s analysis of create chefs and their steak-and-chips dilemma, I am particularly interested in thinking about restaurant wine and the choices restaurants make in compiling their wine menus. Come back next week for some interesting analysis.

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I couldn’t find a cool image of an Overton Window for wine, so I used this photo of the Berry Brothers & Rudd window in London when it was decorated with giant corks.This is a memorable image and a reminder that Berry Brothers must understand wine’s Overton Window very well to have stayed in business in their iconic shop at 3 St James’s Street since 1698.

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