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artisanal coffeeAt Aesthetics for Birds, Matt Strohl posted an interesting analysis of artisanship ethics using coffee as his example. It applies to wine as well.

At issue is the question “Is the customer always right?” Should high-end coffee shops with specialty roasts make milk available for people who want it? Should they sell bags of ground coffee if their customers want it?

His answer is no, a perspective he derives from the “The Ethics of Being an Artisan” a code written by John Piquet, the owner of Caffé D’Bolla in Salt Lake City.

The relevant fact behind the code is that coffee, as soon as it is ground, quickly loses its aromatics and within minutes becomes a shadow of its former self. That fact supports a set of obligations that Strohl summarizes as follows:

  • A seller that presents itself as artisanal/high-end incurs ethical
    obligations that other sellers don’t.
  • Artisanal sellers have an obligation to sell products in the best condition
    possible, even when their customers request otherwise.
  • When customers request products in sub-optimal condition, it is the
    obligation of the seller to educate the customer about standards of
    quality and disabuse them of whatever misconceptions they have.
  • If they still want a product in a sub-optimal condition, they didn’t want
    an artisanal product in the first place and they are at the wrong store.

It is in the nature of artisanship and the promise conveyed by that label that generates the obligation.

The key is that the barista is trusted to play the role of educator in a way that no one would ever expect of a barista at an airport Starbucks.

Furthermore, Strohl points out that very high quality coffee beans are rare and difficult to produce. They should not be wasted. The barista and roaster owe it to the farmer not to ruin his beans.

In the end it all comes down to the limits of subjectivity, which is a hard truth to sell in our culture.

When we proclaim that “the customer is always right,” we imagine ourselves as reliable optimizing agents who just need enough choices to live our best lives. We treat our existing subjective preferences as reliable guides to living well. But of course we all know very well that most of our subjective preferences were formed through a combination of random chance and corporate manipulation and that it takes openness and work to bring them into alignment with what would actually be best for us. Someone who balks at light roast coffee at first but is open to being educated may later turn into a passionate Third Wave coffee enthusiast and be better off for it. This sort of personal growth is encouraged by businesses like D’Bolla and stunted by places that just aim to pander to the customer’s existing preferences.

This strikes me as exactly right. If subjective preferences are arbitrary and held unreflectively they are not worthy of special respect.

What would it mean for artisan wineries to adopt a similar code?

To start with, wineries can hold back their product until it’s ready to drink. The best producers routinely do this but some wineries need product to sell and push it onto the market before its time.

Wineries sell a product that can be adulterated by the consumer. Although most customers won’t pour their expensive Pinot Noir into a glass of Coke, they will open the bottle before it’s properly aged. They may store it under sub-optimal conditions. They might serve it with foods that destroy the wine’s nuances. They may not allow the wine time to breathe. They might consume it while too drunk or too distracted to appreciate it.

According to this code of ethics, artisan wineries have an obligation to their product and their customers to educate them regarding how their product should be consumed. Many wineries do a good job with this but many treat their wine as so many widgets to be hustled out the door. When a winery takes care to optimize their release dates and educate their customers that is a good indication that their wines are of high quality whether you like them or not.