The INFORMS blog suggested that O.R. bloggers wrote about food. Figuring that a good meal is usually accompanied by a good wine, I’ve decided to focus on using an Operations Research technique to maximize the number of wines someone can taste at a time. I warn in advance to connoisseurs accessing this blog by chance that my knowledge about wine tasting is very short (once in a while, I resume my reading of Jancis Jobson’s book “How to Taste Wine”, but I’m closer to the first pages than to the last ones). Anyway, I hope that some of them find dynamic programming useful for their practice.

First of all, how wine should be tasted? According to a book that I just browsed during lunch time, the following rules must be followed:

- white before red;
- young before old;
- light before heavy;
- dry before sweet.

To simplify matters, I will assume that those rules are unbreakable (are they?), I will ignore that it is recommended to taste only similar wines each time, and get to the following question: under such circumstances and provided a collection of bottles, how can I maximize the number of tastings one can do at a time?

Let’s consider as an example the following wines, which this novice considered good and attempted to roughly classify in a binary way:

W1 | Argentina | Finca Martha 878 Malbec 2008 | red, young, heavy, dry |

W2 | Brazil | Miolo Gammay 2010 | red, young, light, dry |

W3 | Brazil | Terranova Late Harvest Moscatel 2005 | white, young, heavy, sweet |

W4 | Brazil | Terranova Shiraz 2010 | white, young, light, dry |

W5 | Chile | Casillero del Diablo Carmenère 2009 | red, young, heavy, dry |

W6 | Portugal | Dão Cabriz 2007 | red, young, heavy, dry |

W7 | Portugal | Ramos Pinto Late Bottled Red Port 2000 | red, old, heavy, sweet |

W8 | Portugal | Sandeman White Port 2005 | white, young, heavy, sweet |

W9 | South Africa | Obikwa Pinotage 2008 | red, young, light, dry |

Without loss of generality and for the sake of breaking ties to avoid equivalent solutions (e.g., tasting W2 before W9 or W9 before W2), we will consider that one must proceed incrementally another in the case of a tie (i.e., W2 before W9 but not W9 before W2).

Now suppose that we start with W3 because it is white and young. Soon we will realize that only two wines can remain in our list for being also heavy and sweet: W8 and W9. Hence, W3 might not be a good starting point. However, it is easy to figure that the optimal path from W3 on is to taste W8 and then W9 because the former is white and the later red. Similarly, the optimal path starting from W8 is to proceed to W9, and from W9 is to do nothing.

Beyond the wines, do you “smell” something interesting here? We have overlapping subproblems and those optimal solutions share optimal substructures with each other. That’s where Dynamic Programming (DP) fits in! Using DP, we consider optimal solutions to varied subproblems as building blocks to find optimal solutions to increasingly bigger problems. Thus, even if those subproblems arise many times, it suffices to solve each of them once.

In the current case, we could do that by finding the best option between the following subproblems: Pi = “How many wines can I taste if I start from Wi?”, for i = 1 to 9. In turn, answering to each of those questions consists of adding one to the best answer found among wines that can be tasted after that first one. For instance, we start with W1, W2, …, or W9 to find the answers P1, P2, …, and P9. Picking W1, we have that P1 = 1 + MAX(P5, P6, P7) because W1 can only be followed by P5, P6 or P7. Note that once we answered P1, we already know the answers to P5, P6 and P7, and therefore we do not need to recalculate them in the remainder of the solving process. The act of memorizing such solutions for later recover is called memoization.

Applying DP to the current case, we will find the following answer to the subproblems:

P1 | P2 | P3 | P4 | P5 | P6 | P7 | P8 | P9 |

4 | 6 | 3 | 7 | 3 | 2 | 1 | 2 | 5 |

Working backwards, we start from W4 (P4=7) to find which wine can that can be tasted after W4 and from which point on it is possible to taste 6 wines, and so on until the last one. The final answer to our problem is the sequence W4, W2, W9, W1, W5, W6, W7.

As a final remark, I would like to remember that quantity does not mean quality. Drink responsibly and remind that a tasting experience does not necessarily means getting drunk in the end: you can always spit and enjoy the rest of your day in a better shape.

Once said that, “saúde”, “cheers”, or – as my Polish friends from the Erasmus program would say – “na zdrowie”!

*Update: Shiraz is a grape that produces red wine, not white. Anyway, it is still possible to taste 7 out of the 9 wines at once.*