Friday, April 1, 2011

What is the Nature of Wine?

To be honest, I’m not sure of the etiquette of responding to a comment on a blog by way of a new post altogether, but the remarks, by my friend and colleague Miguel Lecuona, about my “Great Wines” piece earlier in the week, seem to warrant something more serious than the usual rhetorical nod of the head and moving on to the next subject.

This is primarily a result of the confluence of two key factors: The subject being discussed (it’s of huge importance to wine-lovers everywhere) and the trenchant manner in which Miguel addressed it.

To begin, I’d like to offer some clarification to my remarks in the original post. My issue is not with treating certain wines as trophies. In all honesty, if I had the space and the funds, I’d certainly display my most prized bottles. As a wine lover and wine collector, I of course appreciate the pride that comes from showing off the bottles that you most covet. Rather, my issue is with collectors who purchase the wines for the sole purpose of display, without ever intending to open them up, and who hold onto the bottles until they have more in common with vinegar than anything they’d want to swirl and sniff and savor. That, to me, seems to defeat the purpose of the wine having been created in the first place.

Miguel makes an interesting point when he compares “the aspirational collector who displays wines...[with] the collector who displays art, watches, guns, books, big game, or whatever they're into.” And, indeed, there are similarities there--but only to a point. Visual art’s raison d’être is to be displayed; there’s nothing else you can do with it but admire it, study it, etc. It can’t be consumed, and as long as it is treated properly, it will continue to serve its intended purpose forever, or close to it. Watch collectors, too, tend to wear their prized possessions, even if it’s just once in a while. Maybe that vintage Patek Philippe gets taken off its display stand only for weddings or other events of the sort, but generally, it’ll get worn once in a while...or had been worn at some point since it left the factory in Switzerland. Same with the other examples: Books get read, even if it’s a digital version; guns, even the most prized antique ones, were ostensibly shot at some point; and big game serves the same purpose as any other work of visual art on display.

It seems to me, however, that there’s a significant difference when it comes to wine. Yes, displaying it can be a beautiful thing, but to do so without ever having the intention of consuming it seems to miss what its essential purpose is, which is to be consumed. (Even if the producers' main objective in creating it was motivated solely by profit, which, either way, seems inextricably linked to the quality of the product itself, and the pleasure it will ultimately bring when it gets consumed.)

Now, I would never argue with Miguel’s contention that “the reason some fine wines sell for what they do is because [they] offer something more than mere consumption. The 2008 Lafites are now worth 10x more to the Chinese than they are to me. It's a $2000 bottle in Hong Kong! The businessman who can give the gift of Lafite in China honors his guests, and also demonstrates his own power (or his prescience if he bought them at $200).” But we have to ask ourselves why these particular wines fetch such prices and command such respect in the first place. And the answer, I think, is that they generally have a history of performing at a higher level, of providing greater pleasure when consumed and therefore possess and confer more prestige, than their lesser counterparts. So while that hypothetical Chinese businessman may never have tasted, say, a 2008 Lafite, he knows that it will be valued, and confer honor on the recipient of such a generous gift, because of its reputation for excellence and its long, illustrious history. Nothing about it is based on a hypothetical; rather, that chateau’s pedigree is inextricably tied to its history and performance right now. Lafite’s etching an “8” into its bottle is smart business, as is Mouton’s label-art, but neither would mean a whole lot were it not for the juice in the bottle. (Plenty of producers feature original artwork on their labels, but none approach the level of prestige of Mouton’s.) To use Yellow Tail, as Miguel did in his comment, an “8” etched into that bottle would have precious little impact on its desirability. Why? Because it’s not Lafite. Or Latour, or Margaux, or DRC, or any of a dozen other producers whose products have proven their worth, and justified the passion with which people covet them, as a result of what they have historically provided when the corks are popped and the wine consumed.

Over the years, Miguel and I have shared several great wines--I remember one particular Bacchanal of an evening for which the wine list included Margaux 1983, Leoville Las Cases 2000, Leoville Barton 1995, some older Figeac, and more. I even recall trading--like kids with really expensive baseball cards--a bottle of Gaja Sperss 2003 for a Cos d’Estournel 2003. And while that bottle of Cos is still resting in my cellar, I fully plan on opening it one day, when it’s reached the level of maturity that I’m waiting for, with friends and family...just like we did that evening at Miguel’s house. It’s display-worthy, of course, and I do show it to my friends when they come by. But the fact that it’s being displayed is just a temporary step along the road toward its being consumed.

I will, however, agree unequivocally with one observation Miguel made: I absolutely started tearing up when I first walked into the vineyard at Cheval-Blanc. And yes, my Facebook profile photo is of me walking through the vineyard at Chateau d’Yquem. (In fact, Miguel took the photo!) And while I respect Chaddsford, and very much believe in supporting the local wine producers wherever you live, it’s history is unarguably different from that of the great growths of Bordeaux. But using those photos doesn’t imply that I wouldn’t drink their wines if I had them in my collection. On the contrary, popping the corks and the drinking the juice will actually afford the wines the chance to achieve what they were initially crafted to do: To end up in the bottom of a glass and be consumed.

(Finally, to end on a perhaps anti-climactic parenthetical, we could argue the nature of “intent” for an inanimate object for years and not come to a conclusion. When all is considered and tallied up, my real issue is this: Not drinking a bottle of great wine seems an awful waste. It is, of course, the owner’s right to do whatever he or she wants with the bottle--drink it, display it, blend it with ice cream and fruit and make a really expensive smoothie--but to never experience the wine itself seems anathema to the long history of wine and its essential nature as a consumable product.)


Miguel Lecuona on April 7, 2011 at 7:37 PM said...

Touche Brian! I think we have reached d'accord here. and your bottom line "Not drinking a bottle of great wine seems an awful waste" is inarguable. My only quibble is, change 'drinking' to "Sharing". I know you imply it, because that's what we really do with the best wines.

Being in Bordeaux this week, while I have had a milkshake after tasting 57 St Emilions in an afternoon, I have yet to see the ever elusive Petrus-and-coke cocktail, despite the many chinese importers present! That of course is a joke because those who have been to China laugh at this western-created rumor to disparage the now legendary collectors filling their cellars in Asia.

The 2010's are big, thunderous wines, many brilliant, and also, many where the winemaker failed the difficult assignment of demonstrating restraint in the face of beauty... there are some over-extracted, and some very dry lick-the-barrel finishes, particularly on Merlot-dominant wines that came in close to 15%. Am on the Left Bank for two more days finishing up.

And having tasted Lafite, I swear if I could pay $1500 a bottle, that would be one to choose. After the retailer runs out of Lafleur, of course!

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