A recent article by Frances Percival (which appeared in the UK publication, The World of Fine Wine), identifies two different types of luxury items. One he calls the “checklist or filet mignon” version: high profile brands or items with features that conjure up sensations or tastes traditionally associated with wealth and comfort – like soft leather or tender meat. The other he identifies as the “luxury of expertise” – where the curated narrative counts for more than the experience. “Checklist luxury” is dominated by the big brands, whose objects of “craft” (once so rare) can now be made in high volumes. Accordingly the super-rich who seek something more exclusive find themselves drawn towards the expertise or narrative version. In Percival’s example, it is not the tenderness of the meat which conveys the sense of luxury, “but rather the manner of its growth and preparation. In London, New York or Copenhagen, dropping several hundred dollars a head on dinner will quite likely yield a meal composed almost entirely of vegetables..(where)…integrity of agriculture and uniqueness are the key concepts; in place of a checklist of simple attributes, we are instead invited to taste a full narrative of the dish and its ingredients from their inception.”
Percival’s metaphor offers an easy way of understanding the dual worlds of Cape wine. For the old style luxury you need look no further than the opulent reds and richly oaked whites which dominate the top end of the wine lists in the country’s trendy eateries. For the narrative examples, you have to seek out the small batch artisanal wines made by craft producers, often from tiny blocks of old vines, and mostly without any evidence of new oak to provide a clue as to the cost of the product.
Well-heeled consumers, unconstrained by serious budgetary considerations, buy items which gratify their self-image: they identify with the marketing message the producer has attached to the item – brand of car, gin, whisky – but also with the category of product – hand-made, imported, artisanal (“I don’t drink ‘industrial’ beer” etc). Mostly they are able to confirm the wisdom of their choice simply by looking at what they’ve bought. But what if there isn’t much to help distinguish between the luxury and the non-luxury version, between the craft wine and the thoughtfully made, unflamboyant commercial example? While such consumers may acknowledge that it’s not about the flavour, but about the narrative, producers and vendors of these products recognise that there often isn’t enough of a perceptible difference to justify the price differential. (This, by the way, I suspect is why they never submit their single barrel, hand bottled treasures to a blind tasting environment.) They concede, if only implicitly, that without the back story, there’s little to distinguish the painstakingly produced collectable examples from the equally unflashy, industrial wines produced with all the 21st century technical tricks at the cellarmaster’s disposal.
Of course this cuts both ways. The elements which once defined luxury in the checklist sense of the word are also subject to the same sleights of hand. Just because leather is soft doesn’t mean that it’s good. In the same way, just because a wine has perfect fruit intensity and a creamy mouthfeel doesn’t mean that it wasn’t also a winemaker’s con job, produced using tannin powders and rendered savoury by strategic alcohol removal.
It’s too easy to fall back on the old caveat emptor adage and leaves things there, but this means inviting consumers to institutionalise self-delusion. There’s an apparently true story of the parvenu host who ordered the most expensive red on a Michelin-starred restaurant’s wine list. When the bottle was brought – decanted – to the table, he challenged the sommelier with “how do I know it’s the same bottle you showed me (sealed) earlier?” The somm is reputed to have responded (presumably the last thing he said before being fired) “Well, sir, if you can’t tell the difference, it doesn’t matter anyway.”