Hype, High-End Wines, and Originality

82 margauxLast week Steve Heimoff defended the hype surrounding famous high end wines such as  Premier Crus from Bordeaux.

What critics of expensive wine fail to understand is that the wine drinking experience is infinitely more complex than mere tasting. It involves every aspect of what it means to be human. Yes, perhaps it’s true that “a supposed 1982 Margaux” that’s actually “a $90 knockoff” might fool all but the most discerning taster, but that’s not the point. It doesn’t mean that the experience of drinking ’82 Margaux isn’t worth the price (about $1,000 retail)….

He goes on to argue that people want to experience something special and out of the ordinary, something that draws a contrast with everyday life.

…he’s willing to buy into the romance, the fantasy of drinking ’82 Margaux, with all that implies.

What does it imply? Vintage of the century. Parker 100 [or whatever his score was]. First Growth of Bordeaux. Thirty one years old. And so on and so forth. The pleasure, then, is just as much in the mind as in the mouth

I think Steve gets this exactly right. People outside the wine world  (and some within the wine world as well) have great fun ridiculing wine lovers who spend small fortunes on a bottle, when wines of similar quality can be had for much less. Such wine lovers are accused of paying for snob appeal, buying reputation, or being snookered by clever marketing. But that ridicule misses the point that the $90 wine lacks the the associations, the history, and sense of achievement of the great Bordeaux.

The same issue is a perennial subject of controversy in the art world. What would you rather view: Picasso’s Guernica or an exact replica of Picasso’s Guernica? With modern print technology we can easily make an exact replica of Guernica that is indistinguishable from the original. And for a modest sum you can enjoy it in the privacy of your home. So why do art lovers spend thousands to make their way to Madrid’s Museo Reina Sophia to view the original?

The answer is that we value  art, not only because it provides us with great sensory enjoyment, but because it is an achievement of human spirit and ingenuity. An original work of art involves a creative idea and the execution of that idea which required solving particular problems that confronted the artist at the time of creation. This achievement of the artist is part of the aesthetic value of a work. An exact replica of the work does not represent such an achievement; it is not a work of creative originality. The replica has less aesthetic value than the original.

Something similar can be said of the “82” Margaux. It sets the standard for what a great left-bank Bordeaux should taste like. It is an achievement of the collaboration of winemaker and nature that is noteworthy in its originality and expression. The $90 knock off, however lovely it might be, is not an original achievement. By definition it cannot be so. It thus lacks the aesthetic value of the original.

Steve Heimoff is right to suggest the appreciation of the original is an intellectual pleasure and right to imply that its enjoyment is not mere snobbery. It is an appreciation of genuine aesthetic value, a point which many of the commentators on the his post missed.

In the art world we commonly accept originality and achievement as having genuine aesthetic value. It is a bit of a puzzle why it is so controversial in the wine world.

One comment

  1. I passionately believe this statement is true regarding fine wines… “It is an achievement of the collaboration of winemaker and nature that is noteworthy in its originality and expression. ” It is the rest of this post, that I find impossible to understand. Unless dropping $1K, is like throwing a buck at a street person for you… what is the point? While I have never tasted an ’82 Margaux, I have tasted other Margaux and cannot picture this wine being 10 times better than similar aged, old-world style wines coming from South America, and the U.S. for $100/btl retail. So, just by virtue of its cost, it makes the experience more pleasurable? These folks are mighty shallow… and to think I just spent two days arguing with another wine consultant about the justification for $80 wine vs. $40…

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