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screaming eagleThe usually reliable Matt Kramer has me confused. In his recent Wine Spectator column he has a go at distinguishing a genuine luxury good from heavily-marketed faux-luxury goods. By implication he seems to think many wines fall into the faux-luxury category.

And he starts in the right place. A luxury good is inessential—we don’t need it—and it taps into our dreams, our aspirations, which of course is what marketers prey on.

With regard to wine, the appearance of exclusivity and privilege also define luxury:

With wine, the idea of luxury trades on two features—exclusivity and privilege. The two are interrelated, but are also separately powerful. Ironically, neither actually has to really exist. They only have to seem to exist. This is perhaps the critical point. And that, in turn, is the very key that distinguishes real luxury from faux.

Kramer’s point seems to be that any good marketer can restrict supply, raise the price of the product, and give the appearance of exclusivity thus enticing the status seekers. This is faux-luxury because it is all about appearances. It is what the big Champagne houses and celebrated wine regions do.

So what is genuine luxury? Here things get strange:

Scalability is the giveaway. Faux luxury can always be scaled-up to meet growing demand. Real luxury cannot.

I’m not sure about this. A Bentley is a luxury car. Like all automobiles, Bentley uses modern manufacturing methods. They could easily be scaled up if demand for Bentleys were to increase. Of course they wouldn’t do that. They would raise the price instead. But does that mean a Bentley is not a genuine luxury car? Presumably, most small, low-production wineries could scale up if they wanted to by expanding their contracts with growers and adding production capacity. Does that mean they lack quality?

His main example provides a clue to what he has in mind:

Distinguishing real luxury from faux is not that hard. Here’s the key: How much involvement, i.e., knowledge, purposeful pursuit and engagement, is required of you to both know about and acquire the luxury? If it comes to you easily, all tied up with a bow, with no investigation or education required on your part, it’s faux luxury.

Let me offer an example. A man can buy a very expensive suit, made with genuinely fine fabric, off the rack. Such brands are famous and cost thousands of dollars. But it’s not really made for you, never mind its aura of exclusivity.

Or that same man can go to a tailor on Savile Row. They will take dozens of measurements and hand-tailor an exquisitely fitting suit which fit is further refined by yet another fitting session—or even a third one. What results is a luxury designed and made solely for you alone. The suit will fit in a way no off-the-rack item can, no matter how expensive or luxurious-seeming.

This is “true luxury.” It takes your involvement, your interest and, not least, education and effort on your part

I don’t think he is describing luxury. He is describing particularity, originality, uniqueness. What makes the tailored suit worthy is the fact it is not standardized—it is perfectly tailored to the unique characteristics of the wearer. There can be no other suit like it.

There are lots of wines that are original, unique, one-of-kind and that reflect the particularity of their origins. They are not therefore luxury wines.

Think of a life devoted to the pursuit of inessential, arcane, rare activities that require “involvement, your interest, and, not least, education and effort on your part”. Is that a life of luxury? It sounds more like the life of a scholar or artist.

I would be very happy if this were the “new life of luxury” where privileged people aspire to the production of new knowledge and great works. Our society might be better off for it.

Who would have thought that from the pages of the Wine Spectator a new age of Enlightenment is born.

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