A life of luxury can be defined in many ways, but most often it simply boils down to quality, cost and scarcity. Or as Robert Frank described it in The Wealth Report, “Luxury, by definition should be exclusive.” And to be fair, exclusive usually means expensive, which is of little concern to those who can afford it.
Take wine for instance, Harry’s restaurant in Bermuda has 400 labels on its wine list. The most pricey ones are a Chateau Petrus 2000 and a 1961 Chateau Margaux. An interesting legacy surrounds the last vintage as the late model and actress Margaux Hemingway was heard to claim that on the night she was conceived, her parents had imbibed on a Chateau Margaux. And thus she was named in honor of the special brew.
Both the Margaux and the Petrus command prices exceeding $2000 a bottle. And both have customers willing to pay that heady price. “I don’t think it’s a matter of money” says Harry’s owner and Waterfront Properties president Rickie Cox. “People who understand fine wines have a standard and appreciate wine.” Harry’s sommelier, Jordan Monkman says the typical high flying customer these recessionary days is not the businessman of old. It is a wine connoisseur with a special purpose. “We had one group in where the chap was celebrating the birthday of his son,” says Monkman. “They went through eighteen litres one night.” The bill for the wine alone was over $2000. That’s a lot of money to spend on something you simply drink. But Frank in The Wealth Report has the perfect explanation for such extravagant behavior, which he found in the book, Trading Up: The New American Luxury. “The willingness to pay a premium occurs when a product or service is emotionally important to the consumer and delivers the perceived values of quality, performance and engagement.”
Paul Bailie of Bermuda has his own explanation for the special affinity he has for fine wines. And that starts with the respect he has for the laborious process it takes for the wine to go from the grape to your glass. “It lasts so long and takes so long to age properly,” he marvels. “They’re like living things,” he says. “The thing continues to live, it continues to mature, it ages, it improves, and maybe that’s part of the appeal for me,” he says. That appeal is so strong that it once drove him to purchase one of the priciest wines in the world. “The most valuable bottle of wine I’ve ever owned was a Romanee Conti Burgundy” he says. “It cost me about $400 and currently the market value is about $6000. It’s just gorgeous.” I asked if there was a price that would be too high to pay for wine. “Yes,” he says, “but I don’t know what that is. I haven’t found it yet.” Bailie owns two wine refrigerators in his home where he keeps a collection of 320 bottles. He’d love to have more, but in a small space he says, you can’t have quantity, only quality.
Goslings Wine Cellar (yes of Goslings Rum) is quite prepared to help those who cannot help themselves by storing your wine for you. “That’s why we built our wine cellar,” says company president Nancy Gosling. “It’s important to store your wine properly.” The perfect temperature for wine storage is in a cool atmosphere ranging between 58 and 62 degrees F. “Heat is fatal to wine,” says connoisseur John Sharpe. He also cautions that bottles must be laid on their sides so the cork stays wet. I asked him if he had a private wine cellar of his own? “No,” he replied. “But I do have a wine warehouse.” Nice. That warehouse is filled with labels from the Loire Valley in France as well as bottles from Spain and Austria. But, not Italy, he says because other larger distributors handle that region quite efficiently.
Sharpe says he goes off the beaten path to find unusual wines and his best customers appreciate that. “I have a number of clients who have their own private cellars and almost all of them are buyers who have an open mind about wines, are prepared to try wines that they’ve never heard of and just have a love of wine and understand the combination of wine and food and what they mean to each other.” Sharpe observes that, “a lot of wine collectors will buy a case or two cases of something brilliant and then hold onto it for awhile and then sell it later on at a profit which justifies their purchase of future wines.”
A look at GiftBoxesLot.com reveals that one of the most expensive wines ever sold at auction was a Chateau Lafite 1787. It was bought for a private collection at Christie’s in London for $160,000. The bottle also features the initials of Thomas Jefferson etched into the glass, adding to its value. An even higher price was paid for a bottle of Screaming Eagle Cabernet. The price was an unheard of $500,000. An executive at a high tech company paid that price during a charity auction so some of the purchase price was a charitable donation. But it was a colossal investment nonetheless.
Given the vast amounts of money spent on fine wines, it is clear that wine collecting is more than just a hobby for some. So you can imagine the horror of one diner who was ready to experience a pricey Chateau Margaux which was two centuries old when a waiter accidently knocked it over. GiftBoxesLot.com reports that, luckily, the bottle was insured and the insurance company did pay up in full. The price? $225,000. That’s two hundred and twenty five thousand dollars… for one bottle.
While wine is made from the fermented juices of many different kinds of grapes, champagne is most often made from chardonnay and pinot grapes. It then goes through 2 processing steps, which ultimately trap carbon dioxide producing the bubbles for which champagne is famous. The beverage is produced in the Champagne region of France and thus the name “champagne” is also legally protected. Overall, experts say that champagne is the costliest wine to produce. It also has one of the largest bottles available to store the liquid treasure.
The grand daddy of all champagne bottles is the Melchizedek. It is an oversized vessel which holds the equivalent of 40 bottles or 30 litres of champagne. The most well-known champs are very familiar to us all: Dom Perignon, Cristal, Moet, Perrier Jouet, Krug. And just the sound of their names conjure up wonderful scenes of celebration. It is a celebratory drink. That may explain why the beverage is so popular here on Bermuda.
“This is a big champagne market,” says Nancy Gosling. Although Gosling admits that sales of expensive champagnes have declined because of the economy, she still sees Bermudians buying it. “Even now when they want to celebrate something important they want to drink champagne.” Gosling adds that “Champagne has a unique taste and you can’t replicate it with a sparkling wine and we have a lot more success selling champagne than sparkling wine because people want the quality.” Champagne prices cover a huge range. Taittinger Champagne Brut Blanc De Blancs Comtes De Champagne Vintage 1999 would cost over $500 per bottle, while a Dom Perignon White Gold Jeroboam sold in 1990 for $40,000.
That said, Gosling has noticed one compromise to the palate and pocketbook Bermudians are making these days. Sales of the fine Italian sparkling wine, Prosecco are going through the roof. It costs less than champagne but still provides a ‘special occasion’ feel. Wikipedia says that prosecco has a good pedigree: “It is one of the oldest wine grapes in Italy and ranks about thirtieth in importance among the country’s some 2,000 grape varieties.” It is named after the Italian village of Prosecco in Northern Italy and has become quite a swish drink for many. “Up until the 1960s, Prosecco sparkling wine was generally sweetish and barely distinguishable from the Asti Spumante wine produced in Piedmont. Since then, production techniques have improved, leading to the high-quality dry wines produced today.” And as is the case with champagne, Italian grape growers have worked to legally protect the Prosecco name which further adds to its status as a fine, but affordable celebratory beverage.
The wine business is a multi-billion dollar industry. And as with any high profit business, there are those who prey upon it. Buyers of expensive wines now face challenges by counterfeiters. Wine expert, Steve Bachmann who is president of Vinfolio says “counterfeiters can refill empty authentic bottles or digitally print almost any label at low cost.” But luckily, there are now anti-fraud technologies that can authenticate the contents of a bottle if a the buyer is suspicious of the seller.
From the vineyards to the wine companies to the stores that sell it to the connoisseurs who collect it, the world of wine is an extensive one. But in the end, there is the taste of the beverage and the experiences it produces that count the most. Wine is a special luxury in that regard. Not all of us care to drive a $250,000 Aston Martin, but most still drive “something” nice given a price point. And the same fact exists with wine. The general public can enjoy, if not the finest wine, then at least a good one. It is an “affordable luxury.” And that is the wonder of wine. It is not just about price. It is a world unto itself that we can invite ourselves into from time to time.
Gosling’s Nancy Gosling expressed her firm commitment to the wonder of wine when she answered the question ‘Do you look at wine as a necessity or a luxury?’ “Oh, it’s a necessity, if you want to eat,” she says. “It’s part of the process. It’s part of the food.”
And what does Harry’s Rickie Cox think we’d be missing if we didn’t have wine in our lives? “Good times with good friends, a fun life. It just goes on.”