It hardly needs to be said that we live in an era where—in a prosperous country, anyway—we are bombarded with images of the allure, even the life necessity, of “luxury.” Arguably, no marketing concept is more lucrative than persuading you that something is a signifier of this quality.
With wine, luxury is very nearly the sole marketing element in high-end sales. How else can you distinguish your wine from your neighbor’s these days except by ever-higher price and any cosmetic trappings of “luxury”—heavy bottles, fancy labels, limited editions—you can attach to your product?
None of this is news. But the larger question still remains: What, exactly, is luxury? And how can one distinguish between what might be real or true luxury and the faux version? This is worth considering if only as a means of sifting through the sell job and deciding which wines—or at least which image—you want to credit as desirable.
Luxury by its very definition is something that goes beyond the utilitarian. Precisely because we don’t need it, an object or experience enters into the realm of “luxury” when it transcends the quotidian. Precisely because luxury is not utilitarian it necessarily must be sold to us. And that, in turn, means that the idea of luxury is really all about tapping into our dreams.
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.
Let’s take the foremost symbol of wine luxury in modern times. It’s not classed-growth Bordeaux, as was once incontestably the case. Rather, it’s Napa Valley. Why did the former lose its “luxury luster” to the latter? It’s because Napa Valley has aggressively and oh-so-profitably made itself the very image of exclusivity and privilege.
You want to dine at the French Laundry in Yountville? Well, good luck, pal, in getting a reservation. It takes months. You want to stay in ever more expensive and ever more (seemingly) exclusive hotels offering ever more esoteric spa services, hot-air balloon rides and the like? When was the last time you heard about a you-can’t-get-into-it restaurant in Bordeaux? Or about a multiplicity of ever-dreamier hotels and inns?
Not least, look at the transformation of what’s now called Auction Napa Valley (the name itself is so revealing it’s almost Freudian). When the former Napa Valley Wine Auction discovered that the big-money folks who do the successful bidding did not feel sufficiently privileged and exclusive, the organizers didn’t hesitate: They raised the price of admission and limited the number of participants. Today, the VIP admission package costs $15,000 per couple, which includes a private car and driver to and from all auction festivities. A less luxurious but still complete event package will set you back $6,000 per couple.
And what, you ask, happened as a result? The raising-of-the-price-bar to ensure a sense of privilege and exclusivity proved a total success. Privilege pays, in every sense.
Faux luxury is all about selling a sense of privilege; real luxury involves only the item itself. The giveaway is notoriety. Everyone has heard of the faux-privilege products of mass-marketed luxury. Their creators have made sure of that through saturation advertising.
You can run through the many examples of this every bit as well as I can: Famous Champagne brands vs. grower Champagnes; celebrated vineyard districts vs. “unknown” ones; “reserve” bottlings vs. regular; elaborate packaging vs. austere; blends vs. single-vineyard cuvées.
Scalability is the giveaway. Faux luxury can always be scaled-up to meet growing demand. Real luxury cannot. Of course, in order to maintain an image and a (high) price, you purposely do not scale up, at least not perceptibly so. “Make 'em wait” is the mantra of luxury marketers everywhere, from extravagantly expensive women’s handbags to small wineries with seemingly impossible-to-get-onto mailing lists. It’s the marketing version of what might be called consumer dressage, a matter of exquisite control.
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.
If it were otherwise, then anyone who buys a “luxury wine” would automatically be a wine expert, right?