The Museum-ification of Wine

Have ultrahigh prices distorted our understanding and enjoyment of wine?
Dec 16, 2014

The prices asked for wine have always triggered reactions among wine lovers. Typically, these reactions are along the lines of "I don't think it's worth that much," or a sputtering such as "That's outrageous. Who do they think they are?"

But the fact—and indisputably it is a fact—is that there's no such thing as the "right price" for a wine. If someone can get you or me to pay a certain amount for a wine, never mind what anyone else sanctimoniously says, they have found the right price.

That said, there's no question that ultrahigh prices, at wineries or in restaurants or achieved at auctions, create a distortion field. We begin to see wine in general differently. We view it as a precious commodity or, ironically, as "underpriced," and unfairly see modestly priced wines as qualitatively lesser.

This same "distortion field" effect occurs with museums. Once an object is enshrined in a museum—or elevated to the status of "collectible"—it is transformed.

No less a personage than Philippe de Montebello, who for 31 years was director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, has said (in the 2014 book Rendez-vous with Art), "Most of the objects in museums were never intended to be there, and many of them were made by people who had never heard the word 'art' either."

Does this sound familiar? Much of what is occurring with fine wine today is wholly admirable and worth celebrating. I'm thinking here particularly of the heightened interest in, and appreciation of, previously unknown or obscure grape varieties, as well as new or renewed wine zones. All of New Zealand is effectively new to fine winegrowing; Spain's ancient Ribera Sacra zone, hidden in the deep, steep folds of several small river valleys was, until very recently, nearly as abandoned as Angkor Wat once was.

So, credit where it is due: These are wonderful times for an ever-growing array of wonderful wines. And there's surely more to come.

Yet we also are witnessing a preciousness, in every sense of the word, to fine wine. This is in part because of the marketplace: Supply and demand being what it is, it's inevitable that some wines will see unusually high prices thanks to extraordinary quality, small supply and outsize fame. It's to be expected, especially as the size of the audience for fine wine continues to grow worldwide.

So what, then, is the problem? It's the very one identified by Mr. de Montebello: "Most of the objects in museums were never intended to be there." The supreme wine example of this is, of course, Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Its fame is unsurpassed; its prices are eye-popping.

Yet the longtime codirector of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti, Aubert de Villaine, finds himself dismayed at the museum-ification of his beautiful wines. "I don't want the wines of the domaine to be collected and stored away only to be sold and resold," he once said to me (and surely to many others over the years). "They should be drunk with a meal and enjoyed with friends. Our wines are made for food, not just tasting."

And there, Mesdames et Messieurs, is the nub of it: tasting vs. drinking. Museum-ification is all about tasting. Drinking is something else yet again.

Strange as this may sound, I can't tell you the last time I actually drank a wine from Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. Tasted? You bet. I've been privileged to do that many times. But actually drank one or another wine from this fabled estate as a "normal" part of a meal? It's been years.

(Of course, even for the wealthiest wine lovers—assuming that they truly are wine lovers—it's never "normal" to drink any authentically great wine.)

Now, tasting for exploratory or analytical purposes, such as occurs with critics or anyone's learning experience, is not only essential, but admirable. But there's a limit. If you're buying wines only to "taste," then you've museum-ified wine. And that, I feel free to say, is not just mistaken, but genuinely wrong. It objectifies wine. It denatures the experience, transmuting pleasure into comparative performance.

The measure is simple: If you can't afford to drink it, you can't afford it. Tasting, however necessary, is not only artificial, it’s desensitizing. It's always tempting to believe that in the course of comparing one wine against others in a lineup, your palate actually acquires a heightened sensitivity. Palate fatigue aside, that can be true. But too often it's a heightened sensitivity to comparative differences rather than to a wine's intrinsic beauty.

Mr. de Montebello should rightly have the last word: "To fully enter into a picture's world and allow it to yield its many different layers of meaning requires at least several minutes—and by the way, several minutes is an eternity in a museum. If you stand for five or six seconds in front of something, you have barely begun to scratch its surface."

Opinion

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