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Drinking Out Loud

Faux Luxury or the Real Thing?

What’s the difference and why does it matter?
Matt Kramer insists it takes consumer involvement to distinguish between quality wines and those that are merely expensive.
Photo by: Jon Moe
Matt Kramer insists it takes consumer involvement to distinguish between quality wines and those that are merely expensive.

Matt Kramer
Posted: February 17, 2015

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?

Troy Peterson
Burbank, CA —  February 17, 2015 4:18pm ET
Oooh, ouch! My wife and I eschew what we feel are "faux luxury" venues (especially in Napa) in favor of those that offer genuine value, even if they are expensive by most measures. I started working for my father at 10 years of age for 25 cents/hour (and I'm 46 now), so I appreciate a good QPR in my wines/food/lodging.

I must applaud your valor in taking on Auction Napa Valley and its participants, although you probably won't get many invitations to future events from the luxury vampires whose hearts have just been run through by your rational spike. It's okay, I have good wine to share and I live in Burbank, CA. Drop by and I'll make up for any loss!
Thomas Bartlett
Ocean Grove NJ —  February 17, 2015 4:59pm ET
Matt I agree with your definition of luxury but would like to add one concept. Luxury also has to provide a benefit or value that you can not get from things that are not luxury items. A $100 steak at an exclusive steak house that is the same steak I would get at a chain restaurant, cooked no better, then it is not luxury. If I pay $1000 for cotton sheets with a fancy designed name on it made in very low volume offered to a small select group that is the same sheets I can get for $50 at Macy's then it is not luxury no matter how expensive or rare. Closer to a rip-off. You see this in designer jewelry a lot. I have a friend who will pay hundreds of dollars for a plain leather bracelet with a small semi-precious stone set in the middle because he is the newest rage designed being talked about on the NY Times fashion page. That is not luxury just because it is rare and expensive.
I think we see a lot of this fake luxury in wine frankly. The low production current "talk of the town" expensive bottle that you guys and Parker rate 89 or 90. Not luxury but rather a fools purchase. Thanks to your reviews the more clear-eyed rational buyer can get 10 bottles of egually good wine for the same amount of money.
Napa Valley Vintner Assoc
Napa, CA —  February 17, 2015 5:50pm ET
Matt - Thank you for your commentary and for giving us the opportunity to remind your readers that the goal of Auction Napa Valley is to raise money for healthcare and children’s education in our community. As a result of the Auction’s evolution, we’ve been able to have an even greater impact. There is a direct correlation between these changes and the increase in revenues – all of which go to support our nonprofit agencies. We’ve now invested more than $145 million in healthcare and children’s education programs in Napa County, making a genuine difference in the lives of those who need assistance. If that’s a byproduct of “faux luxury,” is that such a bad thing? We don’t happen to think so, nor do the 90,000 clients who receive much-needed services each year, thanks to the generosity of our vintners and bidders.
Joshua Sun
Mountain View, CA —  February 17, 2015 5:53pm ET
I'm a huge fan of your articles but this one fell a bit flat for me.

A luxury is something you don't need and it also implies a level of quality beyond the norm. The opposite of a luxury would be a necessity. And the implied opposite of a luxury would be something that is a piece of crap.

To me, whether something can be scaled up or down doesn't determine if it is a luxury. Apple can make as many iPhones as it wants. BMW can make as many cars as it wants.

Also knowledge and learning is not necessary for something to be a luxury. A person who knows nothing about wine but buys a bottle of DRC purely to show off is in possession of a luxury item. The item itself is a luxury item regardless of the knowledge or effort of the person in possession of it.

There can be debates about whether something is worth its price or whether people buy things purely to show off rather than to appreciate the item itself. But to me an item is either a luxury item or it isn't but it's not tied to the buyer.
Quek Li Fei
Singapore —  February 17, 2015 10:10pm ET
An thought provoking article. The conundrum applies to most if not all other luxury products and commodities, including handbags, shoes, suits and cars, for example. Also, real luxury implies that a product is scarce in quantity and high in intrinsic quality, thus because of relentless demand vs limited supply, pushes up its market price. A luxury item is also something that most of us aspire to possess but frankly, rarely ever need. So, it's a Want to Have opposed to a Need to Have, although I would concede that for quite a few persons who have the financial where with all and who are into conspicuous spending, the line between the two states gets blurred.
Daniel Greathouse
Ohio & Kentucky —  February 18, 2015 6:33pm ET
Dear Mr. Kramer,
In light of the fact that you penned one of the greatest phrases in the history of wine journalism (regarding the ultimate production goal of Stoney Hill Chardonnay and, ironically a true luxury), I’ll not suggest you enjoy 6 months of fishing with Brian Williams to help you re-align your inner compass. Indeed, I’m sure this will be one of those moments when you look back in twenty years and laugh at the folly of good ideas and intentions. It must have been a shock when the world recoiled at your tossing of the recipients of Napa healthcare and education under the bus.
Congratulations; you’ve done it! You’ve managed to urinate-off everyone in the free world and probably quite a few members of AQAP as well. You’ve provided countless hours of party fun and parlor games as wine lovers disambiguate your ill-fated clever intentions. Here’s a premise: there is great relativity to true luxury: A soft sheet may be luxurious whether you experience it for the first time or if you’ve known the sensation throughout your entire life. Its cost is immaterial as it may have been borne by a host or borne by the owner of the sheet. It can be a personal experience and have no bearing on how many other people in the world enjoy similar comfort. cf: the luxury of a good marriage, a good dog or both.
Everybody has their “zone”… I’m puzzled at the Bordeaux/Napa comparison in that your reference to “luxury luster” begs the difference of very shiny rhinestones versus well-polished old silver; one for the nouveau riche and one for the old school; and to each, his own. As to comparing specifically the classified-growths to Napa, I can’t imagine a greater expression of scarcity than the complete removal of Chateau Latour from en primeur sale and can’t imagine which (equally) delicious Napa wines could command a price near that of the eventual future releases from Mr. Pinault.
Apparently, Mr. Kramer, you’ve never tried to eat at La Brasserie Bordelaise or La Tupiña or you’d have a better feel for their queues and how the world feels about the young chefs and restaurateurs of Bordeaux. One could eat a dozen times at Yountville’s brilliant French Laundry before you could hope to experience the true luxury of Pressoir d’Argent (hopefully the opportunity will reemerge for those who may have missed it, or El Bulli) and no chef or foodie would argue that the experience of Duck-on-Spit (subtle reference to journalist feeling heat) at La Tupiña is a great culinary luxury albeit not outrageous in currency (same with La Brasserie Bordelaise). Le Gabriel, L’Univerre, Le Chapon Fin, Cordeillan-Bages …all brilliant Bordeaux destinations, whether old-school luxe or avant-garde/hipster, with a global queue, waiting patiently for a seat…someday; any day.
Carrying the Bordeaux/Napa comparison to lodgings, taking nothing away from amazing Napa hospitality, you’d have to admit Hostellerie de Plaisance is otherworldly brilliant and le Grand Hotel de Bordeaux is full-on luxe as well as sexy, smart, exotic and extremely comfortable.
A bit of your comparison of true luxury/faux luxury seems to revolve around price and production levels and I’m not sure how you equate the delicious wines of Screaming Eagle and Harlan to the limited production and much higher prices of yummy Le Pin or Petrus… No heavy bottles, fancy labels, limited editions or scalable production here; is one more truly luxurious than the other? Let’s move along folks.
It seems the real focus of your article might have been what’s sometimes referred to as “McLuxury”… a division, I imagine, of McMansions. In this light, you are spot on with non-luxurious products marketed to the wannabe set with loads of hype (although if it makes them feel good, who am I to say?).
It would be hard to argue the luxury of bespoke clothing, but the magic isn’t in the personal measurements…ask the artisan craftspeople in London’s Gieves and Hawkes or Chicago’s Oxxford clothing…it’s in every detail from the raising of the wool through the final hand-stitching of the buttonhole; just like fine and great wine.
Thank you, Mr. Kramer, for your wordsmithing. You add great enjoyment to my daily cup and, barring an occasional train wreck, you are a great credit to your profession. Thank you for your involvement and interest in the subject-at-hand.
Hugh L Sutherland Jr-m
owens cross road,al 35763 —  February 19, 2015 12:18pm ET
Congratulations! I do not know any of your articles that has caused more BS to be written. There is a difference in luxurious and luxury. A person drinking a bottle of Caymus Select may think the wine is luxurious but since he can afford Screaming Eagle, he would not think the Caymus a luxury. To me drinking a bottle of J Pinot Noir is luxurious whereas a bottle of KB Pinot a luxury. Whether an item is luxurious or a luxury, is in the eye of the beholder and what he can afford. If a person wants to buy what I consider a money-making ripoff (estate bottled, select bottling, single vineyard, etc.), then it is his right to bask in what he considers a "luxury".
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst, Il —  February 20, 2015 2:51pm ET
Whatever one's opinion of Mr. Kramer's writings, one must at the very least commend him for raising myriad issues. In this piece alone he touches on luxury as it applies to wine, how to identify wines of quality, and (perhaps) unintentionally, political issues. Ironically, in his never-ending pursuit of defining authenticity, a trail of "faux" intentions sometimes seems to creep in.

Luxury is a seductive topic indeed, and as Hugh S. points out, quite relative. So, my answer is to take a glass of Chateau Trottevieille 2000 by the fire and luxuriate.

Lisa Feltis-german
Bozeman, Mt., USA —  February 28, 2015 3:57pm ET
Thank you Matt, for addressing the 800 lb. gorilla in retail wine marketing. While responses have crossed over into political / socio-economic / societal & regional pride (Bordeaux), the fact remains; many wine producers, marketers & retailers drive the 'luxury' component of, at it's core, a naturally occurring beverage. Consumers are complicit - without them, there would be no such category. Case in point; a fantastic wine @ $10/btl is offered (retail), only to come up against 'it can't be good, it's too cheap'. Hand to forehead, hot poker to eye...it's almost more difficult to talk such customers down than up. Would just add regarding Auction Napa Valley comments - your point is taken, however a leveraged inclusion of what the proceeds represent for a marginalized community (without whom the wines of Napa would be less, by far) would have been fair.

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