"How can any bottle of wine be worth $200?" (Or whatever figure you choose to name).
It's a question I've been asked countless times and, to be honest, I've always had a hard time dealing with it. Responding, as I have, with my own questions about the relative value for money of pricy designer clothes, sports cars or seats at sporting or entertainment events, has never really seemed to be a satisfactory answer to the question. Either the wine is worth its price tag or it isn't.
But, of course, I've been missing the point. It's not the bottle that's worth the $200; it's the belief by the person who's buying it that they warrant the expenditure. In the words of the famous l'Oreal advertisement, Because I'm worth it.
In 1999, Malcolm Gladwell, author of the Tipping Point and Blink wrote about meeting Ilon Specht, the woman who came up with that slogan four decades ago. Specht, recalled working against the clock in an office full of Mad Men-type males, on a slogan for a hair dye. She remembers feeling increasingly frustrated with her colleagues' approach.
“I was a twenty-three-year-old girl - a woman,” she said. “What would my state of mind have been? I could just see that they had this traditional view of women, and my feeling was that I’m not writing an ad about looking good for men, which is what it seems to me that they were doing. I just thought, Fuck you. I sat down and did it, in five minutes. It was very personal. I can recite to you the whole commercial, because I was so angry when I wroteit.”
Specht sat stock still and lowered her voice: “I use the most expensive hair color in the world. Preference, by L’Oreal. It’s not that I care about money. It’s that I care about my hair. It’s not just the color. I expect great color. What’s worth more to me is the way my hair feels. Smooth and silky but with body. It feels good against my neck. Actually, I don’t mind spending more for L’Oreal. Because I’m” - and here Specht took her fist and struck her chest - ”worth it.”
The feeling of spending one's own money on something for oneself is one of the most important - and often most overlooked of sensations. Writing this, I think of my then-seven-year-old son adamantly insisting on spending his pocket money on a particularly unimpressive plastic toy. The more I tried to argue him out of it, he more he wanted to hand over his five-pound-note to the shopkeeper; the transaction made him feel grown up. And I think of a seminal moment on one of my first trips to Hong Kong when a friend who lives there pointed at a couple waiting for a taxi and said "Those two illustrate something you should know about China."
As I looked across at the object of his attention, he explained, "It's obviously a western boss and his secretary. He's wearing a fake Rolex and is very pleased with himself - at having only paid $100 for something that looks as though it cost thousands. She's his secretary; over her arm, there's a genuine Chanel bag. She's just as pleased with herself at having been able to buy it for herself - with a few weeks' wages of her own money." And then I recall another advertisement that was used by BMW in France in the early 1980s and went something like "What better way to celebrate your 40th birthday?". And finally I remember a friend who always bought expensive new clothes to wear at job interviews - even when she could not remotely afford them: they made her feel worth employing.
Is any of this 100% rational? Of course it isn't. And does that matter? Not a jot. Did most of us choose our home entirely rationally? Or our pet? Or our partner?
The concept of "because you're worth it" certainly applies to Champagne, whether it's a celebratory bottle bought for oneself, or cases of the stuff to serve at a wedding, but far less frequently with other wines in cost-conscious markets like the UK. And I think that's probably because too many wine drinkers actually think to themselves "I'm not worth" the premium bottle because "my palate isn't fine enough to appreciate it".
And this is where rationality has just walked into the room. Saying that I'll never be a skilful enough driver to warrant owning a Ferrari would be a pretty valid reason for not shelling out hundreds of thousands on parking a red stallion in your driveway, but it's not one you often hear. The point is that most potential owners of fast cars imagine themselves to be capable of handling them - because it's an acquirable skill. Wine is more like hi-fi; people imagine that they may genetically lack what what it takes to appreciate the finer qualities that come with spending more money.
The wine world has, if anything, fostered this notion by banging on about the need for education. (If I'm not vinously educated, obviously there's no point in splashing out). And it's done itself no favours by presenting wine experts as people who are not as other mortals. Some of those same experts lived up to this image when they discussed the recent BBC 12 Drinks of Christmasprogramme and focused on the fact that the presenters - an actor/comedian and a restaurant critic - weren't sufficiently qualified fir the task, and got a few things wrong. But the more I think back about the programme the more I reckon that this was part of its appeal: two middle class everymen who told each other - and the audience - that even though they hadn't been to wine school, they were still worth the splashing out of £30 or so on a bottle of red to drink with their Christmas lunch, and a further handful of cash on the vintage port to follow.
If I'm right, maybe the best way to get middle class Brits to dig deeper into their pockets when buying a bottle of wine is to demonstrate that someone like them thinks it's worth doing. ******************** In response to Caroline Gilby's very relevant comment below, I'd add this: Little does more to foster the feelings of unworthiness among non wine people than the professionals' use of terms like "connoisseur", the French "amateur" and "consommateur averti", and even perhaps "wine enthusiast" - a term I often use myself. It's a little like being introduced to a group of self-termed "opera buffs" and wondering how to join their conversation.
I've actually seen proof of the deterrent effect of wine enthusiasm. Until around 10 years ago, I used to work every year at the BBC Good Food Show, a leviathan pre-Christmas event at the Birmingham NEC where tens of thousands of people flocked to see Jamie, Gordon and Rick et al, and do their Christmas shopping. I was based in the Wine Theatre in the wine section, at one end of one of the halls. It was an area where samples were poured generously so one might reasonably have expected it to have been packed with attendees on the quest for free booze. Surprisingly, however, it was always the least crowded part of the show. I remember thinking there seemed to be an invisible beam that kept people out, because they thought it was "not for them". These same people were very evidently wine drinkers - as the Australians proved on their stand on the other side of the line. Surrounded by food, they were overrun by visitors...