Opinionista Michael Fridjhon 14 November 2013

Rare wines: Top-end wine market prices skyrocket

I like travelling in the pointy end of the plane (who doesn't) - and courtesy of clients, a squillion airline miles, and more gold airline cards than a busker in a saloon, I manage to do this remarkably often. I hasten to add that I also do a fair amount of the alternative, flying in less comfort than a decapitated sardine, and scrumming for the only loo available for the 200 passengers who've had the misfortune of sampling the decaying animal matter we all thought was dinner five hours before.

Under the circumstances, I count myself something of an expert, so a recent flight in the front of an Air France A380 was not only a considerable step up on my lodging of just over a year ago in what may have been the luggage locker of the same plane, but was also something of an eye opener, even by my own, well-travelled standards. It began with an escort waiting for me at check-in.

It continued as I was literally hand-held through security and customs (now I know why Zuma’s cronies have no desire to give up the privileges of VIP status). It persisted through my happily brief experience of the airline’s first class lounge at O R Tambo (an embarrassment by international standards) whereafter I was handed over to the two stewards charged with keeping me and one other passenger happy for the ten hours of the flight. Oh, and it finished in Paris with an escort at the door of the plane, a chauffeur-driven and seamless passage to the arrivals area, a high-speed whisk through passport control and a handover to the taxi queue manager at the exit of the terminal building.

To be clear, nothing beats the speed and efficiency of VIP handling, and I have no moral objection to queue-jumping if it’s built into the price of the ticket. I’m relaxed about foie gras (I worry more about feedlot beef than I do about poultry and the gavage) and I’d rather drink decent Champagne and Burgundy than South American carmenere. I like it when the steward notices that the airline jarmies are badly sized and offers an alternative before I have to point out that without this assistance I’d have to spend the better part of the evening sucking my soup out of the cuffs. I’m delighted to look for a new wine pairing with every course, I could do designer chocolate and espresso anytime, and since I actually know the chief sommelier at Bernard Loiseau, I can actually be quite blasé when dabbing Loiseau Moutarde a la Anethe on my beef tournadoes.

The Air France First Class in the A 380 is a significant step up on what was offered to passengers (guests?) on the same airline’s 747s a few years back. It beats fairly recent sharp-end-of-the-plane experiences on Cathay, Qantas and BA. It’s not perfect, and if you could cherry-pick you’d take the caviar from Cathay, the wine from BA (or Cathay for that matter) and the lounge experience from Qantas or Qatar. Except for the convenience of managing your own timetable, it makes intercontinental travel in a Falcon or Gulfstream the hospitality equivalent of Holiday Inn versus Four Seasons or Relais & Chateaux.

The same elevated experience is available to wine drinkers wishing to substitute Salon or Cristal for Moet & Chandon. In the past month or two (mainly courtesy of extraordinarily generous friends) I have been fortunate enough to indulge in the vinous equivalent of Air France’s A 380. Romanee-Conti, Petrus, Lafite, Mouton, Latour, Yquem, La Romanee, La Tache, Margaux, Grange, Montrachet and Corton Charlemagne have all fallen victim to my capacity for excess. This may sound like notches on the gun barrel for their own sake, but I was the hapless recipient of the largesse of others, so all I could do was yield to temptation (and help to minimise wastage.)

Super-indulgent fine wine drinking shares much in common with super-deluxe flying. The first and most obvious similarity is that unless you are light years above the breadline, you wouldn’t pay for it yourself, rand for rand, no airline miles’ upgrades allowed. No matter how much you care for your creature comforts, no matter what you are ready to spend on oral gratification, the numbers beggar the imagination of all but the super-rich. Secondly, rationally, neither makes sense: if the object of the exercise is to get from A to B, why spend ten times what someone else is paying to be in the same plane just for the comfort and indulgence. Likewise if the purpose of a meal is nourishment and a glass or two of good wine, you can do that at one hundredth of the cost.

However, this is not about need (as Lear might have said), nor is it necessarily some kind of macho game. Since you can’t take it with you, parsimony for its own sake has no real virtue. If you have something you would rather do with your money – philanthropy, fast cars, white powder or collecting toby jugs – be my guest. But if this is how you want to indulge, it’s perhaps more useful to look at the differences than the similarities. First class flying gets better and better, and relatively speaking, costs less and less (which may be why so many airlines are abandoning it in favour of an improved business class offering.) When I first flew in the front of the plane (over 30 years ago) there were no flat-bed seats. There may have been more caviar (that was before the Cites ban) but otherwise the food-and-drink was only a marginal step up on decent canteen fare.

The top end of the fine wine market, on the other hand, has seen scarily exponential price inflation. When I was a student teaching extra maths for pocket money, I could convert two hours of work into 30-year-old bottle of La Tache. Today an equally mature bottle of the same wine would cost R40k. Put another way – two bottles of 1990 La Tache sell for much the same price as a first class return flight between Johannesburg and Paris on Air France. In 1973 you could have bought 3 – 4 dozen bottles of La Tache from the best vintages of the 1940s for the cost of a return flight between Johannesburg and Europe in the sharp end of the plane.

This tells us that luxury is costing proportionately less and rarity disproportionately more. It also reveals that the number of consumers chasing the icon wines at the very top of the market has increased dramatically, whereas the items on their shopping lists has remained largely the same, a function as much of site/terroir as long-established reputation. It also tells us that the people pursuing these wines are unencumbered by the restraint and prudence (induced by the Great Depression and the war years) which characterises the way people brought up in the 1950s think about spending on transient pleasures. With the wounds made by the global financial crisis still open and fresh, we’re a long way off understanding the scars they will leave – but it may be worth betting that the price of super-collectable wine will not continue to move inexorably upwards. DM

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