Opinionista Michael Fridjhon 23 January 2014

Drink more, drink better

I gave up New Year's resolutions long ago – probably when I realised that, despite what I fondly imagined were my most resolute good intentions, my weight increased inexorably in the weeks following the festive season. This doesn't mean that I don't think about what I would like to commit to doing, if only it required less effort than a diet. This year I came up with something which seems eminently achievable, and worth sharing.

It is widely believed, at least wherever pundits comment on trends at the top end of the fine wine market, that well-heeled punters everywhere are drinking less, and drinking better. The message is clear: you can upgrade your consumption on the same budget if you are willing to reduce the volume, and aim for quality.

There’s nothing wrong with this as an idea, except that – as far as I can tell – there’s very little appeal in reducing the volume of wine that you consume. This smacks of the puritanism that puts diets and detox regimes in the same category as ultra-marathons, horse-hair shirts and arctic swims. Given the choice, I’d rather vote for Ju Ju, or maybe even JZ. For all the good intentions of the drink-less brigade, why would anyone want to consume less wine? If you were looking for a slogan for a new (political) party and your ad agency came back with two options viz. “Drink Less, but Drink Better” or “Drink More and Drink Better” you wouldn’t have to go to market research to work out which would have the greater appeal.

Out there I can already hear the voices of rational dissent beginning to grumble at this logic: of course, they are saying, if your budget were infinite you could achieve the double jackpot of an increase in delivery without a commensurate increase in price. I’m tempted to respond that in South Africa this has long been the logic of the ruling elite. Where else except in Cloud-Cuckoo-Land would any political party promise to raise the minimum wage and raise employment at the same time?

It is, of course, possible to drink more and drink better – as long as you are ready to spend more money. This is not as hare-brained as it sounds, and it is vastly more rational than most of the proposals politicians will be subjecting us to over the next few months. There will be some constraints (unless you have the resources of a Russian oligarch), but no real impediments to people with at least some discretionary spending power.

Let us, for the purposes of this discussion, assume that your average spend on a bottle of wine is R100 and you consume five bottles per week, or R2,000 per month. This means that your monthly wine budget is far less than you are spending on your car (taking account of repayments, wear and tear, fuel etc). Of course, I hear you say, the car is not a discretionary expense – especially in a country with a public transport system a little more primitive than the one used by the ancient Aztecs. But this is not entirely true: a significant number of South Africans are indefensibly indulgent when it comes to their choice of vehicle (or cellphone, or sound system, or brand of clothing, or supermarket chain). Even when it comes to relatively essential purchases consumers with at least some discretionary spending power exercise an element of choice. The higher up the food chain you are, the more obviously indulgent you are likely to be.

It’s an interesting feature of the propensity of the well-to-do to spend money that it tends to be most visible on the big ticket items – such as cars (Mercs and BMWs rather than perfectly serviceable vehicles of oriental origin) and class of travel. I remember a discussion with a friend who would only travel in First or Business Class but who was outraged at the price of sojourn at Singita – widely regarded as one of the top five travel experiences in the world. I pointed out that if he had been prepared to make one of his European return trips in the back of the plane he could allocate the saving to at least three nights at one of the lodges voted best destination in the world by the readers of the international edition of Conde Nast Traveller.

He simply could not see the logic. In his mind there could never be a trade-off between a few uncomfortable hours getting from A to B (replete with the exchange of ungracious cabin crew in place of those trained in managing brittle egos) and 72 hours in the most extraordinary surroundings in the Sabi Sand. I suspect that the importance of class of travel loomed large in his life, whereas the premium that he had to pay to enjoy this was treated simply as a form of taxation.

The problem is that people view their expenses in silos – Rx for wine, Ry for a car, Rz for a holiday home. Some of these expenses are elevated to the realm of essentials (until the breadwinner is retrenched and then suddenly the BMW or the jet-ski no longer seem so important). They never look across from one silo to the next. But actually, all indulgences (as opposed to necessities) should really be contained in the same budget. If you want to drink really smart Champagne twice a week – a decision which will give you more than 100 hours of real pleasure over the course of the year – then make a conscious choice to fly in the back of the plane for just one return trip, and you’ll have more than enough money to do so.

My New Year’s decision (please note the absence of the word “resolution”) is thus very affordable and perfectly achievable, even without the kind of alchemy the ANC inclines towards whenever financial matters have to be discussed. It’s a straightforward investment in happiness, based on the entirely rational assumption that certain pleasures are approximately equal, so that more time spent enjoying any one in that class of indulgence is a better deal than enjoyment of shorter duration. Since an extraordinary amount of my year is spent with a glass of wine in my hand, the logic is unassailable. Anyone for sushi? DM

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