Vanity, maybe not so fair
I’d followed, vaguely, the advent of the Kenzo project in Napa Valley. It was said to be one of the most expensive winery launches ever, at $100 million maybe the most expensive. Tsujimoto Kenzo was said to be a Japanese video game publisher with a gazilllion bucks. He wanted a luxe Napa winery, and so he bought one the old-fashioned way: he hired the biggest guns in the valley. There was his consulting winemaker, Heidi Barrett. His viticulturalist, David Abreu (called “grower to the stars” in this article in the San Francisco Chronicle). Kenzo even got Thomas Keller to do his tasting room food.
Thomas Keller?!?! Yes. A wine-paired lunch will cost $60 per person.
My first reaction was one of horror. Another vanity project. Just what we need at the tail end of this Recession, with so many people hurting. Look, I’ve always had a popular, working class streak. It comes from my background as a kid from the hardscrabble mean streets of The Bronx. I’ve been exposed for a long time to the über-rich wine country lifestyle, but am never quite comfortable in its milieu. And the more über the rich, the more suspect it is in my eyes. Think Ecclesiastes 1:2. “Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity.”
I know and respect some of the people behind this project. Michael Terrien [formerly of Hanzell, and now winemaker at Kazmer & Blaise, Molnar Family and Obsidian Ridge], is general manager. Both he and Barrett have their own chapters in my last book, New Classic Winemakers of California: Conversations with Steve Heimoff. I don’t know Mr. Abreu. He probably would have made it into my book, but never returned what I remember as multiple phone messages I left for him. Maybe he felt he didn’t need to be in a book, even one as lovely and with as great a longevity as “Conversations.” As for Chef Keller, well, I feel like I know him, because I’ve eaten his food. Mmmm. Oysters and Pearls at French Laundry.
So I was going to write something scathingly snarky about this project, but then I thought to myself, Self, why don’t you give Michael Terrien a call first? Michael is one of the nicest people in the industry. Nothing uppity about him at all. A mensch. A man of respect, a first-rate mind. I told him I was going to write some possibly unkind things about the Kenzo project. And why not? It’s what I think, and it’s my blog. Michael thought it over, then said, “Why don’t we have a debate? You can ask the question, ‘Is luxe dead?’, and I’ll say it isn’t.”
So here is an edited transcript of my conversation with Michael Terrien over whether or not Kenzo is an obnoxious, ostentatious vulgarity.
SH: Isn’t luxury dead? I mean, at this time in the nation’s history, do we, or Napa, really need yet another project like this?
MT: As scary as the recession is, there’s no way it’s changing human nature. We will still purchase the wines, clothes, cars, and even the tattoos* that are part of our community and define us in our community.
[* ED: Yes, Michael knows I got a tattoo.]
By “define us in our community,” you mean a rich guy in Los Altos Hills gets to show off these cult wines to his peers in his community.
That’s one side of the response. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I don’t believe all people who purchase expensive bottles do so to show off. I might be satisfied with an inexpensive bottle of wine, whereas others might feel they only can get quality by spending a lot of money on a bottle of wine.
But that’s the whole problem, isn’t it? If these people understood reality, they’d know it’s not true that you can only get a good wine by spending a lot of money. They perceive everything through the lens of money, of how much it costs.
You, Steve, can get quality at a lower price, but as we know, wine quality is subjective and is perceived differently by different people. So what defines quality for you is different from what is defined as quality by another fellow, and that definition might include price.
If that’s true, that would mean if you gave that fellow the wine and he didn’t know the price, he would be unable to comment on the quality.
That’s a rational conclusion, but the point I prefer to make is, with the knowledge that a wine costs more, there’s perhaps more scrutiny that the purchaser applies to the wine. For anyone who knows what the wine costs, it will heighten the experience.
In other words, you’re saying that when they know this wine costs a lot of money, they’re not even tasting the wine! They’re tasting a thought in their brain that tells them, because the wine is expensive, it must taste good.
That’s a simplification. If the wine isn’t good, no matter how much money the wine costs, they’ll still think it’s not good.
Well, the reply is obvious: Most of the time, it’s not a question of good and not good. Most wine is good. We’re talking about gradations of good. You can get plenty of 92 point wines for $24.
That’s true, and it’s exactly what Kenzo recognizes. He’s studied wines from Bordeaux and Napa that are as expensive as they get, and feels that the quality he can serve at $75 [price of Kenzo’s “Rindo” Bordeaux blend] is comparable. [The winery also produces two ultra-low production red wines, each of which costs $150.]
If the economy hadn’t collapsed, would Rindo have been released at a higher price?
I don’t know. Kenzo’s pleasure is to be finally in the position of sharing what he’s so proud of establishing with David, Heidi and Thomas. It’s accessibility he’s so proud of.
You mean accessibility to the public, at $75?
Yes. It’s a fair price in any economy, in the context of David and Heidi and the effort put into making the wine.
[Steve again] So there you have it. I’d like to know what you think. Some questions to consider: Is Kenzo a vanity project? Does this help or harm Napa’s reputation? Is $75 a fair price for a Barrett-Abreu collaboration? [I, personally, have not yet reviewed the Kenzo wines.] What does “quality” mean anyhow? Should we be impressed when we know that a wine comes from the “grower to the stars” or the winemaker from Screaming Eagle?