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Vanity, maybe not so fair

37 comments

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?

Just asking.

  1. In a world where Phelps can make 20,000 cases of $200+ Insignia and everyone and his brother in the Napa Valley seems able to make $75 Cab and get away with it, I would think the measure of “Rindo” would be how good it is.

    Do we need another $75 Napa Cab? Do we need any $75 Napa Cabs, for that matter? Of course not, but critics judge quality and when critics find quality and people want to buy quality, $75 does not seem outrageous relative to where the market is and the people involved–IF the wine quality is there. I will let you know when I taste it. :-}

  2. To be honest, I was surprised by the $75 price. It seems awfully low for a new producer. In fact, it’s probably below that of many producers who have worked hard for decades to get their price point there. Usually new producers start at the top and wait for reality to sink in that the only people who pay that money are point chasers and they are stuck until Parker drops a 98-100 on them.

    But yes, this is still a vanity wine. Consulting winemakers certainly bring a wealth of knowledge and experience. But realistically, how intimately can they know the terroir of dozens of properties? It’s the little things that matter, and they only come from experience with a certain terroir, IMHO. The fruit may be of great quality but at best it is still an expression of a consultant’s style.

  3. (1) The price is in line with other Napa Cabs with a similar pedigree. (2) Any project no matter how ostentatious helps our economy by employing people etc. (3) Quality is what the reviewer of WE says it is since the magazine has chosen him to determine quality for its wide range of readers.

  4. It just cracks me up, these projects that you read about (thanks, steve, for sharing this), who think they’re doing something “new.” i don’t get it. with no true wine vision, just relying on those who’ve already done the work, all you get is another label swimming in the sea of sameness. weird.

  5. Stephen Hare says:

    Steve,

    A business is usually started in this country in order for someone to generate a financial profit. With a $100 million investment, one must wonder how long it will take Kenzo to break even or realize a profit. Maybe the winery is simply for investment reasons and he plans to sell the operation down the road. Perhaps the winery is be used as a method to defer his lifestyle costs.

    But if obtaining a profit from the investment is not the goal, then the reason the winery exists is strictly to satisfy ones ego. All associated PR hype cannot hide that fact. In the final anaylsis, only the winery owner really knows the truth.

  6. From the articles I have read it sounds like the owner is making the wine for himself. Sure it is kind of vain but the fact is he has plenty of money and for some the pleasure is in the challenge. Take some of the best growers, winemakers and managers in the valley and see how far you can go with the project in a spare no expense situation. Much like building a top end sports car or custom designer home. Maybe he just enjoys the process and the challenge.

  7. Stephanie, this is a very interesting part of the wine industry to me, the illusion of uniqueness. If you have wine being made in lots of new oak by the same group of consulting winemaker Parker has blessed using the same Rutherford vineyards, hoe truly different is each label? I’m not arguing against terroir differences like mountain vs. valley, north vs. south, or against vintage. Those are all important. But for each set of variables (mountain, north Napa, hot vintage) there are usually dozens of iterations. Poured side by side, sure some are better than others, some do taste different. If you choose only one, though, what do you miss out on? Not much it, probably. It’s made doubly boring by the fact the owners just sit in the McChateau with their name label while other people do the work for them. Real vintners actually do some work. These people are more like feudal lords.

  8. The same arguments can be made against all luxury goods; automobiles, watches, perfume, fashionable clothing–but rarely are. Why does your wine have to have perfect value for money when your Mercedes quite obviously doesn’t?
    I say let aspirants to luxury have what they want. There is no one forcing over-priced wine down your throats.

  9. What’s wrong with a vanity project? No is being forced to buy these wines at gunpoint. No public monies were used to construct the winery (as far as I know). The guy will pay property and other taxes, and employ people.

    Maybe no one will buy it. Maybe it will be a hit. But the “vanity” or “non-vanity” of a winery owner seems irrelevant. I’d love to see your list of which wineries fall into each category, Steve, so I can avoid the vain ones.

    There will always be people who buy the most expensive stuff simply because it is (just like there are people who will only drink 90+ point wines). And there will always be people who choose value over conspicuous consumption.

    That’s my $0.02.

  10. You can buy quality, but you can’t buy uniqueness.

  11. I had a revelation when reading this earlier today: People who buy expensive wines just because they are expensive are not doing so to buy “the best” wines, but are paying more for their libation as a hedge against buying a “bad” wine. There may indeed be a homogeneity to Napa Cabs at price points of $75 and up – really, how many angels can dance on the head of that particular pin? – but in my experience none of them are outright “bad.” Honestly this had not occurred to me before. Duh. D’oh!

    BTW – Steve I think vanity and ego drive every winery project to some extent – no matter the size or cost. At least until the corporate suits take over and crush the life out of it, anyway.

  12. John, I taste a lot more of those wines than you do (I think), and I can tell you, some of them are bad! However, that being said, it’s true that there are many more bad wines at the lower price point than at the higher. And the lower you go, the more flawed the wines are. That’s not exactly earth shaking news, though…been that way forever.

  13. HOW TO BE A MILLIONAIRE IN THE WINE BUSINESS
    First start with $100 million . . .
    So the guy has more money than anyone in Napa. At least winemaking is a worthy pursuit and he was smart enough to bring in some major talent. Several of Heidi’s own bottlings at her La Sirena label sell for more than $75 and having tasted all of them, they’re all great. I’m happy to pay for them. Besides she’s a really down-to-earth winemaker that was just as surprised as anyone when Screaming Eagle did what it did. I think it was a smart move to get her on the project; look at who’s creating PR for the label already.

    And I agree that for many people another $75 CA Cab is difficult to support but if it’s good wine, it’s a lot easier on the bank account, dollar for dollar, than Bordeaux or Burgundy. What I object to is any $75 CA Cab that doesn’t fare as well as some $15 or $20 wines. There are numerous wines that truly have no reason to exist from every single wine region in the world and while I’d rather not have the market clutter out there, if Kenzo makes a great wine, maybe it will help eliminate some of that clutter.

    By the way Steve, please check your email and/or spam box. Otherwise I’ll know what it feels like to be snubbed like you felt with Mr. Abreu. Thanks -

    David Boyer
    Classof1855.com

  14. Steve there is no question that you do – though the years I ran the wine lab I think I probably tasted more bad ones! It’s not revelatory that there are more bad wines at lower price points. What occurred to me for the first time is that the desire to spend more for a wine is not necessarily a desire to purchase a particular quality. Sure it is for some – that’s what drives me to spend more anyway. I just suddenly saw that, for people who can afford to drink $75+ wines regularly, perhaps what is driving the decision is just avoidance of badness or the perception of badness: “if I spend x at least the wine won’t suck, because nobody would charge x for a wine that sucked, right?”

  15. David, I check my email all the time! But not my spam box. Maybe I should. If I ever “snub” you, let me know. It’s not intentional.

  16. tannic says:

    Great blog, Steve. This is a topic that sparks great comments and is truly the ideal reason for a blog. Not that your other topics fall short, but this one is timely and apropos.

    Years ago, I felt a similar tinge when Auberge du Soleil was adding 2500 SF cabanas and the 7000 SF spa. When I asked of the necessity to build such things, the GM responded, “Well, Barbara Streisand needs a place to stay, too.” I feel the same way about Kenzo’s project.

  17. I don’t think luxe is dead. Sure, it is market segment that is shrinking. The point here is that with demand in the $75+ shrinking, it is unhealthy for the competitors to deal with multi millionaire “street fighter 2″ creators who pour money like it’s Pinot. A winery like this can buy market share, thus reducing market share for everyone else, not good when the size of the market is shrining…

  18. For $75 I’ll take two bottles of Obsidian Ridge Cabernet, thanks

  19. Although the vineyard has no track record and, according to the website, “Rindo” is not even guaranteed to be made entirely with estate grown grapes, Mr. Kenzo is basically selling a “griffe”; endorsed by Mr. Abreu’s and Mrs. Barrett’s prestige and exceptional track record.
    And at this point I agree with John Kelly; luxury goods, made with the best available factors, create an expectation, almost a guarantee, of quality in the consumers mind.

  20. Hi Steve,

    Thanks for your response. I sent you an email to ask for permission to use a picture of you, as I added your site to my blog roll and posted information about you. I don’t like taking a chance using copyrighted photos without permission and then have someone show up with a subpoena someday – statutory damages are high and the threshold is pretty low to make the infringement determination. Anyhow please check the blog when you get a second at http://blog.classof1855.com/.

    Merci beaucoup!

    David
    Classof1855.com

  21. If you wanted to get into the automobile business and you goal was to make a car that was the equivalent of a BMW 5 or Mercedes E, would you hire someone who has a track record of making cars like that or would you hire the makers of the Yugo?

    I don’t see the problem here. Did we criticize Quintessa, did we criticize Opus One? The number of super-rich folks who build or buy expensive wineries in their own honor in the Napa Valley numbers in the hundreds. This is an old story.

  22. And a slightly different take on this story. Yesterday, sales figures came out for CA wine. The entire category is up 9.4%.

    The leading price category is wine over $20. It was up almost 20%–more than any other price point.

    The expensive end of the industry is by no means out of the woods, but the data certainly suggest that the rumors of winery deaths have been greatly exaggerated.

  23. Morton Leslie says:

    One can argue that a $100 million dollar vanity winery in the Napa Valley is no different than a $100 million dollar vanity hospital in Port au Prince. Both employ people and fill a need. There may be a difference in the kind of benefit the two alternatives bring to the lives of the locals. There are times that I am proud of the honest beauty that the hard work by laborers in the vineyard and the craft in the winery bring to a bottle. At other times I am put off by it.

  24. David, thanks. More later. Gotta run.

  25. Steve: Have you tasted the wine?

  26. Blake: quote, from my post: “I, personally, have not yet reviewed the Kenzo wines.”

  27. Lorrie S. LeBeaux says:

    Lux is always going to be around; look at the wall “street bunch” who got big checks off the backs of regular folks like me. They can buy what they want and how much of whatever product they want; and let’s face it, wine consumption still has an aristocratic perception to beer drinkers even if the bottle costs $15.00. Maybe it is the stemmed glasses! So, if they can afford this project in a recession, right on! I just know you can have a good bottle of wine and not have spent your light bill money!

  28. Oh, sorry, I didn’t see that disclosure in the very last paragraph.

    If you do taste it, will you taste it blind with other similar wines?

  29. $75 price a little low? Maybe.

    expensive wine

  30. Blake: Of course.

  31. Morton Leslie says he is, at times, put off by the successful labors that result in good wines. He does not say which wineries in the Napa Valley or what percentage of them or what the circumstances are of such wines.

    Morton never responds to questions so we will never know what he is talking about, but, unless Morton thinks that all wineries should be owned by farmers, be small and be priced not at market levels but at supermarket levels, we will never know how many Staglins, Phelps, Sattuis, Coppolas, Tim and Mike Mondavi, Dan Duckhorns, even Randy Dunns and Chuck Wagners he is put off by and what standards he is employing in making that statement.

    There are, today, very few wineries in the Napa Valley, that are not either corporately owned or the products of wealthy persons’ spending of their pocket change. Sure, they exist. But the majority look more like Kenzo than they do like Casa Nuestra or Anomaly.

  32. Steve, I agree with other posters that $75 is actually surprisingly low for a “vanity” project of this nature. And also that most of these high-paid consultant projects do taste alike. An exception for me is Kapcsandy – they started with the dirt, and they got really good dirt. And though a $100M winery project is not chump change, it will in fact employ people, which is a plus, and entertain others, which is also a plus. I suspect the owners want to enter Napa society at the highest possible level, and $$$ is their best port of entry. So be it. To put all this in a little different perspective, today’s Seattle Times reports that Paul Allen is downsizing his yacht fleet by putting his smaller “commuter” yacht, the 303-foot Tatoosh, up for sale. Asking price: around $172 million. Probably has a decent wine cellar on board.

  33. Paul, I dunno, I read this stuff and it’s like Nero fiddling while Rome’s burning.

  34. Steve, can you define further what you mean by “Rome is burning”. In an economic downtown, there are always winners and losers. Look at Ford Motor Company gaining market share to the point that it has becom profitable even in the midst of the worst economy in decades.

    I know that some folks have failed and others will, but there are over 3,000 bonded wineries and another 2,000 labels ranging from negotiants to labels with bond offering wines from rented space, sometimes in custom crush facilities.

    If 500 of them fail, it will be ten percent, which is not pleasant but not the death of the industry. How about if only 100 fail? That 2%.

    How bad does “fiddling while Rome burns” imply in the long run?

  35. Charlie, I meant “fiddling” in relation to the larger economy. I am pessimistic. Like you, I don’t see widespread failure in the California wine industry. But what does either of us know? We’re just guessing. Events seem out of control, and the slightest thing can set off a crescendo of panic, as happened last week with the stock markets.

  36. Steve, it’s all good when dollars spent on video gaming, in turn, go to supporting value added California agriculture. After all, the Kenzo project is just this decade’s Hanzell project.

  37. This is a new US wine but Tsujimoto bought Wild Horse Valley Ranch in ’90. I remember because I used to ride there (and was not happy when the ranch closed and when it was on the market someone wanted to build a big hotel/resort, I think).
    It is fantastically beautiful. A lot of good mountain scrub. Reminds me, now that I think about it, of the garrigue landscape not far from Montpellier (FR) where Tim Mondavi wanted to create a fascinating pattern of blocks of vineyards and of Kaj Ahlman’s Six Sigma Ranch & winery in Lake – Kenzo is along more or less the same rugged side of Napa; rocky mountains that lead to chalk and (hopefully dormant) volcanos in Lake.
    Not unlike Ahlman and Guenoc, Tsujimoto has 70 acres (plus 30 more to come) on 4,000 acres (numbers from Pierce Carson’s story in Register). I’d bet there’s virgin land, serpentine, and native grasses and plants up there (I was too busy with the horse to notice specifics other than snakes…).
    Of course, Steve, there is retail price, there are economies, and there are follies. But, terroir and taste aside, isn’t there the beauty of preservation in these bottles of wine?

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