Grub Street, the San Francisco food blog, is reporting that “Masa’s, the fine dining staple opened by chef Masataka Kobayashi in 1983, is closing after 30 years.”
Masa’s is, of course, the Michelin-starred, legendarily expensive ($154 five-course wine-and-food tasting menu) restaurant, north of Union Square, that’s lured in generations of foodies. For sheer luxe, it’s had few rivals.
Founder Masataka worked at Auberge du Soleil before launching his eponymous restaurant. He was found murdered in 1984, a crime that has never been solved; subsequent chefs have been a who’s who of culinary superstardom (Julian Serrano, Ron Siegel, Gregory Short). Masa’s wine list was as celebrated as its food.
Why is Masa’s closing? Grub Street blames it on “formal, tablecloth’d fine dining [that] has gone out of fashion.” The San Francisco Chronicle’s “Inside Scoop” food columnist, Paolo Lucchesi, reports that the building’s owner “wants to install a more casual restaurant in the space.”
In San Francisco, many high-end restaurants have shuttered their doors over the years: Trader Vic’s, Stars, Charles Nob Hill, The Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton among others. All were hit by changes in taste that made them victims in the highly-competitive restaurant world, which depends on fickle customers always looking for the next hot spot. In the case of Masa’s, the Great Recession provided the coup de grace that finally put Masa’s out of its misery.
In fact, the continuing effects of the Recession are hurting restaurants nationwide. On Friday, Nation’s Restaurant News reported, via Lewis Perdue’s News Fetch, that “Restaurant operators [are] downbeat as sales, traffic soften.” Of course, this doesn’t mean that high-end restaurants are on the verge of extinction. For every Masa’s that closes, a replacement opens: Hakkasan, The Sea by Alexander’s Steakhouse, Katsu. Local reviewers go wild, and those able and willing to afford them flock to their doors.
Yet you have to wonder, how long will they last? Ten years? Fifteen? Or, like Masa’s, thirty? These numbers seem highly unlikely; a restaurant’s life span is getting shorter, not longer.
Which brings us to the subject of cult wines.
I would imagine that the proprietors of cult wines, especially Napa Valley Cabs, like to think their brands will be around for a long time. After all, Lafite is still here after, what? 700 years? (“the estate was the property of Gombaud de Lafite in 1234” – Alexis Lichine)
But many a Napa cult winery is no longer as culty as it once was. We must assume that some of the famous names in Napa were hit hard during the Recession, and that it was only the owners’ deep pockets that enabled them to hang on. Their hope was that, with recovery would come improved sales, at traditional prices.
Yet are these expensive cults not the wine equivalents of Masa’s, “formal, tablecloth’d” wines that just may be out of step with today’s more casual approach? People, especially younger ones, are looking for things other than show-offy wines: they want wines of interest, of deliciousness, from all over the world, wines that are different and unique and that tell a story and are easy to drink with food. Above all, they want wines that are affordable. I believe that the weltanschauung of wine has shifted irrevocably, due not only to the Recession but to changes in America’s demographics. We are rapidly becoming poorer and less white, changes that cannot bode well for super-expensive wines. In a sense—and I don’t mean to get political here, but it’s just the truth—some of these cult wines are like the Republican Party, out of step with the mainstream of where America is going. That’s why they lost so badly in the 2012 elections, and that’s why cult wines may be endangered in the next ten or twenty years.
Some will survive and even prosper. Brands as powerful and embedded as Screaming Eagle and Harlan Estate likely are the Lafites of Napa Valley, and will be with us for a very long time (assuming their family ownership wishes to continue them). But I have to tell you, there are a lot of Masa’s in Napa Valley—wines that were hugely popular in their day, but are now increasingly anachronistic.
One of the things I’ve been puzzled about is how slow to embrace social media the so-called cult wineries have been in California.
I ask just about every cult proprietor I meet what they’re doing online, and the usual response is a shrug. Sometimes they’re not doing anything. Sometimes they don’t know what they’re doing, because they hired somebody to do it for them and they never even check it out. Maybe they have a web site that hasn’t been refreshed since 2009.
As far as I can tell, too often the proprietor’s attitude toward social media is sort of “I can’t be bothered.” It’s like they feel that going online is a form of peddling — a vulgar hawking of their product, like a late-night infomercial or a cheap clip-out coupon in the Sunday paper.
We now have some insight into this mindset via an article, “Luxury Brands Still Tread Lightly With Social Media,” that appeared in yesterday’s Forbes.com.
The headline telegraphs the main point. I love this quote from a fellow named Jean-Claude Biver, ceo of Hublot, a luxury watch producer (how about $19,500 for the Limited Edition 715.CI.1110.RX for men?). “When you are online,” M. Biver observed, Gallic nose upturned, “you are not exclusive anymore.”
You might wonder why a watch that costs nearly twenty grand wouldn’t be exclusive no matter where you buy it. As it turns out, there’s a reason. It’s provided by a Brit, name of Matt Rhodes, who is described as the social media director for the firm, FreshNetworks London, which advises “high-end travel and fashion companies.” Rhodes explains that people who are going to drop a bundle on a product want more for their money than merely the thing purchased. A lot more. “If you’re going to spend $1,000 on a pair of shoes, you want to have a glass of wine going around, the attention of staff; you want an experience as well…”.
In other words, when the lady is yearning for a pair of Manolo Blahnik Rhinestone Buckle d’Orsays, she doesn’t want to look them up on amazon.com and have them sent in a box through the mail. She wants to walk into Bergdorf’s and be treated right — in an experience that feels “less like [a] sales room and more like [an] intimate venue,” says Rhodes.
Now we get to the nub, not only of why luxury wine producers are reluctant to go online, but why, in fact, people treasure luxury wines in the first place. We need to understand snobbism, or perhaps elitism is a less loaded word. Lots of people who live to show off their cult wines are not…quite…comfortable with the multitudes, who don’t hold their forks correctly and may not have perfectly manicured fingernails. The people who can afford cult wines like to be around other people who can afford cult wines. That implies exclusivity, and what could be less exclusive than social media? Social media lets everybody in, whereas the objective of snobbism is to shut people out. As Rhodes says, pointedly, “[O]n Facebook, you are opening the gates to discussions you don’t [necessarily] want.” Who wants to have a conversation with the underclass? If Rhodes’ fashion designer clients have a new Fall line to present, they’d much rather do it through “[their] own catwalk show where [they] control the invites,” not through some common public platform.
Thus the notions of exclusivity, controlling the environment and maintaining insider status lie at the heart of cult wines. But those notions are inimical to the soul of the Internet. That is why cult wine proprietors are slow to embrace social media. It smashes exclusivity, demolishes the ivory tower, bridges the moat and throws open the gate to anyone who wants in.
So I entirely agree with the reporter who wrote in the Forbes.com article, “…it’s odd that so few resources are invested in reinventing how that product is marketed and delivered on the web…in the luxury sector.” Odd, indeed. And sure to change.