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The embarrassment of the rich when it comes to wine



While we’re on the subject of Bill Harlan (and we have been lately), you may know that he’s a partner in something called The Napa Valley Reserve, an ultra-high end sort of wine club you have to buy your way into to get the wine. And we’re not talking about a small amount: When I first wrote about the project, back in 2005, for Wine Enthusiast, I headlined my article “Toys for (very rich) boys and girls,” and noted that it cost $125,000 to become a member, for which you got wine that you had a hand in making, under the guidance of Harlan’s winemaker, Bob Levy. The price per bottle was a bargain: $50, but of course, there was that entry fee.

Anyway, the price has apparently risen to $140,000 (a rise of 12% since 2005, not bad considering inflation), according to some political reporting done by the Chicago Tribune, which wrote about the current Republican candidate for Governor of Illinois, Bruce Rauner, who admit[ed] he is a member of a wine club that costs $140,000 to join.” I got the story from the local Chicago NBC news affiliate, NBC5. NBC5 asked Rauner if he was a member of The Napa Valley Reserve, but “Rauner refused to confirm” it. When the reporter persisted, the most he got out of Rauner was a qualified, I have many investments, I’m a member of many clubs.” The story went viral: The Washington Post yesterday picked up on it, reporting “Bruce Rauner spends more on wine than average Illinois households spend on everything,” Ouch! (Actually, I shouldn’t say WaPo “reported” the story; it appears in the paper’s snarky “The Fix” column, which is pretty opinionated. But nobody’s denying the facts.)

However, this is not a political rant on my part, but something more important, and that is to ask the question, Why are some people embarrassed by their wealth and how much they spend on wine? I suppose, in the case of a Republican candidate for Governor in a swing state that’s had its share of economic woes, it doesn’t look good for said candidate to have so much money for things that are the height of non-discretionary spending—especially snobby, elitist wine. Then, too, what first alerted reporters to Rauner’s free-spending ways was a photo of him and Rahm Emanuel, who was Obama’s very Democratic chief of staff and is currently Chicago Mayor. What the heck is a Republican doing running around drinking expensive wine with a liberal?

So maybe Rauner had that Gotcha! feeling deep down in his pockets, I don’t know. But why the mealy-mouthed dodging when asked directly if he was a Napa Valley Reserve member? Especially if he’s from the party of free enterprise and pull yourself up by your own bootstraps, why didn’t he just say, “Hell, yeah, I’m a member. I came by my money honestly, and I love wine. Say, what are you doing now? Wanna head over to my cellar and try some?” I remember when Ronald Reagan had his “Nashua moment”: in a 1980 Presidential debate he non-apologetically said, “I paid for this microphone!” Everybody loved it (me too), and it set candidate Reagan in motion to become President. Now, another Republican candidate in an election year seems embarrassed that he paid for something.

I don’t resent people for being successful, and I don’t really understand why anyone else does. But especially, I don’t understand why politicians try to hide their wealth by these squirmy non-denial denials. If I had a few extra tens of millions of dollars I too might join The Napa Valley Reserve. If the wines, which I’ve never had, are anything like Harlan Estate, BOND, The Maiden and The Matriarch, which I have reviewed over the years, they’re fabulous.

  1. Successful? Like Shrub? Jesus. You ARE an apologist.
    Get a life.
    You found another heel to lick?

  2. Bill Haydon says:

    I’m not sure what I find more funny. The fact that you consider an out-and-out corporate toady like Mayor 1% to be anything close to resembling a liberal or that you don’t see the utter absurdity of Private Reserve and how it contributes to the increasing reputation of Napa Valley as a gauche playground for the wealthy and tasteless rather than a serious wine region. Beyond such ludicrous exercises as Private Reserve, Napa has wineries masquerading fake French Chateaus, fake Tuscan Villas, fake Medievil Castles, fake Persian Palaces and now–in perhaps its ultimate triumph of offensive bad taste–a fake “dwarf-themed” fantasy land. Perhaps it would be more proper to say that these fake theme parks are masquerading as wineries. Napa stopped being a serious place a long time ago and became just, well, fake.

    BTW, isn’t anyone in Napashire the least bit offended by the Ca’Nani winery being built and that it offensively objectifies an entire class of citizens (little people) and even refers to them on its website as, “possibly magical.” What’s next Napa? A Soviet Gulag themed winery? A Southern Plantation themed winery?

  3. Dusty Gillson says:

    I blame the mass media for this one, and their insistence on blowing up every time a wealthy person spends their money on anything other than charity. That is, of course, unless they are a liberal.

  4. Wow, Steve can’t do anything right! He writes a balanced article which makes a good point without getting political, and the trolls still come out to play. (Ooops, are trolls little people also?!)

    Bill Haydon, are you going to protest Disney next? How does it hurt you if someone want to start a club for access to incredible wines and to make wine with Bob Levy? It’s no different than joining a country club to get to play a fantastic golf course regularly. Your caricature of Napa is just that… a gross caricature.

  5. He should be embarrassed! He campaigns on the fact he wears an $18 watch and wants to lower the minimum wage. Why would he want to admit he has it all and wants to make sure nobody else can do the same.

  6. redmond barry says:

    A buy-in club for rich guys who get to have input into $50 wine when they can afford Harlan seems like the kind of bad judgement, country-club like thing a pol would want to avoid. Can’t excuse it, best to not do it.
    His next move should be to buy futures for the next 10 vintages of Insignia.

  7. And has apparently given $13 million dollars to charities in the last few years alone. But all of this is besides the point, successful people in this country shouldn’t have to apologize for their gains.

  8. I belatedly came across this blog entry tonight just after reading this weekend’s Wall Street Journal car column on the new Porsche 911 Carrera — whose “base model” starts at $92,185.

    (But load up on the options and you’re looking at $20,000 to $30,000 more.)

    That’s the same price of admission as membership in The Napa Valley Reserve.

    Out here in La-La-Land, Porsches are so ubiquitous that no one gives them a second thought. They evoke no rubber-necking double-takes. As common (perceptually but not numerically) as Toyota Priuses.

    Does anyone chastise/shame someone for buying a Porsche 911?

    (C’mon, be honest: we envy the owner of such a “big boy” toy.)

    Then why chastise/shame someone for being a member of The Napa Valley Reserve?

    The Porsche depreciates in value as a financial investment, and pollutes the environment.

    The Napa Valley Reserve ostensibly appreciates in value as a financial investment, and may actually help preserve one small corner of Napa’s environment from the encroachment of McMansions for the landed gentry.

    Republican candidate for Governor of Illinois Bruce Rauner may be on to something . . .

    (For tomes that will turn the tumblers of your mind on such economic issues, read “Freakonomics” and “SuperFreakonomics” by economist Steven Levitt and writer Stephen Dubner.)

  9. The issue isn’t that he is a rich guy running for office. Its that he is campaigning as just an ordinary guy that drives an older vehicle and wears an $18 watch.

    Admit your wealth and be upfront about the fact you have it all but want to reduce the minimum wage for the real working stiffs so you can make more.

    Its the hypocrisy, not the wealth that is the issue.

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