Devil’s Advocate – How does Luxury Wine Differ from Luxury Lingerie and Ice Cream?

Robert Joseph wonders whether the way luxury underwear and chocolates are defined might be usefully applied to wine.

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Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate - with Dom Perignon, a Magnum ice and some luxury underwear
Robert Joseph - the Devil's Advocate - with Dom Perignon, a Magnum ice and some luxury underwear

‘Luxury wine’ is controversial. Leading critics, Jancis Robinson MW and Eric Asimov both dislike the term as, Liz Thach MW reveals in a new Areni Global interview, do some of the best winemakers in Burgundy. “[they] told me they didn’t like the word ‘luxury’ because they felt that Mother Earth and the vineyards and the terroir were what created the product. All they were there for was to shepherd the wine through the process, and that they didn’t necessarily want their wines to be high priced.” When Thach, co-author of Luxury Wine Marketing, uses the word, they apparently “get really upset and they sort of start getting emotional.” 

Pedants might feel that, on the basis that anything that quacks and has ducklings has a high chance of being a duck, bottles of $200-plus Pinot Noir ought to have little difficulty in qualifying as a luxury. And, thank goodness, some Burgundians – the ones Thach says have studied for MBAs – do acknowledge that “for sure, we’re luxury, we tick off every single box.”

Defining luxury wine

But this raises the question of precisely which boxes, apart from price, they are ticking. Thach and her co-author Peter Yeung spent a long time drawing up that list. Luxury wine, they wrote in their book “is of the highest quality, coming from a special place on earth, has an element of scarcity, an elevated price, and provides a sense of privilege and pleasure to the owner.” And it has to have the “ability to age and ability to sell well on the secondary market.”

In other words, as Yeung told me in a recent conversation, luxury wine is effectively a subset of fine wine. Indeed, the only significant difference between ‘luxury’ and ‘fine’ seems to be one of intent. For Yeung, “fine wine tends to be more producer-driven. It’s what the producer is trying to say and trying to craft, whereas luxury wine is both producer-driven and consumer-driven… The brand reputation and its status in the world of wine is an important element of luxury wine, which may not be so important in the fine wine category.” Luxury wines, Thach and Yeung say, cost at least $100.

An different view - from another MW

The two authors, respectively a Master of Wine and an MW candidate, are acknowledged experts on the subject and their book is a must-read, so I hesitate to disagree with their definition. But I’m not alone in doing so. Another MW, Edouard Baijot, recently became ‘director luxury international’ at E&J Gallo. His portfolio includes Orin Swift, a brand that most certainly wouldn’t tick all of Thach’s and Yeong’s boxes. The first vintage was in 1999 and many of the wines in the range are far younger. Prices range from $50-150 or so and, while some declare their origin to be Napa, others are ‘California blends’ using grapes from at least 100 vineyards.

The reds have scored highly with US critics, but their unashamedly ‘bold’ style and alcohol levels in the 15-15.5% range might shock many whose idea of a fine wine is a Burgundy or Bordeaux weighing in at 13.7% or less. Volume production – apart from the highest-priced Mercury Head – is significant; the wines’ ability to age is unproven and there is no secondary market. Dave Phinney, creator of Orin Swift – and of the Prisoner brand acquired by Constellation for $285m – estimates that half of the purchases are driven by his eye-catching labels.

Luxury wine buyers

In an interview for The Buyer, Baijot acknowledges that, while buyers of these wines include “Knowledgeable and Influential wine collectors… guided by wine critics and driven by scores” there are also “Aspirational Consumers…  inspired by what they see and read in lifestyle magazines and [who] follow luxury buyer or celebrity trends, and “True Luxury consumers [who] tend to stay loyal to a few selected brands and really embrace brand stories. Whilst they love wine and enjoy it frequently, they are not really educated about it.”

The broad overlap between these last two groups and fans of the Côte d’Or estates Thach was referring to is not immediately apparent.

Where they do meet however is in the feeling the wines give their owners of having acquired something special whether it is for their own consumption or to share - or maybe show off - with to others.

If one accepts one of the definitions of luxury offered by the Cambridge dictionary, it is simply something expensive that is pleasant to have, but is not necessary. This, I would argue reflects most people's understanding of the word. For them, luxury usefully embraces everything from pricier underwear worn by individuals with no expectation of it being seen by anyone else, to any number of ‘luxury boxes of chocolates’. Increasingly today, it also covers a wide range of experiences rather than tangible objects.

The real decision makers

Of course there is no reason why wine experts like Thach and Yeung shouldn’t come up with a definition of ‘luxury wine’ any more than ones their counterparts in the confectionary or lingerie sectors might create for luxury truffles or knickers. But these definitions will always remain academic and, dare I say, arbitrary. In the US, where $200 bottles of Napa Cabernet are almost commonplace, setting a floor-price for luxury of $100 may be appropriate. In the UK where many well-paid, middle class folk rarely spend over $35 on a bottle, $70, or even $50, might be closer to the target.

The only person who can truly decide whether a product or service is a luxury, is the one who has dug a little deeper into their wallet or purse to buy it. If the process of acquisition and ownership makes them feel good, then it's a luxury to them. and, ultimately, that's what counts.

Luxury ice cream

I doubt whether expert chocolatiers or gelatiers would class a Magnum ice cream as a luxury but, like Gallo, that’s how Unilever have always described their slightly pricier, chocolate-covered ice cream on a stick. Indeed, the company states “There really is no other luxury ice cream brand like Magnum.”

Last year, the business newsletter Just Drinks headlined a news item “Constellation Brands invests in luxury wine brand Archer Roose”. In case you hadn’t heard of it, according to its stylish website, Archer Roose was founded in 2015 by Marian Leitner-Waldman and her husband, David, and is dedicated to producing affordable luxury wines with minimal intervention.” The wines come in cans and cost around $5 apiece. I’ve tasted a few examples and was impressed by their quality at this price level, but I wouldn’t have described them as luxuries. However, as I say, it’s not my definition – or Thach’s or Yeungs’ that really matters. Constellation believed these cans to be sufficiently luxurious to be worth their investment, and if they sell half as well as Magnum ice creams, I doubt any of their shareholders will niggle over definitions.



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