Penfold’s Block 42: The World’s Most Pretentious Wine?
There’s been an awful lot of coverage of the Penfolds Limited Edition 2004 Block 42 which is being billed as ‘The World’s Most Expensive Wine’. The price-tag has been set at $168 000.00 for a 750ml ‘ampoule’ of the wine – but when you get through the hype and the spin, it’s clear you aren’t paying that outrageous sum of money for the wine – you are paying it for the spectacle that surrounds the wine.
This is not a wine aimed at a true connoisseur. If you want an example of that, look no further than last year’s sale of 1811 Château d’Yquem. The Yquem was exorbitant ($118 000.00), but there is something almost forgivable, even understandable, about buying a legendary wine that is 200 hundred years old, and still drinkable. It is a different thing altogether to artificially inflate the price of a wine for the sole purpose of billing it the ‘World’s Most Expensive Wine’. The Penfold’s offering smacks of crass commercialism and opportunism.
I’m not denying that Australia produces great wines, or that Penfold’s Block 42 is an excellent Cabernet Sauvignon, but it simply is not worth $168 000.00. Penfolds is selling Block 42 on the basis that it is produced from the world’s oldest Cabernet Sauvignon vines, which were originally imported from France – but even with these credentials and excellent ratings, Block 42 sold for $18 000.00 for 6 liters in 2007. How on earth can anyone justify this incredible price hike in a mere 5 years? The simple answer is that you can’t. Block 42 is not worth $168 000.00, and Penfolds knows it, which is why they have dressed the wine up to appeal to those who spend money because they can.
The limited edition (only 11 for sale, 1 of which is reserved for charity) wines come encased in an ‘Ampoule’ of hand-blown glass with ‘precious metal detailing’, which itself is lodged in a ‘bespoke Jarrah cabinet’. But wait, there’s more! When the owner decides to drink the contents of his ‘ampoule’, a senior wine-maker from Penfolds will personally travel to their ‘destination of choice’, and remove the ‘Ampoule’ from its ‘plumb-bob’ (??) casing, open it using a ‘specially designed, tungsten-tipped, sterling silver scribe-snap’ (???), and prepare the wine using a ‘beautifully crafted sterling silver tastevin’.
It’s like an infomercial, where you find more and more included in the deal as you go along. What this inescapably means is that Penfolds Block 42 wine accounts for only a fraction of the purchase price. The rest is all packaging, hype and show to make the purchaser feel special. Block 42 by itself is miles away from being the ‘most expensive wine in the world’.
This fact changes nothing when it comes to finding a market. No-one needs to ask whether they will find buyers. Of course they will! This is a world where mindless celebrities part with up to $40.00 for a bottle of water. Regrettably, there really are many people with more money than decency or sense who will actively vie for a chance to be one of only 11 owners of these pretentious ampoules of wine. And when they finally drink it, they will tell everyone it is worth the ridiculous price because once you have paid that much, you don’t want to look stupid.
You don’t have to look far to see that if people think something is expensive, they will believe it is somehow better than a cheaper version. I remember seeing an episode of a reality show from years ago, where a bunch of pretentious wannabees were sent to a party in a fabulous house. They could barely contain their enthusiasm as they gushed about the top class ‘champagne’ served to them by impeccably dressed waiters, and the ‘delicious’ snacks which were beautifully presented. Sadly they were being served really cheap plonk, and the canapés were made from Spam and other tinned horrors. If you think this is an isolated incident, there is scientific proof that we all tend to such idiocy.
I came across these Caltech studies in the Wired.com report on Penfold’s ‘Limited Edition Ampoules’. It is mighty telling. People’s brains actually light up with pleasure when they believe they are drinking a more expensive wine. In fact, give them the same wine twice, but tell them on one occasion it is more expensive than the other, and the pleasure center of the brain becomes more active indicating that a higher price really does enhance the pleasure of drinking it. Sadly, the brain does not seem to be equipped with a BS monitor.
It gets even more interesting. When the researchers hooked up regular folk on blind tastings, they reported liking the cheapest wines the most. They repeated the experiment with the Stanford Wine Club and got the same results. Remember the ‘Soda Stream Champagne‘ experiment? Heston Blumenthal carbonated a regular supermarket brand called ‘Blue Nun’ and offered it in a blind test along with proper champagne to passersby in London’s Financial District. Blue Nun 1. Champagne 0. It’s hilarious that people will pay more for something, even though they prefer the cheaper version. Why? What sinister forces are at play that would make us buy something that costs more, even though there is a cheaper version available that we prefer?
The Caltech studies were led by Antonio Rangel, a neuro-economist. He told Wired.com that he expected that the experiment would break down if you used people with highly educated palates. In a taste-off between a cheap supermarket wine and a great wine, I agree this will be the result, but I wonder if you would find the same outcome if you used a really good wine instead of the bargain basement supermarket special to compare it with. Would the experts really be able to tell the difference between wines which cost $100.00 and $1000.00, or $100 000.00? Is the more expensive wine so much of an improvement that it’s worth the inflated cost, or is it simply a question instinctively preferring what you are told is the more expensive option? And is this truly instinctive in a biological way, or is it something we have learned? If it’s the latter, it’s a damning indictment of the world we have created.
If money came with common sense and social responsibility, the world would reflect it. It’s one thing to pay a fair price for a high quality item, but it’s completely another to pay an artificially inflated price for an item because to do so makes you feel ‘special’ and gives you momentary pleasure. There is something insufferable about a person who needs to validate themselves with ostentatious, vulgar spending displays of their spending power in a world where people are dying because they have no food. Surely you can do more with your money than buy into this pretentious hype? The ampoules of Block 42 filled with the dark red wine look very much like giant vials of blood. Words like ‘sucker’, ‘vampire’ and ‘leech’ come to mind….