(E)valuation of Booze

I just finished reading a truly fascinating article in the most recent New Yorker about a man named Bernard Berenson, once the most-respected art attributor in the world. As someone who made expert decisions about whether a painting was or was not the work of Raphael, Berenson could single-handedly determine the market value for these old masters. This was at the turn of the 20th century, before technology could give us a more scientific answer about authenticity. Berenson relied on his expertise, a sixth sense so to speak, that could not be described or put into words, but would nevertheless guide him to his decisions. Despite his more than adequate salary, Berenson's hatred of the emerging commerce for art was clear. He once wrote in a letter to a friend:

It seemed so much greater than ever, and an everlasting rebuke to people that want to submit art to newspaperology...You can say that it is beautiful of course, you can call people's attention to the transparency of color...but you can't "give away" the secret of the picture.

Berenson was tired of struggling for his income. He had hoped to become a curator or art history professor, yet his income was mostly tied to sympathetic female benefactors, for whom Berenson purchased and collected artwork privately. His eventual inability to sever his financial relationship with the dealers lead to the demise of his reputation and a world-famous court case. Berenson's opinion that a Kansas man's Leonardo was not the actual work of the Italian master cost the owner a deal with the Kansas City Art Institute. The case went to court and the idea of art expertise was on trial for the world to see. Could someone actually sue an "expert" because of an opinion that was detrimental to a financial transaction? Could a court decide which paintings were authentic and which were not?

You'll have to pick up the latest October 8th edition of the New Yorker to read more about the case (and I would advise any serious whisky collector to do so), but the parallels to the booze world and its ever-expanding collector's market are clear. On one hand, art collectors never would have made their gigantic fortunes had men like Berenson not offered up their expert opinions. On the other, as soon as they made an evalution that didn't favor the side of the market, these collectors wanted their heads! Sounds kind of like the Bordeaux market right now!

We've already seen this exact same thing happen with the Parkerization of wine. Collectors want a guarantee that something is good.  They feel better knowing an expert has given it a numerical score. They invest. When the wine sells out, it's worth even more on the secondary market, mostly because it got 98 or 100 points. These collectors selling their Bordeaux bottles for hundreds to thousands of dollars would never be getting this kind of cash were it not for critics like Parker. Yet, it's still the same catch 22. As Clive Coates writes in his book, The Wines of Burgundy:

The trade has allowed itself to be emasculated. Instead of continuing to buy and sell based on their own professional judgement, they have consigned themselves to the role of mere purveyors. They buy what the Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate score highly and then sell their wares by proclaiming the magazines' marks. It is totally crazy.

Yet, imagine if Parker rated a wine 88 points and the Chateau sued him for costing their wine its reputation for 95-100 point scores?  Now that is totally crazy! Nevertheless, much like Berenson wrote, people who don't understand wine or whisky depend on experts for an evaluation of quality and therein a valuation of their worth. You can't make people understand why a wine or whisky is special, especially when their finances are on the line. Once those opinions start costing these collectors big money, who knows what the future will hold?

-David Driscoll

David Driscoll