My Obsession is better than Yours

In a way, our identity is broadly wrapped up in our obsessions. Our part-time passions often say more about who we are than what we do for a living. More and more these days, people have less real choice in their vocation. Their calling is often muted by the loud voice of reality. College graduates spend more time as baristas, clerks and nannys; corporate executives are summarily laid off and need to retrain themselves for whatever the market needs today. So we do what we have to do and settle for true self expression in what we do with our after-hours time.

I know it’s easy to judge. We all do it despite the fact we know we should live and let live. But in truth, some passions just seem to make more sense than others. Passions, these days, come with social consciousness and morality checks.

I, myself, will routinely salivate over a certain $200 bottle of hard to find wine and dream of how, when, where and with whom I will drink it. There may even be a $500 on that list. Okay there’s also a $1200 bottle on that list as well. Some people would say that’s crazy. Open it, swallow it and it’s gone. On the other hand — or in that hand— you have a designer hand bag…a “piece of art” that you wear. I will never understand this as a passion.

In 2014, there were approximately 70,000 Hermes Birkin bags produced with an average price of $12,000. Created in 1984, this bag and its design has a heritage of just 32 years with a cult-like following. That seems like a pretty huge investment for an accessory into which you toss spent chewing gum, your cell phone and dollar bills that are still damp from last night’s beer puddled bar top at the Know Where Bar. And then it goes onto the dirty floor at the coffee shop, gets rained on, coughed on and spilled on. I suppose one can argue that with that price tag, you have a bag holder to whom you hand off your “art” at every stop. I’m not sure that makes it any better. And let’s talk about that art angle. Perhaps that bag was the vision of the lead designer of that house blazoned on the bag. More often than not though the design emerges as the winner from a team of young unknowns who “pay their dues” by submitting designs which, if selected, no longer belong to them and become the intellectual property of the house. In the case of the Birkin, it is a “classic” and so is merely reproduced from year to year. No new investment needed. Hermes lauds the fact that the Birkin bag requires 12–18 hours to produce and that one single worker makes the bag from start to finish with a piece of quality leather that he/she hand selects. That’s two days work basically. For a $12,000 bag. That seems pretty steep to me. And the price of this “classic” (read same design since 1984) Birkin bag has more than doubled since 2000. The prices of all luxury handbags just seem to keep rising unchecked which has no impact on sales. According to Business of Fashion, a few things are at play. First, among all luxury hand bag producers, Hermes is far from the only brand to increase prices at such a rapid clip. Key brand pieces from both Louis Vuitton and Manolo Blahnik have had price increases of 50–60% in the past decade, and annual or biannual announced price increases of up to 13% at a time are the norm for brands like Vuitton and Chanel. Business of Fashion editor JJ Martin says:

A lot of fashion houses today are being run like consumer packaged good companies. There’s no difference between selling handbags and toothpaste.

Not a very nice thing to know about a luxury obsession.

My obsession on their other hand is centered around wine — the nectar of the Gods.

I recently purchased a bottle of Jacques-Frédéric Mugnier Chambolle Musigny. It was an “off” vintage of an always amazing wine that is one-step down from the ethereal Chambolle Musigny Les Amoureuses. I am a conservative spender so in that moment I felt that $200 was all I could spend. I had last savoured a bottle of Monsieur Mugnier’s wines in 2010 at a restaurant in Washington, DC, purchased while trying to impress the sommelier of a 3-star restaurant with whom I hoped to do business (I worked). It was the single-most extraordinary bottle of wine I had ever experienced with a memory that lingers even now. It launched an obsession that took me all the way to France where I found myself awkwardly standing in the doorway of the man who produced the wine — Jacques-Frédéric “Freddy” himself. No staff of minions clamoring for their big break greeted me. No team of “assistant winemakers” who are actually the ones making the wine were seen. Just the man dressed plainly and accompanied by his English-speaking assistant who guided me through the door when I arrived one hour late, literally shaking in my boots. I had gotten lost somehow (it’s literally a straight road from Dijon to Chambolle-Musigny in the Burgundy region of France so that I got lost is something of a joke) and the idea of fulfilling this Frenchman’s pre-conceived notion about the inconsiderate American had left me with a pit in my stomach. There is no such person-to-person connection in the hand bag world unless you are a respected starlet or red-hot engenue. The modest yet lovely estate has been in Mr. Mugnier’s family since 1863. Frédéric himself has been at the helm as the 5th generation since 1985 — nearly the same year of the Birkin bags’ original design. The wine is produced from a teeny sliver of a piece of perfect land — just 1.3 acres. This sliver of land produces, depending on the vagaries of the weather (vintage), between 3000 and 7000 bottles of this entry level yet extraordinary wine. That’s it. The year-long, life-long commitment to taking care of the well aged vines. It means steering the grapes through the disease, hail, rain, frost, heat and drought which the climate brings to it without use of any of the wine tricks or that modern producers employ to correct flaws or weaknesses is a true test of character and skill. Each bottle is produced with grapes that are hand harvested and hand sorted by some of the hundreds of thousands of vineyard workers that the wine industry in France employs, working to preserve a trade and tradition which yields jobs and maintains a connection to the land. The vines themselves — these “old vines” — produce an ever-shrinking, finite supply of this glorious wine which makes each bottle a truly rare treasure. Monsieur Mugnier espouses the philosophy that he isn’t creating the wine as much as shepherding the work of growing it into the bottle. His modesty obscures the incredible labor, attention and restraint that is required to produce this great piece of art. The average price for a bottle of this wine filled with labor, love, tradition and care for the land? About $125 per bottle — a price that has been stable over the past five years. Wine such as this is the stuff of songs and poetry and ever-lasting memory. I don’t know how a handbag can create the same sense of romance and mystery. After scouring the online wine auctions today, I noted the recent price for the even more rare Mugnier expression, Chambolle Musigny Les Amoureuses. The idea that for the price of a single Birkin bag, I could now acquire 40 bottles of this wine makes the idea of one handbag seem even more superfluous. My obsession is truly better than yours.

Read more of what I’m thinking about and tasting at:

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