My colleague and fellow wine enthusiast Peter Tuxen once uttered a truism that applies to all luxury goods. He was talking about wine when he observed that while there is a huge difference between an $8 bottle versus $30, there is not as proportionate a difference between a $30 bottle and $150. I have seen this phenomenon with cars as well. When you pay those extra tens of thousands for a Mercedes, the additional features you get, say over a Chevy, are not really worth the difference. What you’re paying for is the luxury label, the bragging rights of owning one or being seen in one, which then distinguishes you from the crowd.
While luxury is easier to express with a car, or with houses, jewelry and such, it is harder to do with wine. After all every wine is a liquid in a bottle, and labels, which nowadays come in all shapes, sizes and appearances, express the luxurious nature of this liquid only to a limited degree. So what is a winemaker to do when they attempt to sell at high prices? Anyone who is not versed in such marketing can take example of Quintessa, located in the Rutherford district of the Napa Valley, along the Silverado Trail. They have mastered the art of displaying themselves as a luxury item.
Owned by Augustin Huneeus, a Chilean winemaker who turned Concha y Torro from a sleepy little operation into the largest winemaker and exporter of that country, and who afterwards elevated Franciscan Vineyards in Sonoma into something bigger, Quintessa was founded in 1989. It only makes a Meritage Blend red wine, i.e. a Bordeaux Left Bank blend of cabarbet sauvignon, merlot, cabarnet franc, petite verdot and carmenere, with the blend varied from vintage to vintage. The wine is carefully crafted, all stages of the winemaking utilizing more expensive techniques than average wineries. The end product is then sold, currently at around $155 to 165 per bottle.
Tasting in the winery is by appointment only. Currently the tasting charge is $45 per person. For that one gets to sit down in a reserved table in a smartly appointed room (see picture above) with a personal sales associate serving as a guide through the process. A personalized, pre-printed card (see picture) announces the tasting menu (see other picture above), which consists of 3 vintages, two ounces each, and a small selection of cheeses. The latter are brought after the line-up has been tasted for the first time, the whole experience pre-choreographed by the establishment with attention to detail. Towards the end of the tasting, just in case the customer might wonder why they just paid a huge some of money for a tiny amount of wine, they offer a fourth wine, seemingly a “freebie” or bonus. “Would you also like to taste our 2005?”, asked our young lady sales associate, dressed smartly for the occasion. “Why not?”, we said, feeling special in the dimmed comfort of the quiet, sparsely populated room.
The Quintessa experience is a far cry than the crowded, noisy bars of such wineries as Grgich, where customers have to elbow each other out of the way, and yell to get attention, so the bartender can pour you the next in a line-up of twelve varietals. Private, elegant, and personal, Quintessa places its customers within an environment where $45 tastings and $165 bottles seem reasonable, and this is the only way a winemaker can cloak his product in an ambiance of luxury. It’s not just the label, or shape of bottle. It is the entire experience of buying or tasting the wine that screams luxury.
By now one issue I have not yet mentioned may have crossed your minds: how is the wine itself?. The wine is very good. It is complex, well balanced, exhibits appropriate and attractive aromas, and flavors befitting its carefully crafted creation. But does this really matter in this price range? Like Opus, Rubicon and various others in its peer group, Quintessa makes a mark by leaving you feel special, not for tasting the wine, but for having experienced it.