Opinion

Felix Salmon

Wine list of the day, Davos edition

By Felix Salmon
January 28, 2011

The prize for most obnoxious party at Davos was won on the first night, with the Davos Tasting put on by the Wine Forum.

Wine tasting was historically one of the more interesting and enjoyable events that was put on at Davos, but it got nixed in 2009 when conspicuous consumption of first-growth clarets was considered inappropriate in the face of the global financial crisis. The consequence was much the same as attempts to cap CEO salaries: just as the executives end up making much more money through stock options, the wine tasters, freed from whatever decorum was imposed upon them by the official constraints of the World Economic Forum, showed just how out-of-control wine events can really be.

The plutocrats at Davos, of course, both western and eastern, are exactly the kind of people who spend thousands of dollars a bottle on fine wines. But they’re also driven and single-minded executives who naturally gravitate to the obvious and middlebrow in other areas: if they’re buying art, they’ll plump for something shiny by Damien Murakoons (both Hirst and Koons are in Davos this week), while the big-name creative types here are the likes of Jose Carreras, Peter Gabriel, and Paulo Coelho.

Wine here, then, is judged with executives’ eyes rather than their noses. They look at the label first and then at two crucial numbers: the number of points it gets from Robert Parker or Wine Spectator and the cost in dollars. Take that to its logical conclusion and you wind up with exactly what we saw on Wednesday night:

This evening’s wine selection consists of wines that have achieved 100 points or equivalent from one of three well known raters.

The raters, of course, are Robert Parker, Jancis Robinson and the Wine Spectator — the consensus arbiters of mainstream wine taste.

You want the list? OK:

1969 Vega Sicilia, 1980 Vega Sicilia, 1982 Krug, 1982 Pichon Lalande Comptesse du Lalande, 1990 Gaja Barbaresco Sorì Tildìn, 1994 Harlan Estate, 1994 Quinta do Noval Port, 1998 Le Pin, 2000 Bruno Giacosa Barolo Le Rocche del Falletto, 2000 Léoville Las Cases, 2000 Cheval Blanc, 2000 Pavie, 2001 Domaine de la Mordoree Chateauneuf du Pape Cuvee de la Reine des Bois, 2002 Greenock Creek Shiraz Roennfeldt Road, 2004 Le Macchiole Toscana Messorio, 2005 L’Eglise Clinet, 2005 Pavie, 2006 Colgin, 2007 Dana Estate, 2009 Léoville Poyferré.

And that’s not including a few more Champagnes, a 1995 Figeac or the Louis XIII cognac.

The event was held at the semi-legendary Piano Bar of the Hotel Europe, which was fully booked out by the Wine Forum for two and a half extremely expensive hours. The Piano Bar is the late-night haunt of Davos Man and it comes with the permanent tang of stale cigarette smoke and a general culture of heavy drinking.

The result was basically a drunken mess. Revelers would cluster around stations loaded up with fine wine, getting large pours of increasingly-indistinguishable heavy cabernets, competing to find the Cheval Blanc and Le Pin (which were naturally considered the most desirable wines, just because they were the most expensive), all the while fighting off jetlag and concentrating mainly on greeting their old Davos buddies and catching up on gossip. (Update: I forgot to mention that all the wine was served “pop-and-pour” style, where a wine would run out, a waiter would run to get another bottle, would open it, and then immediately start pouring it into various partiers’ glasses. No decanting, no time to breathe, nothing. Maybe the reason I liked the Barolo so much was that it had been sitting open for a while by the time I got to it.)

Most of the wine, including the Cheval Blanc, was far too young to drink — but of course it’s hard to find such names in quantity if you want them older. My favorite, by far, was the Barolo (about $550 a bottle if you want to buy it in Hong Kong), but the event really wasn’t remotely conducive to tasting and appreciating the wines, so much as it was a way of celebrating and appreciating Anthony Scaramucci and Skybridge Capital, who underwrote the event. Scaramucci, a member of the Wine Forum, is the first to admit that he’s not much of a wine connoisseur, but he knew what he wanted: he told me that the bill for the event just kept on rising from its initial stratospheric level, as he insisted that if he was going to throw a party, the wine must never run out and must be available in quantity.

I’m glad that I got the opportunity to taste a bunch of these wines, even though I didn’t really appreciate most of them. Maybe to do that you need to have much more respect for point ratings or dollar prices than I do, or at least believe on a very deep level that they have a strong correlation with quality. I’m pretty certain, at this point, that my taste in wine isn’t Robert Parker’s taste, at least as it is revealed in his ratings. But ultimately events like this aren’t much about taste at all: they’re about putting down markers of various kinds and confirming in the plutocrats’ minds just how exclusive they, and Davos, really are.

Update: Scaramucci calls to say that I’m a “dork” for writing this, says that I’m an embarrassment to my profession, and argues that it was malicious and unfair of me to accept an invitation to his party, only to turn around in public and call it (and, by implication, him) obnoxious. He’s upset, which is understandable, and I very much doubt I’ll be invited to any more of his events. I’ll say here what I told him on the phone, which is that this post was not written maliciously, and that I bear no animus to him personally — I didn’t talk to him for long at the event, but he was very cordial to me and I liked him. I felt his party was so emblematic of Davos in so many ways that I had to blog it. But I’m sorry that he ended up being singled out; my point was very much about the culture of Davos more generally.

Update 2: I watched Wall Street 2 on the flight back to New York (don’t bother, really), and noted a huge Skybridge logo in a charity-ball scene. Oliver Stone has said that the product placement helped him enormously in financing the movie.

Comments
14 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

About $350 per bottle if you want to buy it in Bedminster New Jersey, but what kind of loser would do that

Posted by johnhhaskell | Report as abusive
 

It should be Comtesse, not Comptesse (http://www.pichon-lalande.com/)

Posted by MathieuJVL | Report as abusive
 

Somewhere, Thorstein Veblen is smiling.

Posted by Hinchman | Report as abusive
 

It tells you everything you need to know about plutocrats that they universally get wood for meh French/Napa Cabernets, while bypassing Barolos and Pinots that taste better to many and have just as much pedigree and credibility amongst people who understand wine. They’re not even effective snobs! Nouveau riche all!

Posted by najdorf | Report as abusive
 

postscript: So, another hedge funder accustomed to uncritical adulation talks to a reporter and isn’t happy about how his event was characterized; resorts to namecalling. Yawn.

Posted by johnhhaskell | Report as abusive
 

Felix, you were more than gracious. Thank you for sharing it.
This story is so rich in many ways. The “moosh” should be in pictures. You may remember his slap-down at the Obama press conference when he complained that Wall Streeters felt like pinatas and asking when the hitting would end. Obama answered well, but Jon Stewart’s answer was more memorable: “when the candy comes out.”

Posted by photoguy | Report as abusive
 

I suspect that these people are missing the point of much of wine tastings, as well as art or nature. Although, at least their herd instincts in this area don’t need to be bailed out by the taxpayer.

As somebody putting kids through college and living on a tight budget because of this, the search for decent wine (what these folks would turn their nose up at and call “plonk”)can actually be really fun. There are a lot of smaller vineyards from all around the world that produce inexpensive wines. One of the reasons that they are inexpensive is because they have not been “discovered” by the people with big bucks.

There are lots of places that have been making wines in their own traditions for 100 years plus or are new startups by experienced people in a new affordable locale. You have to have a feel for what years had good weather, which winemakers can produce some consistency, and then simply taste a bunch over time.

Some will be total duds but many will be quite nice. These bottles are inexpensive (say less than $25 at a liquor store) and so you can take a chance on soemthing you have never heard of (buy a back-up bottle of something you know you like just in case). If you are coughing up $500 or more for a bottle, then you really do need to stick with the names and known good years unless your hedge fund had a really good year.

Life can be quite good in the cheap seats.

BTW, this recent column on a very, very expensive wine tasting is fascinating reading as is the predecessor column that caused this tasting: http://www.slate.com/id/2282437/

Posted by ErnieD | Report as abusive
 

Felix: Thank you, this post made my day. Anthony Scaramucci accusing a reporter of being a “dork” because said reporter did actual reporting… isn’t that how the geniuses of high finance got us all into this mess, because they couldn’t tolerate actual reporting?

Posted by EricVincent | Report as abusive
 

Hinchman FTW. And FWIW, I think Parker’s palate has been scorched by so many California mega-cabs that his scoring is no longer worth a thing. Harlan? meh…

Posted by Bernanke | Report as abusive
 

I’m with Eric Vincent; you are no dork for writing this.

Posted by IanFraser | Report as abusive
 

Well for starts, due to something called genetics, everyone’s sense of taste is unique. I’ve been a wino for over 40 years and have never been able to understand why anyone gives any credit to either Parker or Robinson. Who cares what they think.

Next, picked up an outstanding Cab Sauv at Costco today. 336 cases total produced from a small family owned vineyard in CA. Outstanding now (decanted for at least an hour), and in 5-10 years, poetry. Price at Costco $28.95. I don’t have a wine cooler either. Crawlspace and some shelves. Avg temp range 55-60F, at no additional expense. My +100 bottle cellar probably costs less than one of their bottles, and I wouldn’t trade or sell any of mine.

Posted by ARJTurgot2 | Report as abusive
 

Hey Felix,
I initially thought this piece was quite dorky, but have since changed my mind. That’s because I heard your fabulous BS-busting interview on Marketplace last night AND thanks to the candid update you posted of getting your chops busted.

In short, stand your ground my man! You may be the last honest men roaming amongst the global plutocrats. Poke your thumb in a few eyes for me. I haven’t been so angry since I was an undergraduate Marxist (and THAT was a long time ago).

Posted by LadyGodiva | Report as abusive
 

I don’t agree with you all of the time, but I am all in favor of your observation that there is a fundamental incongruity between the kind of behavior you note at Davos and the purported conference goals. And it is laughable when you are criticized over style rather than substance. The wealthy and powerful are so often the biggest hypocrits.

Posted by Curmudgeon | Report as abusive
 

Wait until these attendees find out that there is gambling in the back room of Rick’s Cafe Americain — the rush will be on to see and be seen — Nothing new for Davos Man (or Roman Man). Perhaps not so much a “yawn” as an affirmation.

Posted by DFD | Report as abusive
 

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