Amongst some year-end binge watching (Veep; The People v OJ Simpson) I fitted in some binge re-reading of the art criticism etc of Robert Hughes. Hughes is – or was, I suppose, as he died in 2012 – my favourite Australian, apart, of course, from wine distributor David Clarke and winemaker Mick Craven.
A percurrent strand in his writing is the venality and corruption at the top end of art dealing (and even, sometimes, of art making). Recent years have also seen quite a bit of that in the international wine world, of course, with fraudsters like Hardy Rodenstock and Rudy Kurniawan as well as various dealers getting much more attention than the lower-level day-to-day cheating that is undoubtedly widespread. In wine, the big-name frauds are frequently connected with the murky world of investment, alongside and beyond the world of “collecting”, and this neatly aligns our beloved beverage with art in a way that is not really desired by those who murmur mellifluously about wine-as-art.
Reading Hughes, I was frequently struck by how apposite some of his comments about art collection and investment are to wine – though, writing mostly in the 1980s and 1990s, with the Chinese and Russian billionaires just starting to exercise their flash muscle, he hadn’t seen more than the beginnings of the rippling explosion in art prices. Just as it’s been in the last few decades that top wine prices have got particularly silly. “The new job of art is to sit on the wall and get more expensive”, said Hughes sardonically, even back then, and as any number of wine investment dealers will tell you, it’s the job of wine to sit in a secure cellar and get more expensive. Though the saving grace for wine is that it does have an uncertain but inexorable expiry date attached, beyond which its value plummets.
But much of Hughes’s anger and contempt in his analysis of the art market is transferable to our little world. On a greatly reduced level of value, I was going to add – then realised that the en primeur income from sales of Château Lafite 2015 would easily exceeds the auction price for a bit of kitsch by Jeff Koons (US$58.4 for Balloon Dog (Orange) in 2013). Hughes’s phrase “icons of status” is directly applicable, as is this, mutatis mutandis: “There is no historical precedent for the price structure of art in the late twentieth century. Never before have the visual arts been the subject – beneficiary or victim, whatever your view of the matter – of such extreme inflation and fetishization”.
Given the nature of market domination, it all partly results, as Hughes notes, from “shrinking resources and exploding population”. Substitute “wine” for “art” here: “Art prices are determined by the meeting or real or induced scarcity with pure irrational desire, and nothing is more manipulable than desire …. [A] fair price is the highest one a collector can be induced to pay. Once it is established, it shows its fairness by reforming the level of the market”.
Oh well, there is a positive side, even at comparatively modest levels. More money helps winemakers make better wine – better viticulture, better cellar equipment, more labour, etc. Although, as Hughes points out, the desire for more money is not an inevitable push for quality. Sneers at a “commercial” turn by a formerly “serious” producer are not uncommon. Even with top Bordeaux, the classic example of investment wine, not everyone would agree that the stratospheric rise in prices in recent decades has been good for it. But, quite far down the ladder, and closer to home, as well as producers cynically catering directly to the market, there are many examples of fine small producers making better and better stuff as their liquidity improves.
- Tim James is founder of Grape.co.za and contributes to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.