Monday, December 30, 2013

Celebrating the New Year

One year ago I wrote about champagne, how one brand is just about the same as the next.  The main differences between the expensive bottles and the ordinary were the time before it went flat and the prestige, how important it was to show off or impress your friends.  Critical thinkers with perspective understand that it’s a waste of time and money to buy expensive stuff just to impress others.  Nearly on the anniversary of that advice CBS presents us with an even more outlandish example.

Featured on their Sunday Morning show the weekend before Christmas was the problem of wine counterfeiting!  It centered on a man of substantial means who had “invested” about $4.5 million in 421 bottles that were, as he described them, “definitely fake.”  (This implies he owned other bottles of wine that may also be counterfeit, but wasn't sure yet.)  Some of the bottles were inscribed to indicate that they had belonged to Thomas Jefferson.  In the story he showed the reporter around his house, pointing out the rare and expensive art on the walls, and then around the wine cellar pointing out counterfeit bottles.  He is now pursuing legal action against the people who faked the bottles.

Buying rare and expensive wines is an interesting hobby if you have the means to do so, but it makes me wonder if the world has run out of better uses for the millions spent on expensive wines (and the lawyers to pursue counterfeiters).  It seems an obvious effort to impress someone – friends, neighbors, enemies, or self.  This behavior, the need to show off to such a degree, indicates a high level of personal insecurity.

It brings to mind the story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”  Why would some people pay tens of thousands of dollars for a single bottle of wine, no matter who previously owned it?  Why do others pay millions for paintings by impressionist artists?  A Pissarro painting will be auctioned soon for an expected $15 million, that’s almost $20,000 per square inch.  (You could visit a museum everyday for a thousand years and not spend that much.)  What makes it worth so much more, in terms of pleasure to the viewer, than a well-done painting by a local artist?  What, for that matter, makes a few squiggles on canvas by the current darling of the art world worth anything?  Art critics, wine critics and the experts, just like the emperor’s nobles, have a vested interest in the hype, their own status and maintaining the egos of those foolish enough to pay these outrageous sums.  When anyone challenges this silliness, he is ignored or belittled like the child and crowd in the story – “The Emperor…thought, ‘This procession has got to go on.’ So he walked more proudly than ever, as his noblemen held high the train that wasn't there at all.”

As for me, counterfeit wine and fine art are not considerations.  I will exercise critical thinking and perspective by moderately indulging in a reasonably priced champagne to celebrate the New Year.

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