Wednesday, November 18, 2015

All the wine you cannot have

I'm working on a new book about Napa, the third and final volume of my trilogy about a unique experiment in American agriculture. This is one in a series of reports. 
The hotel’s anonymity - blonde floor-to-ceiling panels that can be shuffled like a pack of cards to create one huge space - is the antithesis of what is being discussed: how to build a tasting room so distinctive that visitors will pay dearly for the experience and never forget it because the experience was “perfect.”
  People in the hospitality business and their clients pay well for such advice. The baser preliminaries of tasting room logistics have already been dispensed with - adding curves to tasting rooms to prevent their being too masculine, figuring out wind and sun patterns so visitors will be comfortable at all times.
  We must take an anthropological approach to retail sales because wine buyers are a “tribe,” instinctively turn right when entering a confined space, refuse to buy if they’re too close to other tribal members or the floor’s not attractive, the restroom too close to the tasting bar, the pourer less than thirty inches from the taster, or more than forty-two inches.
And they must know that their limo driver’s in a space of his own watching sports videos and eating free popcorn. And if your customer drives his own Tesla, “or flies around in a G6, you have to reflect that in your tasting room.”
But the real lesson in the “ultra-premium” experience, according to the young architect with sideburns, plaid shirt, and jeans, lies in an altogether different dimension: the creation of what would once have been called aura but today is called “brand.” This isn’t to be confused with product. It’s essentially the evocation of an experience so rare that one can only fleetingly glimpse, perhaps taste, never own.
For such a winery experience you must go on to the next level, artfully replicating the vintner’s life and “vision.” You do this with “artifacts” of authenticity - barn boards, traditional-looking objects suggesting provenance, worn finishes on wood and art works, feigned rarity, spiritual heft, staggering expense.
The visitor must feel that these things are somehow his or hers for the moment, and that the vintner’s “life experience” can be their’s, too. Part of the appeal is that the two will never meet, yet will share intimacy in the transient taste of a wine subjected to the most assiduous mechanical and chemical alteration in the history of viticulture.
“Here we get back to the idea of kings and queens. You have created a yearning to get past the velvet rope” by adapting, staging, controlling. But the rope’s still there.
  The winery the architect helped design was recently sold to a billionaire who wanted his own recognized cult cabernet, as well as the glorified factory in which it is made. But he didn’t want people. They still clamor for a souvenir of this new royalty - an $800 wine bottle instead of a model of the Tower of London - and this is cited as the ultimate affirmation of brand.
  “The level of exclusivity is what makes it,” adds the architect, even though visitors are banned and the product’s unattainable.

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