In the spirit of “everything is a remix“, Blind Willie McTell (“I jump ’em from other writers, but I arrange them my own way”), the florilegium and, of course, wine, which we believe is the best example of the uniquely human capacity to mix and arrange nature to good taste: here are some thoughts on wine value, wine critics and the “façon” of wine.
The following essay on wine’s value is adapted from Norbert Wiener’s The Human Use of Human Beings, the work of a visionary mathematical genius, which is once again strikingly relevant as notions of “Artificial Intelligence“, “Cognitive Computing“, etc., enter the imaginations of Davos-goers, our newspapers and the stories we tell ourselves and each other: it’s the programme of Cybernetics reloaded, old wine in new bottles. Let’s squeeze it for what it’s worth.
Information about a wine’s quality is fickle, for the amount of information communicated is related to the non-additive quantity known as entropy (we could say that entropy increases as the wine ages, styles change and fakes dilute the market) and differs from it by its algebraic sign and a possible numerical factor. Just as entropy tends to increase spontaneously in a closed system, information tends to decrease; just as entropy is a measure of disorder, information is a measure of order. Information and entropy are not conserved.
In considering information or order from the economic point of view, let us take as an example a bottle of wine. The value is composed of two parts: the primary factors: the quality that this “type of wine” has, its recognized drinkability (e.g. first growth in such and such an area, in a good year with good weather), and the secondary factors: the wine’s “façon”, the winemaker’s (perceived) skill, the power of the brand and market trends.
When an old wine is taken for appraisal, on what basis is an evaluation made? Whether an allowance is made for pedigree over drinkability depends on many factors, the depth of the order book, market hype, the legendary status of the winemaker, the value of the bottle as a signal of prestige.
Many a fortune has been lost by ignoring the difference between these two types of values: primary and secondary. The wine market, stamp market, the rarebook market, the market for Sandwich glass and for Duncan Phyfe furniture are all artificial, in the sense that in addition to the real pleasure which the possession of such an object gives to its owner, much of the value of the façon pertains not only to the rarity of the object itself, but to the momentary existence of an active group of buyers competing for it.
A depression, which limits the group of possible buyers, may divide the wine market by a factor of four or five, and a great treasure vanishes into nothing just for want of a competitive purchaser. Let another new popular craze supplant the old in the attention of the prospective collectors, and again the bottom may drop out of the market. There is no permanent common denominator of taste, at least until one approaches the highest level of aesthetic value, or if a powerful critic controls the memes of good taste. Even then the prices paid for great wines are reflections of the desire of the purchaser for the reputation of wealth and connoisseurdom.
The problem of wine as a commodity raises a large number of questions important in the theory of information. Except in the case of the narrowest sort of collector who keeps all his possessions under permanent lock and key, the physical possession of a wine is neither sufficient nor necessary for the benefits of appreciation which it conveys.