Conspicuous and Inconspicuous Consumption

The Holborn Restaurant, circa 1890. Photo from ‘Decadent London’ by Antony Clayton.

ERNEST: ‘What would you like most in the world?’
MARTHE: ‘I want nothing more than to eat a fine dinner with fine people at a brightly-lighted restaurant’.
An exchange between impoverished bohemians marooned in Catford, circa 1900.

‘Jesus, who are these people?’
A Master of Wine commenting on the wines drunk by ‘The Barclays Five’ at Petrus in 2001.

There is a story doing the rounds and it goes like this:

It is a lovely evening in spring and we are in a fine London restaurant. At our elevation we can see all of London and all the surrounding counties through the panoramic plate glass window. An attractive young couple are being shown to their table, its place settings flecked with gold from the sun that is setting somewhere beyond Reading. You might not know it to look at them but they are on a first date. The young woman is excited and a bit nervous. They have already had a couple of drinks at the bar. She is in a celebratory mood and offers to buy the wine to go with dinner. She has just passed her medical exams, she has qualified to be a doctor. ‘Let’s push the boat out!’ she says. She studies the wine list. She studies it without her reading glasses. She leaves her glasses in her bag because she is on a date.

Cut to later on: the meal is drawing to its close. The romantic tenor of the evening is still in play and the food and drink have been superb. The bill arrives. There is some confusion. Queries are raised, the wine list is fetched, reading glasses are retrieved from a handbag, the maitre’d telephones the manager … Those three bottles of wine, the ones costing £500 a time (‘the wine’s on me, I’m celebrating!’), they are five thousand pounds each. The junior doctor has arranged a repayment plan with the restaurant, gradually paying back the fifteen grand (plus interest) she accidentally dropped on her big night out. And she has not seen that Tinder date since.

It’s not true of course – and I say that as one who was taken in by this story and contributed to its spread. In my defence I should say that this story is, like many urban myths, superficially plausible because it draws on a kernel of truth that reflects the tenor of the time. So today we are looking at the phenomenon of necking statement wines (or, if you like stunt wines) as a form of celebration or display. The quote at the top was the reaction of a wine expert to the list of vintages consumed by one table in a London restaurant over the course of a single evening in July 2001. The restaurant was Gordon Ramsey’s Petrus, 33 St. James’s Street, the party was a group of six investment bankers celebrating their bonuses, and this what they drank:

1 x Petrus de Pomerol 1947 @ £12,300
1 x Petrus de Pomerol 1945 @ £11,600
1 x Petrus de Pomerol 1946 @ £9,600
1 x Chateau d’Yquem 1900 @ £9,200
1 x Montrachet 1982 @ £1,400
… & a few Kronenbourgs @ £7 (that’s when the Master of Wine lost it).

The total came to £44,007 (Ramsey gave them the food for free, that saved them £400). I wonder if they noticed what the wines tasted like, or if they even bothered to finish drinking them. The vintages in question are, in fact, considered to be ‘the finest wines available to humanity’, and are of incomparable depth, complexity and intensity. But, obviously, the actual content of the bottles was irrelevant: it was their price tags that mattered. The aim was to splurge cold, conspicuous cash on the rarest and most evanescent of commodities. This kind of thing makes a nonsense of the idea of fine anything; it’s like the decadence of Carthage in Flaubert’s Salammbo, the nihilistic super-consumerism of Terry Southern’s The Magic Christian, or Terry Jones’s Mr. Kreosote. It’s hosting a paintball party in a medieval barn – or buying a vintage Bentley for use as a dune buggy.

The late, great Terry Jones as Mr. Kreosote, enjoying a momentary lull between courses.

Ultimately, this blow-out caught up with our bibulous Masters of the Universe: news of the meal leaked out immediately and shortly afterwards their identities became widely known. Even though they paid for the wine out of their own pockets, their bosses at Barclays Capital took a dim view of their employees’ lurid extravagance. In the messy aftermath the party even attempted to sue the restaurant for breach of privacy, which was a bad idea: bankers blaming a caterer for their own hubris isn’t a good look. (And Petrus asked for no money for the wines up front; good judgement on their part but running a restaurant at this level must be a bit like managing a casino.) Ultimately all six fine diners lost their jobs with Barclays; this seems unfair on one of the party, a teetotaller who felt somehow obliged to pay nine grand for wine that had not passed his lips.

There are other, more charming, stories of encounters with fine wines in public places. In May 2019 a couple at the Manchester branch of Hawksmoor were mistakenly served a Pomerol (a 2001 Chateau le Pin) worth £4,500 but the restaurant didn’t discover its mistake until after the couple had left. The couple had ordered a 2001 Chateau Pichon Longueville Contesse de Lalande, which happened to have a very similar label to the Pomerol, but was a mere £260 a pop. Thankfully, this joint did the right thing: they tweeted the incident and said that they hoped the couple had enjoyed such a splendid bottle of wine. The PR value of such a charming story far outweighed the loss of a common-or-garden Pomerol, even if it did cost as much as, say, a low-mileage 2014 Ford Focus.

But in the current lockdown, in the interminable imprisonment in our own hutches, these stories have acquired a fresh lustre of myth and legend. The idea of going into a bar, to dine out with friends … forget the plutocrats’ super-wines, a bar-service round of Kronenbourgs is The Holy Grail of our time.