charity or wretched excess?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

This past Monday a story from wire service AFP circulated online recounting the results of a truffle auction held over the weekend in the northern Italian Barolo stronghold of Alba. Now, your run-of-the-mill mushroom sales fail to generate much interest from the international wine and fungus community, but this one did so. It was headlined “S. Korean wine critic buys 105,000-euro truffle.” The story went on the report that the 900 gram truffle (that is almost exactly two pounds) was sold to Jeannie Cho Lee, an MW and wine critic living in Hong Kong.

I don’t know if there is a buyer’s fee placed on top of the winning bid, which rounds out to $144,000, but however you slice it, that’s a lot of dough for a mushroom. As an alternative, at $18 a jar, that same money would buy you 8000 jars of truffle salt, which I for one am more than happy to use in place of the actual fungus (and thereby calculate that I am saving about $143,982 a year).

On her Twitter page, Ms. Lee announced the purchase with this jaunty post: “Just became the owner of the lrgst wht truffle (900gm) for 105,000 Euros, shared among friends. We will have a wht truffle feast in 7 days.”

She went on to note that “It is all for charity so it isn't logical prices. Truffle arrives in HK on Tues so no choice but to wait till end of the week.”

So many questions; so few answers! How will the truffle be traveling, I wonder? First class, no doubt, but what else? Accompanied by a companion/guide? Offered a complimentary glass of Champagne? Housed in a special container? Before being allowed to board, will the truffle be subjected to a full-body scan, or even worse, a pat-down? And what, for that matter, are the actual rules on truffle importation? Jeez, I can’t even get a tube of toothpaste onto an airplane these days, let alone a monster ‘shroom.

I am equally astonished to learn that wine writing in Hong Kong pays so remarkably well! Ms. Lee casually drops $144,000 on a two pound fungus, while here in the good old USA, I’m happy if I can occasionally treat myself to a pound or two of the flavorless white mushrooms sold in grocery stores (total cost: $7.99).

There’s little doubt, in my mind at least, that Hong Kong is now the wretched excess capital of all Winedom. Just a couple of weeks ago, an auction of Lafite brought in bids such as this mindblower – $234,000 EACH for three bottles of 1869 Lafite (I guess they haven’t read “The Billionaire’s Vinegar” in Hong Kong). At the same auction, a case of the still-unreleased 2000 Lafite brought in $71,751 (guess that’s what they call a bargain). So let’s see now, a bottle of over-the-hill wine and a truffle appetizer – let’s generously say shared among a table of four – would come out to $94,500 per person. I wonder how you calculate the tip on that?

Still more questions. Am I the only person who doubts the assertion that somehow it is all ok because it’s for charity!?!? Back at the “Nobody Knows the Truffles I’ve Seen” auction, another big spender was businessman Antonio Bertolotto, who spent roughly $150,000 on a group of three truffles, one of which he’s going to ship off to the Pope! Can truffles attain sainthood? Or is there a Cardinal Truffle in the offing??

Marrying egotistic, self-indulgent spending to “charity” is widespread, and many very generous people in the wine industry are, I fear, duped into contributing. Here’s a chipper little press release that showed up just this morning from the organizers of the Naples (FL) Winter Wine Festival.

“The 2011 Naples Winter Wine Festival charity auction will feature travel experiences that fulfill a range of fantasies whether bidders are adventurers, celebrity followers, jewelry lovers or sports aficionados. From a private magic lesson with famed magician David Blaine to a 22-day around-the-world-trip in a specially outfitted private jet, there is something unique to ignite most passions.

"The trips and experiences are among 70 one-of-a-kind lots up for auction at the Jan. 28 – 30 festival in Naples, which benefits underprivileged and at-risk children through the Naples Children & Education Foundation. Placed among rare and special wine lots are offerings including prime seats at the Monaco Grand Prix; walking the red carpet at the Cannes Film Festival; a walk-on role on Showtime’s hit TV show Californication; white truffle hunting in Italy; a multi-faceted trip with Audemars Piguet’s watchmaking elite in Geneva, Switzerland and in Florida a golf pairing with Vijay Singh and Anthony Kim; an 18-night luxury trip to Thailand and Vietnam; and a unique and personal African safari.

“To pull together exceptional auction lots, we partnered with incredibly generous donors and let our imaginations run wild,” said Bruce Sherman co-chair of the festival and a trustee of the NCEF, the festival’s founding organization. “Before we knew it, we had trips filled with one incredible experience after another. When the cause is children in need, people tend to get very inventive and excited about what they can contribute.”

Here’s an idea. How about contributing to a charity because it’s the right thing to do? Is it really a contribution when you are essentially buying the opportunity to wave your big paddle in front of your rich friends, and then go jetting off to the Monaco Grand Prix or Cannes – on a tax write-off no less! Pardon me, but that’s not charity; that’s hubris, plain and simple.


Cabfrancophile said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
PaulG said...

Cabfrancophile, please be careful about unfounded assertions about anyone being "on the take." I almost decided to delete this comment because of that. There is absolutely no evidence to support the assertion that the critic named is on the take; my guess is she simply has some rich friends. And since I am also a wine critic who in some respects is close to some of the Northwest's most sought-after producers, I absolutely deny and also resent the implication that I am "on the take." Untrue. Please censor yourself in the future, so I won't have to.

Cabfrancophile said...

Edit: Poor phrasing redacted. It was meant to imply just what you say, connections to wealthy friends.

There's a certain adage that goes "the true judge of a man's character is how he treats someone who can do nothing for him." While the money does go to charity, if that was the whole story the donors would have no problem anonymously giving it. Getting one's name attached to the record sum and the good or service is certainly a big part of the attraction.

It seems wine collectors love to throw around the word generous. If a guy pulls a rare bottle out of his cellar, he is then generous. Sorry, but I call BS on that. Generosity is asking for nothing in return, when always this guy is tacitly asking for everyone to revel in his ownership of a rare good. If a guy gives you a ride in his Bentley, is that generous? Not really, though I would politely accept the offer say thanks afterwards. It's mainly an opportunity to show off.

This is the nature of rich people, though. They are out of touch with reality and always looking for ways to convince themselves they are special. Conspicuous consumption is turned into generosity, narcissism is turned into charity.

Kathy said...

I think you're misguided in your attempt to shame vintners who donate wine or anything else to charity. Philanthropy is a big part of the wine business and not because you're looking for recognition. Sure, the person who bought the truffle got notoriety, but the person who donated the truffle didn't. I've worked for many producers here in Napa and every one of them felt charitable giving was a way to give back. Not every vintner is wealthy and came from somewhere else before hopping into the wine business. A lot of these businesses are family-driven and multi-generational. I have one client now that bottles 10 cases of magnums every year which are etched signed and numbered and donated to various charities he supports. He's a farmer and only makes 400 cases of wine to begin with. Most of his charities are farmworker, healthcare and education-related. I think you are being very cynical in your viewpoint.

PaulG said...

Hey Kathy, I said nothing remotely like what you seem to have read. What I actually wrote was this: "Marrying egotistic, self-indulgent spending to “charity” is widespread, and many very generous people in the wine industry are, I fear, duped into contributing." My "cynical" post, as you label it, was aimed at the people who spend silly amounts of money on trips to Monaco, in the guise of donating to charity. I think the wineries have only the best of intentions, but they are misguided. That's what I wrote, and I stand by it.

Kathy said...

Cabfrancophile - your comments seem to be over-generalizations and perhaps even stereotypes. Being a jerk doesn't seem to me to be class-specific. I might even go so far as to say that making stereotypical comments is somewhat of a jerky thing to do.

Cabfrancophile said...

Kathy, sure, I am stereotyping, but there is truth in what I say. I live in one of the wealthiest areas in the world. My fiancee works in a business that serves many of the wealthiest people in the area. Let me tell you, there are some ugly stories. And also some nice ones, though fewer. Let's just say you'd be amazed at how stingy the wealthy are when it comes to paying for something agreed upon in a written contract. When it comes to spending for ego, well, it is a bit different!

Another amusing contribution concerns an archway on a UC campus. A donor offered something like $25 million, contingent upon several million being spent on an arch built in his name. Is the university better off with the donation? Certainly. But insisting a monument be built on campus to honor the donor? That's a bit crass.

Next time you go to the symphony, take a moment and look at the list of donors. Always there are a handful of Anonymous donors. It makes not one difference the motive for the donation--a $ is a $--when it comes to keeping the orchestra running. But, like the vintners you mention, it's the people who do it without recognition who are truly charitable.

Tobias Øno said...

I found it a fun truffle-rant.

And I thoroughly agree that much charity would be well served to rethink its approach to tastefulness in light of whatever cause it may aim to aid, because *several* such efforts in the past have seemed completely oblivious to the aspect of good taste. When philanthropy depends upon glamour and luxury to get done, the appearance of sincerity is a tough sale.

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