Wealth Imitates Taste

Wealth imitates taste.

I spent a couple of pretty happy years working at Craft, chef celebre Tom Colicchio’s westernmost outpost, in Los Angeles. We worked hard and were rewarded, thanks to the restaurant’s location in the shadow of the Creative Artists Agency building, with myriad celebrity sightings, ranging from the silly to the sublime. I and my barmates served a cheap Australian blend to Rupert Murdoch (really) and a cranberry juice and soda, sans Jack, to Slash (REALLY!). We had true gourmands and camera-happy Top Chef-bred food fetishizers. Reality stars and filthy-rich nobodies whose trophy brides had trophy breasts hoisting trophy baubles. It was not just a job: it was a spectacle.

One time I was talking wine with an Everyman guest (not the same, generally, as the kind of Everyman you find outside of Craft, btw). As I swirled my glass and he polished his monocle (ok, not really), I asked him what kind of wines he preferred. His reply was curt and dismissive: “Cult cabernets.”

Cult cabernets.


Those were his favorite wines. No specific vintages, no producers; no real properties that he preferred. Just “cult.” Whereas one statement of preference or taste usually begets another, prolonging and enhancing the discussion, his was haughty and superior: a real conversation-ender.

The “cult” term is thrown about pretty liberally these days in the wine world, but it refers to wines that, due to high ratings or extraordinary quality or low production or mystique or maybe all of these, are in such demand that they are all but impossible to get. Wines whose attraction lies much more in their rarity than their quality (I’m not saying that these are not good wines, mind you, but once you reach that status, you sell out no matter what, and people say you’re great no matter what). What this man was telling me was that his taste in wine is not based on the actual taste of the wine, or how good it is, but on how rare it is. I mean, you don’t sniff or sip wine and pick up notes of cult. What he really loved about it was that you can’t have it. He spoke about it like he knew what he was talking about, but all he really knew was that he could manage to plunk down a few Benjamins per bottle. At the time, I didn't know that I had grazed the tip of a peculiar cultural iceberg. In fact, at the time, I may have even been a little bit impressed.

But wealth imitates taste, and this guy was a first-class jerkoff.

Wealth imitates taste. I read this pithy statement somewhere; I think it was in Jonathan Nossiter’s Liquid Memory.

What does it mean? It means that wealth is too often (ab)used to affect taste. To fake taste.

What is taste?

That’s tough, but I would say that taste is a learned, earned, and educated preference for certain things. For anything. Wine, fast food burgers, guitars, sailboats, whatever. You name it, you can have taste in it.

But here’s the thing: you gotta earn it.

Wealth imitates taste, and it is everywhere.

It is in the suburbs of San Francisco, where doughy venture capitalists’ $3000 bicycles see more mileage secured to the back of their Porsche Cayennes than on their own (the bikes’) lightweight rims.

In Belle Meade, TN, where gaudy monogrammed handbags inspire great envy.

On Mount Everest right now, where teams of Sherpas practically carry rich tourist-“adventurers” up the daunting (for the Sherpas, at least) mountain.

On Nantucket, where flush “sailors” hoist their mains and slack their jibs with the push of a button, instead of with their milky hands.

Now let’s be clear: There is nothing wrong with wealth. Wealth is fine and dandy. Who doesn’t aspire to, or enjoy, financial comfort?

Let’s also be clear about this: Wealth does not indicate a dearth of taste. In fact, it can be quite the opposite, as wealth can be a great enabler of taste. The wealthy wine lover does not have to dip into Junior’s Ivy League fund to buy a bottle of Brunello, and that’s a good thing. The wealthy sailor may be inconvenienced, but is not grounded for long, by a broken rudder, and that’s a good thing. But there is no wisdom in wealth alone: it can only be an ally of taste, not a substitute for it.

Because taste- true taste- is earned. It comes when you don’t expect it, because you aren’t looking for it. You don’t set out to “get” taste in something. Know why? You are too busy doing, enjoying, struggling with, or even cursing whatever it is that you have a passion for. You don’t set out to become a sailing enthusiast: you are too busy sailing enthusiastically. You are too busy drinking wine, riding your bike, writing or surfing. You are too busy reading or playing guitar or painting or backpacking. And when it comes time to spend on the tools of your trade, you spend with thought and prudence.

The wannabe with more money than passion or patience just spends, and the world’s salesmen salivate. He gets the biggest and baddest _________ because it’s the best- because the salesman told him so. The boldest and priciest wine, the glitziest boat. The wannabe autophile goes straight for the Lambo. The sailor with more cash than experience goes for the flashiest automated behemoth he can get his hands on (on second thought, maybe we should count “automated” as a virtue w/r/t crashable things). He is the fish in the commercial barrel, for he has not taken the time to swirl and spit or strum or sail. He wants the cred and he wants it now. Bells and whistles? She of true taste knows which bells she will ring, and which she can do without. Leave the superfluous whistles to the rich sucker- let him blow them.

On the subject of bells and whistles, have you heard of the Fender “Relic” series of guitars? It’s like the guitar version of distressed jeans. You get a Strat or Tele (and maybe other models) built to the specifications of a long bygone year, its color sometimes even determined by some famous rocker’s iconic axe. They’re brand-new, except that the paint on the body is chipped and faded in strategic places, the neck is practically worn bare, and it’s all done at the factory for you. Oh yeah, they'll cost you some dough for sure- AT LEAST a couple thousand bucks: more than a regular old new one. It’s cool- they make it look like it has been played for years, and you don't even have to rock out on it; you just have to shell out for it. The hope, I guess, is that when your friends come over and see it, they say "Hey man, have you been secretly touring with a rock band for the last twenty years?" It is the shortcut incarnate. It is the musical equivalent, as one blogger deftly pointed out, as a 4X4 truck with spray-on mud: a towering monument to missing the point.

Because real taste grows by millimeters, not miles. It can be baffling and peculiar. It can be fickle, but when it is true, the one thing it can’t be is wrong. Sure, it can be argued, but it is not swayed by the breeze. It might budge a little from time to time, but that’s because he who has it is curious and hungry for more.

Feigned taste is all wrong. It is directionless and vain, show-offy and vulgar. It is baseless and desperate. It changes with the latest trends and rumors. It blows in the breeze. And where true taste is steadfast, ersatz taste is shrill.

Wealth imitates taste. You know it when you see it.

Just don’t be it.

So go do whatever it is you are passionate about. Go get wealthy, if you want, and go spend that wealth on the objects of your passion. And if the thing that you are passionate about makes you rich, then all the better.

But for heaven’s sake, have some taste.