Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Question of Tea: TGFOP Perfume Testing?

One feature of perfume which makes it difficult to compare to the beaux arts is that it is consumed and cannot be recaptured once it has dissipated into the cosmos. Attempts to immortalize perfume seem for this reason in some ways confused and ultimately doomed. Perfumes are born through the industry of perfumers and are introduced to us by houses, but unlike a piece of music or literature, a perfume is bound to come to an end, sooner or later, by its very nature. 

Perfumes change over time in a way that musical compositions and poems do not. Yes, such works will be interpreted variously by different people at different periods of time, determined in part by the peculiar cultural milieu in which they live, but the score or the text remains the same.

A great poem or piece of music may be discovered where it was left in a drawer by its author decades or even centuries after it was composed, but a bespoke perfume forgotten in a closet would no longer exist by the time its bottle was found after the same period of time. Having been created and produced by finite human beings out of equally exhaustible materials, every perfume will eventually meet with its own demise.

The well-meaning, if naïve, intention of those who conceived of the Osmothèque was to elevate perfumery to the status of poetry, music, and the other beaux arts. It is true that any art form which involves natural materials will eventually decompose—paintings, sculptures, architectural structures, … —but perfume is far more evanescent than all of the rest, being made of highly volatile molecules which will immediately evaporate if the bottle in which it is housed is left uncapped, and eventually decompose, even if the bottle is tightly sealed. Storing perfumes under argon gas may help to postpone the inevitable, but such a measure does not make the ultimate fate of a perfume any less inexorable.

Some perfumes' lifetimes are longer than others, but none is very long compared to the works of music and literature which have stood the test of time, and it requires a continuous, concerted effort on the part of someone somewhere to keep perfumes alive (in production). Like periodical publications—currently in crisis (no doubt to the great relief of trees everywhere)—a perfume requires a vigilant support system in order to persist.

Many magazines have folded in recent years due to insolvency. Even magazines with devoted readerships may abruptly shutter their offices when funding is suddenly withdrawn for no better reason than that the benefactors or producers have lost interest and decided to redirect their energy and financial support to other projects. The texts may of course be archived, but the magazine, as a thing in reality, ceases to exist, just as the leaves of a tree deprived of water will shrivel and dry, and ultimately die.

Perfumes, too, require a benefactor of sorts: a house willing to do what it takes to keep the perfume in production. In recent times, as small houses have been absorbed by large corporate conglomerates such as LVMH, Estée Lauder, and Procter & Gamble, the fate of a given perfume has come to have more to do with whether it makes business sense to maintain it than whether the creation has intrinsic aesthetic worth. One might have thought that no one could be so obtuse as to refuse to continue to produce a widely acclaimed perfume, one touted as a masterpiece, and yet this has happened and will no doubt continue to happen, perhaps with even greater frequency as corporations continue to expand, cordoning off more and more of perfume land.

The trend these days appears to be to focus more on heavily advertised mass market fragrances which sell not for their composition but for the appealing images which are tied to the products. The profligate production of flankers is best explained by the fact that they provide companies with a head start on marketing, being parasitic as they are on the namesake perfume and the images used to promote it. True, the visual images used in advertising perfumes are independent of the perfumes themselves, but through image-based marketing campaigns, consumers are persuaded to part with relatively large sums of money for even mediocre juice. Consumers are, in effect, paying more for the advertisements than they are for their perfume.

In the end, perfume is consumed, so the goal of marketers is to get people to buy a bottle, after which, if it is at all wearable, then the perfume will be used. This situation is similar to that depicted in Mondovino regarding wine. Once people have purchased a case of wine, then they will drink it, provided that it is potable.

In the case of perfume, having spritzed through a good 100ml, the wearer may find that it has become a part of his or her perfumed identity, and he or she may well purchase the same perfume again. Signature scents become signature scents through a process of habituation. As with wine, a certain type of perfume may be an acquired taste, but because human beings are naturally habit-forming creatures, our preferences can be molded by tastemakers who decree what we should wear or drink and persuade us to agree.

Why do people drink wine, and why do they drink tea?

While thinking about the tastemakers in Mondovino and the tastemakers in the world of perfume, it occurred to me that perfume use seems closer to tea than to wine when it comes down to actually consuming it. Why is that? Because tea and perfume do not alter one's state of mind in any debilitating way. There is no loss of lucidity in overimbibing tea or overapplying perfume.

In contrast, when one overindulges in wine, the price paid is a rapid loss of acuity, what can range from tipsiness and a slightly blurred or skewed vision of reality to the complete loss of consciousness. Some people handle alcohol better than others—one glass may enough to induce a drunken slur in some while others can single-handedly empty entire bottles—but everyone has a point beyond which they are no longer in complete control. That state of drunkenness—beyond which one is not permitted legally to drive—is not achieved through the use of perfume or tea alone. Indeed, caffeinated tea may well sharpen rather than dulling one's senses and wits.

I had a professor a while back (in California) who told me that he thought that wine connoisseurs were a bunch of alcoholics. I think that he was probably overgeneralizing, but surely there are some wine connoisseurs who are alcoholics, and certainly many people appreciate wine more for its effects on their mind than for the lingering taste on their palate. Or do they separate these two effects at all?

One might argue that a big part of the experience of tea, too, has to do with its felicitous provision of a source of caffeine, and that many tea drinkers imbibe their beverage of choice in part for the mental effects which they can expect to derive from doing so. True, there are people who drink only herbal infusions and decaffeinated teas, but many tea drinkers really do prefer good old stout black tea or a bracing cup of green, which strikes a balance between herbal and black, providing a medium-sized dose of caffeine.

Tea drinkers often have very specific loves and likes, and some of them are familiar with the many fine grades of darjeeling and assam, to say nothing of the thousands of other varieties of tea available on the market today. Still, I suspect that for many such tea drinkers, part of the joy of drinking tea is indeed the joy of achieving a state of caffeination—or recaffeination when it is consumed later in the day.

I recall asking at one point an Irish fellow what sorts of teas were found in Irish Breakfast blend, and he confidently (and endearingly) replied, “Black.” This is where most tea drinkers are found, among the teeming masses of people who think that “black tea” refers to a single thing in the universe. Green tea has recently come to be recognized as well, thanks to the aggressive marketing of it as a source of “antioxidants” said to stave off cancer, but here, too, the vast majority of people could not offer any help whatsoever if asked to describe the difference between gunpowder and sencha. Like George W. Bush, who once confused Sweden with Switzerland, most people could not even name the countries of origin of those two very different varieties of green tea.

My impression is that the vast majority of tea drinkers are of the unsophisticated variety, the millions of people who think that iced tea tastes only like the liquid produced using Lipton's instant iced tea powder, and many of whom believe that orange pekoe is a flavor of black tea (not a size of cut tea leaves). I would venture to guess that most people do in fact drink tea as a source of refreshment with enough caffeine to reinvigorate. They are not looking at tea for its aesthetic properties but for its functional benefits.

I may as well confess here that I happen to be a caffeine addict (or has it been obvious all along?), and so although I can accurately answer all of the above questions and many more, my development of an interest in tea was tied up with my need to ingest enough caffeine to make it through the second half of the day. At one point I was becoming very involved in tea drinking, learning what the acronyms TGF BOP1—(Tippy Golden Flowery Broken Orange Pekoe 1), CTC (Crush Tear Curl), and FTGFOP and all of the other arcane designations mean, and even writing reviews at one site—until I discovered that my negative reviews were deleted, at which point I stopped.

I was delighted to find that tea forms a lively subculture in Western society, and began ordering all sorts of varieties of black and green teas from all over the world, brought together for me felicitously by my favorite tea emporium. During my journey through the world of tea, I discovered that certain varieties work very well for me and taste delicious, while others are far less appealing.

I cannot drink oolong or jasmine teas, for example. Sadly, they induce in me a sort of gag reflex, not unlike my reaction to the sight or smell of canned spinach, or of rum and Coke. I'd love to know which chemicals in these teas—or which proportions—push me over the edge so as to have this effect on me, but in the end it does not really matter. Given the choice of a strong black assam, a grassy darjeeling or a flowery oolong, my choice will always be one of the first two and never, ever the third.

Could I develop a tolerance—and even a taste—for oolong and jasmine teas? I'm skeptical, to say the least, because the experience of drinking those varieties is so very unpleasant to me that I cannot imagine picking up the habit. Perhaps if I tricked myself by slowly mixing larger and larger portions of oolong with a darjeeling, I could reach the point where I was drinking 100% oolong. This very method is recommended to pet owners when changing from one to another dry food rejected by their beloved furry friend: mix a small amount in and keep increasing that amount until finally, at long last, the new food tastes like the right food and will be gobbled up as though it had never been changed.

In any case, to return to the ostensible topic of this post, the parallels between the world of tea and the world of perfume seem to me to be virtually limitless. Let us begin with the most basic attitudes toward each of these liquids. There are people who dislike tea. They do not drink it, even when it is the only beverage available. There are people who dislike perfume, and never wear it, whether because of allergies or simple distaste. The case of specific tea intolerance (such as mine to oolong and jasmine) seems very similar to me to specific cases of perfume intolerance. There are some notes which simply do not sit well with some people, and they will avoid them to the best of their ability, in order not to suffer undue strife. Some people, for example, steer clear of jasmine. I myself love jasmine perfumes, but there is no way that I would drink them!

There is a broad swath of ignorant people who use “tea” in the form of “black” tea bags filled with very inexpensive, cheap-tasting, low-grade tea, just as there is a broad swath of ignorant people who use mass-marketed perfumes which they buy not for the qualities of the perfumes but because they have been persuaded to do so through advertising. 

The bottle is often also a part of the lure.

At the same time, there is a small subculture of perfume lovers who have undertaken to explore the olfactory universe just because it is out there to be explored: a vast, uncharted territory to be conquered. These people love well-crafted perfumes and the many fine nuances and distinctions which make each particular perfume unique. These people interact with one another at perfume community websites and on blogs, and they select their perfumes not on the basis of marketing but because it passes their personal inspection and coheres with their general sense of olfactory aesthetics.

Determining which perfumes to purchase requires, for self-respecting perfumistas, testing, which is where it seems that wine tasting may be closer to what many tend actually to do. Connoisseurs of tea who know their general categories will simply buy small packets of tea to drink—that is, in fact the way to test tea: to brew it up and drink it.

Wine tasting and Perfume testing

Ideally, to give a perfume a fair chance, one should wear it for the entire duration of its development and persistence. How else can one ascertain a perfume's longevity, wearability, and general aesthetic appeal? To know whether a perfume is right for one's self, it would seem that one must wear it, on one's own skin, precisely as a tea connoisseur will drink a tea in order to determine whether it should be purchased in larger quantities.

In reality, perfume testing is often carried out in a rather abrupt and perfunctory way, by taking a quick sniff off a strip, or wearing a minuscule amount which may not convey the full experience which one would have were one to partake of the luxury of spritzing on a regular-sized “serving”. The typical abbreviated testing—whether using a quick spritz from a jealously guarded tester bottle at a counter, or a few dabs from a small vial obtained from the house or a gray market decanter—is similar in some ways to the manner in which people test wine. Well, the manner in which professional wine tasters test wine, I should say.

How do ordinary people test wine? They remove the cork from a bottle and drink it. They definitely do not take a quick slurp and swirl it about their mouth before spitting it out, as professionals do. Of course, this is what professionals who test sometimes dozens of wines in succession must do, else they would be incompetent to render judgment upon the later wines tested. So this method of wine tasting has arisen with the arrival on the scene of wine professionals and consultants.

This situation raises an interesting question about whether the results obtained from testing in such a cursory way really have any bearing on the experience which consumers can expect to have when they buy a bottle of wine based on such tests. Is part of the experience of wine not actually ingesting the alcohol for which many people reach for it in the first place?

The fact that wine may impair faculties while neither perfume nor tea does, makes me think that perfume users may potentially be more in control of their perfume judgments than are wine drinkers. Let's face it: a bottle of wine which initially seemed mediocre may start to seem pretty good by the time one reaches the last glass. Indeed, by that point the “wine taster” may no longer care what the wine tastes like, singing under his breath, “Que será, que será,” or perhaps intoning some helpful advice to his companions such as: “Don't worry; be happy!”

The group most in control seem to me to be tea connoisseurs. This is not only because tea contains not a depressant but a stimulant, but also because the subculture is so obscure and does not significantly overlap or compete with the mass-market tea industry. The people who seek out specialty teas and develop tastes for exotic first- and second-flush varieties of super-rare teas from far-away estates, cannot really be wooed away by the Lipton tea company.

I think that we perfume lovers would do well to emulate the estimable members of the subculture of sophisticated tea drinkers by attempting to the best of our ability to focus more on the perfume and less on the hype, whether it be the mass advertising campaigns with which we are constantly barraged or the more exalted form of hype surrounding every new recent serial launch by niche perfumers. To retain our autonomy, to be fully in control of our perfume preferences and judgments, we need to find ways to separate out the perfumes from their packaging and promotion.

This focus on the object of critique itself is possible in the world of tea in the way that it seems much less possible in the world of wine, where hype is rife. Clearly this is because the worldwide market for wine is enormous, much greater than that even for supermarket varieties of tea. As a result, all wine drinkers are subject to the forces acting upon them when tastemakers decree that certain wines are better than others based on a five-second swirl and spit.

The reason why the most expensive bottles of wine are orders of magnitude more expensive than the most expensive bottles of perfume is itself a matter of hype, but also of demand and supply. With more people clamoring for a few select cases of allegedly great wine, the prices quickly spike. Wine shysters such as Rudy Kurniawan simply take advantage of the peculiarities of that market in rebottling lesser wines as sought-after vintages which they are not. But people succumb to such a ruse because they have placed their faith in the wine tastemakers and are not able independently to judge when they have been duped.

With perfume, we could cut through all of the hype by testing perfumes blind, with no knowledge of their provenance, although that would be logistically difficult to do. More realistically, we can attempt to test perfumes fairly by giving them a complete wear, preferably multiple wears, before pronouncing upon what we take to be their virtues and vices. To heed the alleged authority of anyone in the world of perfume nonidentical with one's self seems to me to be to walk down the path to error.

In order to achieve the heights of perfume appreciation, we need to focus more on our personal experience of wearing perfume and less on all of the irrelevant nonsense. 

Let us call it how we sniff it, my fragrant friends, 
and let us have the courage of our sniffing convictions!

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Of Tastemakers and Tango

We have the pleasure of wearing perfume because people make it for us. Perfumers create perfumes, and companies sell them to us. Without perfumers and companies, we would be left to our own devices in coming up with creative ways to perfume ourselves—or not. Perhaps we would simply smell like ourselves fresh from the bath, and the people who neglected to bathe would simply stink.

Our indebtedness toward perfumers puts us in a delicate position when it comes time to pen reviews, it seems to me. It behooves us, first, to remember that perfumers do not regard their own creations as “scrubbers,” no matter how unpleasant on occasion we may find some of them to be. Still, judging from the tenor of many negative reviews, it appears that some people believe that perfumers are under some sort of moral obligation to produce perfumes pleasing to everyone. In reality, perfumes designed to satisfy mutually exclusive or contradictory market niches end up failing in all of them. By trying too hard to be all things to all people, such perfumes may end by being nothing to anyone.

Most perfumers, thankfully, appear content to create coherent perfumes which embody and express a certain finite set of values. Many of them appear to be aiming at beauty, but their conception may differ from someone else's. This implies that some people will not like what perfumers produce—whatever that may be—which follows straightforwardly from the fact that all people do not like all genres and scents. I do not like the smell of sweaty musk. Therefore, I will not in this lifetime be intentionally purchasing perfumes which feature heavy sweaty musk. Does this imply that a perfumer who produces a sweaty musk perfume has committed some sort of crime? Of course not. Sometimes people have to agree to disagree, and this is one such case.

Perfumistas all have their bêtes noires notes, which they really prefer to avoid. I've seen people say that they cannot stand patchouli; others dislike citrus or vanilla in perfumes. Some people even claim not to like violet, for heaven's sake! I myself do not have anything personal against the scent of peonies per se, but it turns out that many renditions of the peony note do not sit well with me, and some of them even induce a fairly unpleasant feeling of malaise. Are perfumers wrong to create perfumes which induce in me strife? Of course not. But it takes two to tango, so in order to get me to buy their wares, a house must produce something I actually like and want to wear.

How could anyone be obliged to please all of the people all of the time, if that is impossible to do? If ought implies can, then it cannot be the case that any perfumer is required to produce creations likeable to everyone—or even nearly everyone. In fact, after a great deal of reflection on this matter, I have come to the conclusion that perfumers do not owe us a damned thing, and companies owe us even less. They do what they do because it makes sense to them, and if we do not like it, then we can vote with our wallets by refusing to buy what they sell.

Although in the past I lamented My Ugly Divorce from Mitsouko, in the end, I must admit that Guerlain has every right in the world to self-destruct through the mangling of once-classic perfumes and the launch of trivial flankers and BHT-laced nonsense which I have no desire to wear. Perhaps they will not entirely self-destruct. Perhaps they will cling on to existence, survive like a cockroach, producing cheaper and grosser juice until the only place to buy it will be the drugstore, while the boutiques which formerly carried real perfume (muzak versions of which are now sold at Walgreens, Target, and elsewhere) will all close down.

Perhaps Guerlain will follow the sad path taken by Halston and Coty, destroying the best of what it once offered and limping along like an elderly person hobbled by the many vices in which he indulged as a youth. Having recognized already that Guerlain is not Guerlain anymore, I really cannot be bothered with anything that they produce. Maybe they'll luck out and come up with a winner now and then, but at this point it's strictly a game of chance. No more blind buys from Guerlain. I've learned my lesson well. My loyalty to a house lasts only so long as they produce wares which warrant my loyalty. Once trust has been shattered, it's impossible to reverse the damage done. That is the nature of trust.

One of the most interesting points made in Mondovino is that brand loyalty and customer sophistication are inversely proportional. The more consumers learn, the less likely they are to stick with a single brand name. They gain the confidence to make judgments and choices based on their values and the actual quality of products, rather than simply shopping for labels. This seems obviously to be the case with perfume as well. The more we learn, the more difficult we become to please.

And on the Eighth Day, God Made Perfume...

There is a curious sense in which perfume companies are the gods of the perfume universe. They make what exists there, and they and only they have the power to take it away, whether through reformulation or discontinuation. Consumers have no real control over any of this beyond their decisions regarding the dispensation of their wallet share. This is why if we care about the future of perfumery as an art, we should attempt to support the houses which draw a line in the sand and do not cross over to the dark and crassly mercenary side. We should support the houses which do not lose sight of why their founders went into perfumery in the first place.

Corporations, of course, are not moral persons. It is odd how they have come to acquire so much power and are sometimes even accorded rights befitting of persons, when in reality they are nothing of the sort. There are persons working behind the scenes at companies, of course, but even they may or may not share our values. We certainly cannot count on them to remain the same over the course of their lives, and for the very same reasons that people change, the corporations which they together comprise will change as well.

The homogenization of wine decried in Mondovino came about not because the Robert Mondavi company was evil, but because consumers are like sheep who generally do as they are told. These are habits developed early on and which persist throughout most people's lives. We grow up being told to do this and not that, and we learn to heed the decrees of our parents and teachers and other authorities presumably wiser than we. By the time we have reached adulthood, we have developed difficult to reverse habits of submission. On the bright side, most of us have never been convicted of a felony or seen the inside of a prison cell.

This explains why when someone like Robert Parker comes along, proclaiming himself to be an expert on wine, people actually listen to him. The guy has a lot of experience with wine, much more than most consumers, who are busy with their own careers and areas of expertise, so they naturally defer to him. Once the ball starts rolling, it gains speed, and consumers' tastes begin to reflect the experts' for no other reason than that they become used to drinking what they have been told to drink, and they develop a taste for precisely that. Parker prefers ripe fruit wines with a denser concentration, and he also appreciates the toastiness imparted by fermentation in oak barrels. These tastes are easily acquired, and people who follow his advice in deciding what to buy, eventually come to value these same qualities in the wines which they imbibe.

In a cycle, then, these values are confirmed and reconfirmed to the point where consumers, too, begin to agree, and this makes winemakers inclined to provide the sorts of wines which consumers are drinking and will therefore continue to buy. The ready availability of such wines then makes consumers want to drink more of the same.

Similar dynamics can be seen in the world of perfume. The examples are virtually limitless, but let us consider a few, beginning with the case of Estée Lauder Beautiful, said to be the number one bestselling perfume in the United States. How in the world did this come about?

The same self-perpetuating mechanism comes into play in the world of perfume as in the world of wine. Americans generally speaking do not know that much about perfume, and they may have inferiority complexes when it comes to exotic products bearing French names. When young women with little perfume experience are preparing to get married, they may well ask for advice: which perfume should I wear?

The answer they receive at the major department stores, all of which are equipped with well-staffed Estée Lauder counters is: Beautiful is the number one bestselling perfume in America. The idea that a woman about to get married should, too, reach for a perfume with such a name, and which is explicitly advertised as the perfect choice for brides, with beautiful models wearing Beautiful perfume and dressed up in flowing white wedding gowns, conspires to make it a nearly compelling purchase for many young middle class women. Then, of course, having purchased Beautiful, they come to number among those who keep it the number one selling perfume in America!

Now one natural response to the case of the homogenized wine industry and also to the nuptial scent hegemony of Beautiful might be simply that these tendencies do not prevent other wine and perfume companies from offering other wines and perfumes. And, yes, this is true.

One reason why Mondovino is not all that convincing as a moral critique is that it strangely sides with traditional winemakers from well-off families, and such people are hardly in a position to claim that the massive sales of the sell-out winemakers prevent them, the terroiristes, from continuing to produce wine the good-old-fashioned way. One of the Burgundian winemakers in the film proclaims rather melodramatically:

Le vin est mort. Soyons clairs: le vin est mort.
[Wine is dead. Let us be clear: wine is dead.]

Preachers of death are always emerging in human society. Everyone seems to be claiming to be the prophet of the death of this or that, but these supposedly moribund things always seem to find a way to cling on to life. Wine is still being made, eight years after the release of Mondovino. It may be that many people's palates have adapted to the point where they themselves sincerely prefer the sorts of wines favored by Robert Parker. Is there a crime in that?

We can ask the same question about changes in people's taste in perfumes. Let us take the vexed question of “old lady perfumes”. Read the reviews of a classic perfume at fragrance community websites—take Chanel no 5 or basically any other floral aldehyde—and you will find a contingent of probably younger perfume wearers who sincerely claim to dislike such creations because they remind them of their grandmothers or other “old ladies”.

To favor “old lady” perfumes has come even to be a source of pride, a sort of badge of sophistication, among veteran perfumistas, who smugly take themselves to know the difference between mere fragrance and bona fide perfume. How can it be that scents repugnant to some are beloved to others? In a phrase:

You are what you sniff

I recently became acutely aware of the truth of this quasi-Aristotelian theory of perfume identity upon taking up Estée Lauder Azurée after a hiatus during which I had been wearing a lot of currently popular varieties of perfume, including sweet patchouli and oriental fragrances. What I discovered is that what we are used to sniffing does tend to smell better to us, at least to a point, because there is an appeal in virtue of the feeling of comfort and familiarity we derive from smelling it.

Viva La Juicy, Lady Million, Golden Delicious
Jennifer Aniston, Addict to Life, Warm Cotton
Amazing Grace, Euphoria,
Ange ou Démon le Secret, Angel
Companies such as Sephora are capitalizing on the warm, fuzzy feeling of comfort we derive from wearing habituated scents, by offering sample sets which come with a voucher for a free bottle of one of the perfumes in the set. This clever ploy basically compels consumers to buy full bottles of one of a small selection of perfumes, often in the same or similar mold.

I myself have bought these sample sets as a means of testing new perfumes, and as a result I own a few bottles which I might otherwise never have purchased. Once a bottle has made its way onto a consumer's vanity tray, she will reach naturally for it and will become habituated to its scent, perhaps even growing to love it, which may well lead to further purchases of the same perfume later on down the line, once the first bottle has been drained.

With perfume, as with wine, part of what we like is simply what we know. We can acquire a taste even for wines and perfumes which did not initially appeal to us, and this is facilitated by the stratagems of companies, of which Sephora's ingenious sample sets with vouchers are one example. Seems like a good deal, doesn't it? You pay a modest price for the sample set (the price of a bottle of perfume, in fact), and you get to sample several new perfumes for free. The only hitch is that your choices are limited to the perfumes in the sample set. I attempted to bend the rules once, asking whether I might substitute a perfume of the same price for one of those covered by the voucher. The reply was “No,” unless my selection from the sample set options was completely out of stock, then substitution would not be possible.

This naturally led me to scheme briefly over the possibility of determining which among the sample set selection was actually out of stock, but it all became too logistically difficult, so I just ended up going home with a bottle of Calvin Klein Euphoria, which, let us be frank, I most likely would never have bought, had I not had a voucher to trade in for it or a bunch of even less desirable perfumes...

Still, the whole ritual was quite fun, I must say: testing the perfumes, marching off to Sephora (you must present the voucher in a store—they are not redeemable online), and coming home with a new bottle of perfume, which I might end up swapping away. I suspect, however, that the vast majority of consumers who play the Sephora sample set game end up using the bottle they acquire. I'm not going to complain: I also picked up my three allowed decanted samples while I was in the store.

This is only one of the ways that perfumes can make their way into your home and eventually come to be used by you and then become a part of your perfumed identity.

You are what you sniff!

I noticed recently that Sephora is now offering smaller and smaller sample sets with their voucher deal. The latest versions of the deal involve buying a coffret containing either four or five minis of perfumes. The choices have thus been whittled down from ten vial samples or minis to four or five minis. By this maneuver, they are going to dramatically increase the percentage sales of those particular perfumes, already previously offered in the sample sets containing a wider range of choices.

Warm Cotton, A Touch of Verbena,
Light Blue, Poppy, Jennifer Aniston
Michael Kors, Yellow Diamond,
Addict to Life, Viva La Juicy


Is there a conspiracy at work here? Of course there is. Is there anything wrong with that? No. Did I buy one of these coffrets? No. I had already tested all of the perfumes being offered in the smaller coffrets, so I already knew that I had no desire to add any of those full bottles to my collection. Perhaps other consumers, too, will vote with their wallet, and Sephora will offer new sets with a wider variety of samples again, making it rational for someone like me to buy one in order to test some new perfumes.

Companies are in business to make money. End of story. Fortunately their desire to make money sometimes accommodates our own desire to wear beautiful perfume. But nothing that they offer today is guaranteed to be there tomorrow. The universe of perfume is peopled all and only of perfumes which companies find profitable to produce. For this reason, it may not make a lot of sense to try to immortalize perfume. Perhaps, in the end, perfumes really are more like people than poems. They are born and eventually die, fading from consciousness until the point where they remain only a name which may be mentioned now and then, but which most people in the universe cannot claim ever to have really known.

Perhaps we should celebrate the ephemerality of perfumes. Is it not their very mortality which makes them so precious and fragile, precisely like human beings? Should we attempt to mummify perfumes? Or should we allow them to die with dignity, as in the case of a perfume such as Mahora, which was never reformulated but only discontinued. Would the world be a better place if it contained a reformulated version of Mahora? I think not. May she rest in peace.

When our favorite perfumes are discontinued, we may feel like the winemaker in Mondovino, and we, too, may exclaim:

Le parfum est mort. Soyons clairs: le parfum est mort.
[Perfume is dead. Let us be clear: perfume is dead.]

And if we do, we, too, will be wrong, because nothing that Sephora or Estée Lauder or any other company does is going to prevent small, independent niche houses from continuing to produce perfumes which appeal to narrow sectors of the perfume-wearing population. So there.

It is precisely in their exclusivity that such perfumes will continue to appeal to perfumistas. Perfumes which are produced not in order to please the masses but in order to captivate will continue to exist, so long as perfumers continue to exist. So I say: Long live olfactory artists who continue to create compelling works for us to sniff! Let us rejoice that we have the opportunity to enjoy the fruits of their labor during our short time together on this planet.

Le parfum n'est pas mort!
Soyons clairs: le parfum n'est pas mort.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Mondovino—Mondoprofumo: Wine, Perfume, and the Globalization of Taste

Reflections on Mondovino (2004),
with applications to perfume

I first viewed Jonathan Nossiter's film Mondovino not too long after its release in 2004. My initial impressions were mixed. First, the shaky handheld camera work made the film in some ways difficult to watch and definitely required a sturdy vestibular system in order to be able to stomach. But I also felt that the director was somehow overzealous in his critique. He seemed to be religiously committed to some sort of Platonic Form of the Good Wine, which struck me as fanciful, at best, fanatical, at worst.

Mondovino is, above all, a morality play, with villains and saints and a middle category of collaborators who succumb to the temptation of the devil to sell their souls to greater or lesser extents, depending on the case. The villains are painted so derogatorily that I wondered at the end of my viewing of the film, first, whether Nossiter was still safe roaming the streets without a body guard and, second, whether he would ever be able to make another documentary film again.

Like director Michael Moore, Nossiter manages to display the villains of his morality play in an incredibly unflattering light which, one suspects, can only have made them regret their naïve decision to agree to conduct interviews in what must have seemed at the time to be very affable and innocuous—perhaps even promotional!—exchanges.

Garagiste Winemaker

The upstart winemakers, whether from California or France, are referred to as the “garagistes” (note the parallel to the small niche “garage” movement as exemplified by the house of Kerosene). The garagistes are depicted as somewhat unsavory characters, the repeated insinuation being that they have somehow compromised their standards in the quest for profit. Their “trick” involves producing relatively small numbers of bottles of each vintage and specifically seeing to it that they will be pleasing to influential critics, whose praise then causes the prices to soar to hundreds or even thousands of dollars per bottle, precisely because they are in limited supply.

As is true with some of Michael Moore's efforts, one may come away from Mondovino with the sense that the director really tricked the targets of his critique into participating in what became a final product highly critical of them. This sense may detract from the holier-than-thou righteousness which such films attempt to convey and make them less effective as critiques, it seems to me.

The Wine Director at Christie's in London
I certainly did enjoy aspects of Mondovino, including the quirky subtheme of winemakers' dogs and the creative use of both modern and classical music as the score for the film. I also loved going on a trip around the world with the director to Burgundy and Bordeaux in France, Napa Valley in California, Sardinia and Tuscany in Italy, and briefly to visit wineries in both Argentina and Brazil. There were also short excursions to London, to discuss the state of wine with the director at Christie's, and New York, where an American wine importer sympathetic with the central critique weighed in on what is variously referred to in the film as the “Napa-ization” or “Merlotization” or “Pomerol-ization” of wine.

An American Wine Importer Committed to Terroir
The problem, according to Nossiter and the film's heroes, is that wine is being standardized to reflect the taste of a few American critics who happen to favor very concentrated, ripe fruit wines ready to imbibe immediately as they are produced, rather than requiring a lengthy period of aging to achieve their maximum potential—as is the case for the traditional wines of Burgundy, among other regions. This new, modern, “global” or “international” style of wine is produced through the use of standardized techniques such as micro-oxygenation and fermentation in new oak barrels, which impart certain uniform qualities much more dominant than the underlying differences arising from the grapes' various origins or terroirs.

Tuscan Shopkeeper and Defender of Terroir-based Wines
The director's central concern is that through the promotion of this style of winemaking, hailed by American critics whose opinions directly determine pricing—because Americans spend more on wine and believe what the self-proclaimed "experts" say—wines are being homogenized to the point where the specific origins don't really matter anymore. The ways in which the wines are manipulated creates a certain type of product being exalted as great, with a concomitant devaluation of anything that does not fit the standard model.

Mondovino, on its most basic level, is an anti-globalization film, similar to others released about the same time, including an equally searing critique of the globalized coffee industry, Black Gold, directed by Marc Francis and Nick Francis in 2006. In Black Gold, the primary villain is Starbucks; in Mondovino, the primary villain is the Robert Mondavi company, based in Napa Valley, California. Given the focus of this film, Mondovino is a clever double entendre.

When pointedly directed toward particular targets exposed as evildoers, these sorts of “activist” films tend to have short relevance lifetimes. In the case of Black Gold, Starbucks nearly immediately got to work implementing a variety of initiatives—including helping indigenous farmers, among other public displays of social consciousness—to the point where much of the critique of the film appears no longer to be valid. Of course, if such films can change the world, then the activist filmmakers who produce them are vindicated in the end.

Another example of this kind of filmmaking might be the 2004 film by Morgan Spurlock, Super Size Me, which its director now claims led to McDonalds' elimination of the supersize upgrade add-on meal deals. Super Size Me may also have had something to do with the expansion of fast food restaurant menus to include such low-calorie options as salads and the like, although it is true that there have been many anti-obesity activists in recent years, so it's not entirely clear who should be credited with such developments—if anyone.

Since it is not the primary purpose of activist directors to produce cinema for cinema's sake, when the corporate monsters criticized in such works become proactively involved in refuting the charges made against them, then the directors/critics may be fully satisfied with the result, though their film may no longer be worth watching anymore, having been effectively rendered irrelevant. Still, the films stand as successful examples of how activists can change the world, even if it means ultimately that the objects of their critique may do no more than to become keenly vigilant of their image.

As Plato observed more than 2000 years ago, the most straightforward way to gain the reputation of a good man is to act in the manner of good man. (Much easier and more convincing than merely pretending to be a good man!) The same story holds for lying: if only for recordkeeping purposes, you're much better off telling the truth, rather than having to remember which lies you told to whom.

The companies which recognize that they can benefit from a socially conscious profile may thus endeavor to create an analogously righteous image, most easily accomplished through actually engaging in some socially conscious initiatives. So is Starbucks' assistance to indigenous farmers motivated from selfless altruism? Of course not. Starbucks is a company, and companies are profit-making machines. In the end, films such as Black Gold may not alter the “greed is good” outlook of the CEOs of large companies in the least. Such companies may nonetheless be galvanized—in the name of self-defense—to allocate more of their budget to fostering a socially conscious corporate image.

One contradiction inherent to anti-globalization films is that their success is entirely dependent upon the global promotion and distribution of the works. In other words, it is only because of the success of globalization that directors such as Michael Moore, Morgan Spurlock, and Jonathan Nossiter are able to garner an audience at all. Subsequent to the release of Mondovino, Nossiter was championed by some people in France, while reviled by the wine establishment in the United States, and even more so in the aftermath of the publication of his book, Le Goût et le Pouvoir (2007), translated by himself (a polyglot) and published in English in 2009 under the title Liquid Memory.

Wine Critic Robert Parker at his home

The primary wine critic against whom Nossiter takes aim in Mondovino, Robert Parker—whose ratings are enormously influential, effectively dictating American fine wine buyers' taste—denounced the director as “stupid” and “a bigot” subsequent to the publication of his book. Clearly emotions run high, and there is an enormous amount of money at stake in the wine industry, so it's not surprising that those critiqued by Nossiter should use such combative language in attempting to defend themselves.

Although I am sympathetic to the concerns of critics of globalization, in Mondovino, Nossiter's critique seemed to me to be alarmist. It is true that I am not as interested in wine as I am in perfume, and so it may be that I can take a more dispassionate view of what has happened in recent years to the wine industry than of what has happened to the world of perfume.

It is very interesting to use Mondovino, I have discovered, as a refractive lens through which to consider many philosophical questions which arise in thinking about perfume. I decided to view the film once again some time after investigating a case of wine fraud which seemed superficially similar to perfume reformulation. In Wine Fraud and Perfume Reformulation: A distinction without a difference? I concluded that, in fact, the two are fundamentally distinct. The primary distinction arises because of the groundedness—essentially, the importance of terroir—in the production of wine, which makes each millésime (vintage) unique and impossible to reproduce but, for the same reason, equally impossible to reformulate.

Traditional Sardinian Winemaker

Terroir is the central theme of Nossiter's critique of the globalized wine industry, so on its first level, the film may not seem to be relevant to the world of perfume. However, on deeper levels, I believe that it is. Without further ado, here is the story of Mondovino.

The Tale

Once upon a time, the father of a family in California gazed out upon his lush, verdant land in the Napa Valley and realized that great wines could be made using grapes harvested there. True, France had always been the capital of the wine industry, but why should Californians not be able to make wonderful wines as well? It was a simple idea, and Robert Mondavi began his winery with a vision of what California wine might be able one day to become.

Robert Mondavi and Son
Initially, California wines were somewhat crude and even laughable to those with refined palates developed through quaffing the best that France had succeeded in producing over many centuries, with generations of people involved in both the art and science of winemaking. It seemed that no one could compete with the riches of the regions of Burgundy and Bordeaux, and California winemakers were rather like country bumpkins by comparison. (Think: "Beverly Hillbillies"...)

What happened next is rather startling. A single critic, claiming complete independence from the wine industry, emerged in American circles with very strong opinions, and a decided irreverence toward old school French winemaking. This critic, Robert Parker, had the audacity to prefer new to old wines, and Americans listened with rapt attention to what he had to say. Efforts by winemakers to garner Parker's praise led to the widespread use—both domestically and abroad—of very ripe fruit to produce very concentrated, Merlot-esque red wines, which were fermented in new oak barrels in order to impart a decidedly charred flavor, verging sometimes on vanilla. Wines with these qualities were sure to receive high “Parker ratings,” and their prices directly reflected the power of this man's pronouncements.

This new aesthetic (essentially, Parker's personal taste) was promoted aggressively through the widespread adoption of a 100 point evaluation scale, which Americans found useful (and probably familiar from school). In the new rating schema, the best wines would receive 100 points, and those points would be bestowed by the journalist-critics, who tended to share Parker's taste. This coincidence of taste appears to have arisen in part because expertise was thought to be measured by new critics' agreement with Parker's own judgments.

Wine Consultant Michel Rolland

Predictably enough, wine consultants soon emerged who were willing to help winemakers to achieve higher scores from Parker (in his famous book-length guide) and in Wine Spectator magazine, which would virtually guarantee immediate market success, because wine drinkers in the United States, above all, paid heed to the scores received from critics in deciding which bottles to buy.

Rolland with Clients in France
One wine consultant in particular, Michel Rolland, ambitiously conquered large parts of the winemaking world by persuading producers of fine wine that following his advice would make their wares even better. The practical result of so many winemakers' enlistment of Rolland to guide them was that their wines all began to conform to the same new, global and modern taste, determined by critics' judgments about which wines were great. The order of the day was quickly to produce wines ready for consumption soon, not decades later on down the line.

Map of Colonized Countries

The Mondavi family, in an endeavor to expand their winemaking horizons, sought initially to partner with existing winemakers in Burgundy, France, but they were spurned by the small community of Aniane in Languedoc, whose newly elected communist mayor (gasp!) refused to grant the firm permission to fell some of the hectares of nearby forest, where they would have planted new vines.

Italian Noblewoman and Collaborator with Robert Mondavi

Undaunted, the Mondavi family set off to Italy, where they found partners in Tuscany and were able rapidly and dramatically to improve the image of Italian winemaking in a number of joint ventures which yielded what came to be called “Super Tuscan” wines.

In reality, all of the wines being produced under consultation with Michel Rolland, and which manifested qualities pleasing to American critics such as Robert Parker, were a part of a grand pattern of standardization which came to be regarded as a sort of nouvelle vague. The traditional winemakers of Burgundy and Italy naturally bristled at this homogenization of wine and its producers' disdain for centuries of oenological knowledge and tradition. Most unnerving of all was a radical diminution of the importance of the notion of terroir, the place where and conditions under which a wine came into being: its peculiar soil, climate, and other factors unique to a particular plot of vines.

Terroir-based heterogeneity was effectively masked by the bold new winemakers through the use of very ripe fruit, the concentration of the juice, and the strong flavor of oak adding layers of taste extrinsic to the particular grapes being used. These techniques imparted flavors stronger than the individual flavors produced through the use of specific place-derived grapes and the subtle nuances created through the traditional exaltation of terroir as the most important aspect of a wine.

The traditionalists, including director Jonathan Nossiter, a sommelier as well as a filmmaker (and, I feel compelled to reiterate, a very amateur cameraman...), bemoan in this situation the death of the art of fine terroir-based winemaking. The modernists, including the new American critics, many of whom write for Wine Spectator magazine—and the consultants who work with winemakers to improve wines by bringing them into conformity with the values of “tastemakers” who effectively determine the price of wines by decreeing some to be superior to others—claim instead that the old school winemakers are living in the past. This is the modern world, and the way to survive is to adapt, to accept the innovations which make wines ready to drink and sell immediately.

American Wine Critic James Suckling with Salvatore Ferragamo in Tuscany

Preliminary Musings

This little story, presented in Mondovino, a film spanning just over two hours, explains the recent homogenization of wines, its Merlotization and oakification, decried by lovers of old Burgundies, which require decades to reach their prime.

That, in a nutshell, is the primary theme of Mondovino. The Mondavi family is depicted in a harsh light, as are Richard Parker (the Czar of Taste), the upstart garagiste winemakers (one of whom cleverly decries the "terroiristes"), the international collaborators with Mondavi and, above all, Michel Rolland, who comes off in the film looking like a shyster and charlatan. He travels from vineyard to vineyard for short consulting sessions, and it appears in the film that his advice to all of them is the same: micro-oxygenate, concentrate the juice, and develop wines in barrels made of 100% new oak. These are the keys to success, needed in order to impart the taste which most wine drinkers are now looking specifically for, in emulation of Parker and his entourage of less-famous albeit nonetheless influential critics.


Entrenched Terroiristes

To my surprise, upon seeking out a copy of Mondovino to watch once again, I discovered that Nossiter also produced a minseries by the same name, which includes ten one-hour episodes. It turns out that the miniseries basically expands on the film with eight hours of extra footage, telling essentially the same story, albeit one which is considerably less pointedly directed toward Robert Mondavi. The feature-length film comes off as a scathing critique of that company, while the miniseries seems a bit more circumspect, although it is still critical of all of the villains of the original film.

Who is right and who is wrong in this debate? To be honest, I have never been sure, and I am even less sure than I was before having now Googled some of the villains of Nossiter's film, who seem to categorically deny the central claims made (or insinuated) about them by the director. In the end, I must confess that I am less interested in deciding whether or not Michel Rolland is an arrant knave than I am in thinking about what this entire structure may imply about the world of perfume.

The parallels between the world of wine and the world of perfume are nearly endless, and I hope to discuss all of them here at the salon sooner or later. Some of the most obvious questions which arise in my mind are these: Why do we prefer some sorts of perfumes to others, and how does this change over time? Why do we like what we like?

Who are the tastemakers in the world of perfume?