5/3/15

The "Vintages Are All Fine" Mentality



When I entered the world of fragrance, several unusual mentalities became apparent to me in regards to how enthusiasts (not "connoisseurs") viewed perfume. An example of this is the strange desire for people to refer to themselves as "connoisseurs" of perfume, instead of "enthusiasts." To label oneself a fragrance "connoisseur" suggests there is a subset of the fragrance collecting population that understands and enjoys a level of quality and exclusivity that the average population generally misses out on, which I believe is false, and a misuse of the label. Its falsehood resides in the fact that the supposed connoisseurship of perfumes is almost always associated with the necessity to own a large quantity of expensive, hard to find fragrances. Many self-proclaimed connoisseurs own hundreds of perfumes. In my opinion, these are the very people who are not perfume connoisseurs. They are enthusiastic about a wide range of scents, yet are deeply knowledgeable about few to none. The sheer scale of their collections renders them impartial to the idea of loving just one.

If you're a man who only owns and wears one bottle of perfume at a time, you are enjoying the fragrance and its functionality even more than the person who has that same perfume in a collection of several hundred others. The man with one perfume that he has worn for years also knows that perfume better, recognizes it faster, and appreciates its structure and movements with more clarity and understanding than the guy who gets around to it once every two or three months in a wide rotation. Thus, connoisseurship of perfume applies realistically to someone's appreciation of one specific fragrance, based on an affinity and somewhat obsessive allegiance to it. It makes little sense to consider connoisseurship of fragrance as an over-arching love for only the "best" fragrances. The overwhelming subjectivity of what constitutes the "best" nullifies the meaning of the word.

I've had people tell me, "Bryan, you can't have it both ways. If perfume is a luxury, as you always say it is, then there are those who can be classified as 'perfume connoisseurs.'" Wrong. Perfume is a luxury, yes, but luxury is defined more broadly than people realize. When one hears the word luxury, visions of expensive Beluga caviar and fine mink coats swirl about. But luxury is defined by the Merriam Webster dictionary as:
• a condition or situation of great comfort, ease, and wealth
• something that is expensive and not necessary
• something that is helpful or welcome and not usually or always available
That last bullet point applies to perfume. Perfume is not necessarily expensive and extravagant. However, it is not always available, like running water, for example. Travel to certain parts of South America, Africa, and Asia, and you will find that something as seemingly basic as running water is absent from the shortlist of contemporary amenities. You can, however, live without it, as long as some form of water is available and readily accessible. Jump in a river for a wash, and boil a vat of it to drink. If you spend a few weeks or months on the road in rural India, which is currently home for over one billion people, and then return to New York City, running water clearly becomes a luxury. It is something to be enjoyed and valued, but not taken for granted. Yet no one considers themselves connoisseurs of running water.

Likewise, perfume is fairly common in the developed world (even India lays a claim to fame for continuing to produce a Shulton-branded version of Old Spice), yet we do not need it to survive. The poor would sooner install running water in their abodes than bottles of Old Spice. True poverty, a condition in which billions of people live, would place the cheapest perfume at the rock bottom of a list of wants and needs. Those of us who can afford it without a second thought, even if only a few dollars are spent, are enjoying a luxury. The classification of luxury as such does not need adjustment; it is the classification of perfume that requires close inspection.

Another strange idea that swirls about among perfumistas is the notion that perfume never goes bad. For some, perfume is something mysteriously immune to the effects of time. They feel that if you take care of a bottle of fragrance by keeping it out of harsh temperatures and direct sunlight, it can remain fairly pristine for many decades, and possibly centuries. There have been articles about archeologists finding ancient perfume specimens, hundreds of years old, which supposedly smell surprisingly fresh after countless years at the bottom of the sea, or under the Earth. However, you have to take these accounts with a grain of salt, and apply the same attitude to those who claim they have never encountered a "bad" bottle of vintage perfume.

Two weeks ago it was reported that scientists discovered 170 year-old bottles of Champagne on the floor of the Baltic Sea. According to the report, the scientists tasted the Champagne and were "amazed by how well the wine had aged under the sea." They described its flavor as "grilled, spicy, smoky, and leathery, together with fruity and floral notes." They also said that the Champagne had sugar in the amount of twenty ounces per gallon, an astounding quantity by any measure, about seven times the sugar content of a can of Coke. One can infer from this that the wine's flavor was also "sweet."

Predictably, the comments under the article were scathing. One person wrote:
"It sounds to me that this wine tastes like a 70 year old leather boot with foot sweat dragged through a flower field and then grilled. At least thats what came to my mind. And that doesn't sound very pleasant."
And another added:
"Six times the sugar of Coke? That sounds like a diabetic coma."
And yet another said:
"If that condition is 'close to perfect,' wine producers could just easily throw every bottle of wine they produce under the sea and let them age perfectly."
Which is not something any contemporary wineries are seriously attempting to do, with the exception of a few "experimental" vintages, as apparently some houses are fiddling around with the idea of salt water aging.

The Smithsonian reports that a leading scientist in this discovery tasted the stuff, and felt it was "incredible." He claimed he "had never tasted such a wine," and that its flavor - no, its "aroma" for fuck's sakes - lingered on his presumably refined palate for hours afterward. Further descriptions from this quarter include "cheese" and "wet hair," in case your mouth wasn't already watering enough. But based on this scientific report and the archeological aging of the caskets, these wines were touted as "collector's items," and several were auctioned off for up to 100,000 Euros. Others were tucked away for further investigation, to eventually become museum pieces.

One obvious problem with these reports is that they're referring to something that 99.999% of the world's population will never taste. How nice would it be if one of these scientists actually told the truth about what they were tasting? Instead of saying the brine-tainted swill is "incredible," say "this stuff tastes like clam shit," and discourage wealthy morons from wasting six figures on the rusted bottles. Not that I care if wealthy idiots blow their loads on liters of decayed garbage, but I'm frightened at the prospect of reading about the "market" for completely spoiled antique Champagne. I've heard enough about make-believe commercial markets to last me a lifetime, and do not need my attention brought to any new ones.

I have read blog posts that mention similar discoveries of supposedly well-preserved bottles of centuries-old perfume, with scientists making similar claims about their freshness. With perfume, people seemed more willing to believe the reports, despite the fact that hundreds of years ago perfumers used only natural materials, much the same as wine makers. So it is not a stretch to believe that reports of pristine perfumes dating back centuries are at best sensationalized exaggerations. Likewise, it is almost impossible and certainly unacceptable to believe at face value that 170 year-old Champagne with seven times the sugar content of contemporary soft drinks, and several times the salt content of contemporary Champagne, tastes "incredible." Last I checked, notes of "cheese" and "wet hair" were stomach-turners. No one has ever used them to describe a high vintage of Champagne. Ever.

But there's an obvious reason why the scientist in the Smithsonian report used those descriptors. One comment from a reader on Yahoo struck me as particularly prescient:
"Since we'll never taste it for ourselves, they can just lie and say it's the most amazing thing ever, and act all snooty towards us mere civilians who wouldn't be able to appreciate such fineries."
This seems to be the likely train of thought at play here. Acquire an extremely rare vintage of something extremely rare to begin with, shuttle it away to private labs, sip, sip, and render verdict: "Incredible!" Let that one word resound across the ranks of the elite few who can afford to spend almost limitless amounts on bottles of the stuff (imagine an entire market for something with only ten or fifteen dedicated buyers), and feel important for the rest of your life.

This is the mentality of many perfume enthusiasts who tout vintage fragrances as being largely undamaged by time and utterly worth whatever dollar amount you can throw into acquiring them. Find a very rare perfume, buy it, wear it, and write it up as being a truly beautiful fragrance. Then feel the boost to your ego as a sense of superiority courses through your veins. You've found something nobody else will find. You've smelled it, but you don't have any real presence in the community because you've been reviewing relatively popular perfumes, up until now. A glowing review of this super obscure thing will quickly lend your words some much-needed gravity. It will begin to make you seem important to newbies, to people without discernment.

This has happened to me as a reader. I encountered a review of Joint for Men, and considered the likelihood of its stated quality and value against the relevance of everything else its author had written. I suspected Joint was a good fragrance, but nowhere near as good as it was made out to be. Then I cross-referenced the glowing opinion against a few other opinions, which were sober in comparison.

A few years later I found Joint, bought it, and wore it. I suspect its reviewer believed I would never actually find the stuff. I wore it for a while. Unsurprisingly, the fragrance was merely "good." Its concept was excellent - a rowdy fern, full of musks and dusty woods, but its execution was lacking, with an oddly unbalanced drydown that revealed the use of cheap synthetics. Perhaps its civet note was natural, along with one or two other notes, but the rest of the construct was thinly grafted onto a basic white musk of little interest. Now, you could argue that my bottle was "off," but that would be conceding that this perfume is an example of an old fragrance gone bad. You might even argue that it wasn't taken care of, but it was boxed in ideal conditions when I bought it, so this is a difficult case to make, at least if you are trying to convince me. I think its quality was exaggerated, and I also think my bottle is a bit spoiled.

The Emperor's new clothes? Gone.

I've been accused of doing this myself, of course. My review of Nature Boy by Garner James was criticized as being overblown nonsense, because after all, how good can a perfume be? However, my critic, despite having an opportunity to try the scent by contacting the perfumer at Garner James, voluntarily passed up on the chance and basically said he wasn't interested in the scent anyway. Why one would choose to be ignorant of something they criticize is difficult to understand, but this person has never clarified their reasoning.

I'll conclude this lengthy post by saying that there's some of the conceited snob in all of us, and nobody is immune to the sin of exaggeration for the sake of self-aggrandizement. It's this very urge that creates the "perfume connoisseur" in the minds of those who would be such people. The oddballs who swooshed 170 year-old Champagne against their cheeks and called it "incredible" are of the same breed. As someone said in a comment about them:
"It allows them to set themselves apart as special - the cognoscenti. If you have to acquire an artificial taste, for anything, what is the point? The point is that you can say that you, unlike most of us, can drink the most foul of anything, and smile as though you like it."
Well put. Substitute the word "smell" in place of "drink," and this defines the "vintages are all fine" mentality nicely.




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