Make your own wine

The wealthy can pay big bucks to create their own custom blends

NEW YORK • The French region of Bordeaux is the sacred home of Chateau Lafite Rothschild and Chateau Margaux, so it would seem unlikely that wines named Duke of Juice or Bone Ami would come from there.

But some winemakers insist on it. And they are entitled because they pay US$12,500 (S$16,837) to US$25,000 a barrel or US$44 to US$87 a bottle to create personalised Bordeaux wine and labels.

Chateau Lynch-Bages, a celebrated producer known for rich yet refined reds, also operates Viniv, a niche company that helps clients create their own custom blends. These clients select the vineyards and tinker with the taste, but leave the grape harvesting, crushing, ageing, barrel-racking and shipping to the experts at the chateau.

"I had dreamt about some day buying a vineyard, but it's a very capital-intensive and thankless business," said Mr Sebastien Boucraut, 46, a French commodities executive based in Dubai, who flies in with two long-time friends to sample their Viniv creation. "I thought this was brilliant. You can make your own wine with all the advantages and none of the inconveniences."

They named their wine Racine Carree de Neuf, or "square root of nine" in French. The three share a tech background, hence the nerdy label.

It sounds a bit like Build-a-Bear for oenophiles, but Viniv has cachet and a growing clientele across Europe, Australia and the United States. D-I-Y cabernet sauvignon is not the only enticement.

Mr Stephen Bolger, 52, chief executive officer and founder of Viniv, describes his business as an "experiential luxury company". And "experiential luxury" is the new Birkin bag.

Nowadays, marketing experts say, the affluent are not content merely to own expensive things, such as Cartier watches or Ferraris. Increasingly, they prefer to collect one-of-a-kind moments and perhaps post them on Instagram.

"Wealthy tourists don't want to sit with other tourists; they want to connect with real people and get a story, something they can describe as a really cool, unbelievable experience," said Mr Jack Ezon, president of Ovation Vacations, a luxury travel agency that arranges for clients to dance in a rehearsal of the Bolshoi Ballet, throw pots with Peruvian artisans or have lunch with Salvatore Ferragamo and design their own shoes in his studio. Travel agents such as Mr Ezon are selling veritable virtual reality: A fantasy adventure with real people and no goggles.

Conspicuous consumption has not gone away. Sales of yachts, sports cars and jewellery are higher than they were before the 2008 financial crisis, according to Wealth-X, a research firm that focuses on UHNWI: ultra- high-net-worth individuals. But the global recession did calm things down a bit at the top end.

"There was a values shift after 2008 away from ostentatious materialism," said Dr Marie-Cecile Cervellon, a professor of marketing at the French business school Edhec. High-end consumers are instead spending on personal fulfilment and family bonding, albeit in rarefied places.

Mr Jeff Fromm, a partner at the Barkley advertising agency and coauthor of Marketing To Millennials, calls it a version of a "millennial mindset" that is spreading across generations. "One in four millennials would prefer to pay money for an experience rather than for a product," he said.

There are other Bordeaux chateaus that try to give visitors a sense of ownership. Typically, they allow visitors to adopt a plot of vines or personalise their bottles.

Viniv caters to clients who are willing to commit the time, travel and expense - and break a Bordeaux taboo. Mr Bolger offers customers three grape varietals from 13 different vineyards, allowing them to mix a cabernet sauvignon from Pauillac with a merlot from Pomerol. For the wine establishment of Bordeaux, blending grapes from different appellations is the vintner's equivalent of fantasy football, or eugenics.

Many clients say they go there not just to make wine, but also to enter a sophisticated world closed to ordinary tourists.

In the spring, the vineyards around Pauillac are lined with wild poppies. Wisteria twists over the walls of stately chateaus and mediaeval churches. The bistros serve oysters from Arcachon Bay. Mr Bolger organises tastings and private meals at neighbouring chateaus, including even Chateau Petrus, which for ordinary tourists is harder to visit than the North American Aerospace Defense Command.

Chateau Lynch-Bages also provides private tours, tailored to VIP customers. "It's very intimate, not a typical tour where they give you a thimble of wine and a canned speech," said Mr Hank Werronen, 73, a retired healthcare executive and entrepreneur in Arlington, Virginia.

"I'm not just making a wine, I'm making a memory," he said.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 10, 2016, with the headline 'Make your own wine'. Print Edition | Subscribe