14:41
Taste3 2008

Benjamin Wallace: The price of happiness

Filmed:

Can happiness be bought? To find out, author Benjamin Wallace sampled the world's most expensive products, including a bottle of 1947 Chateau Cheval Blanc, 8 ounces of Kobe beef and the fabled (notorious) Kopi Luwak coffee. His critique may surprise you.

- Author
Benjamin Wallace is a journalist and author of The Billionaire's Vinegar, the true story of the world's most expensive bottle of (possibly phony?) wine. He's been a contributor to GQ, Details, Salon and The Washington Post. Full bio

I'm just going to play a brief video clip.
00:16
Video:
00:22
On the fifth of December 1985, a bottle of 1787 Lafitte was sold
00:23
for 105,000 pounds -- nine times the previous world record.
00:29
The buyer
00:34
was Kip Forbes,
00:36
son of one of the most flamboyant millionaires of the 20th century.
00:38
The original owner of the bottle turned out to be
00:41
one of the most enthusiastic wine buffs of the 18th century.
00:43
Château Lafitte is one of the greatest wines in the world,
00:47
the prince of any wine cellar.
00:51
Benjamin Wallace: Now, that's about all the videotape that remains of an event
00:53
that set off the longest-running mystery in the modern wine world.
00:55
And the mystery existed because of a gentleman named Hardy Rodenstock.
00:59
In 1985, he announced to his friends in the wine world
01:04
that he had made this incredible discovery.
01:07
Some workmen in Paris had broken through a brick wall,
01:09
and happened upon this hidden cache of wines --
01:13
apparently the property of Thomas Jefferson. 1787, 1784.
01:16
He wouldn't reveal the exact number of bottles,
01:21
he would not reveal
exactly where the building was
01:23
and he would not reveal exactly who owned the building.
01:26
The mystery persisted for about 20 years.
01:29
It finally began to get resolved in 2005 because of this guy.
01:32
Bill Koch is a Florida billionaire who owns four of the Jefferson bottles,
01:37
and he became suspicious.
01:40
And he ended up spending over a million dollars and hiring ex-FBI
01:42
and ex-Scotland Yard agents to try to get to the bottom of this.
01:46
There's now ample evidence that Hardy Rodenstock is a con man,
01:50
and that the Jefferson bottles were fakes.
01:53
But for those 20 years,
01:55
an unbelievable number of really eminent and accomplished figures
01:57
in the wine world were sort of drawn into the orbit of these bottles.
02:03
I think they wanted to believe that the most expensive bottle of wine
02:05
in the world must be the best bottle of wine in the world,
02:10
must be the rarest bottle of wine in the world.
02:13
I became increasingly, kind of voyeuristically interested in the question of
02:16
you know, why do people spend these crazy amounts of money,
02:21
not only on wine but on lots of things,
02:24
and are they living a better life than me?
02:27
So, I decided to embark on a quest.
02:29
With the generous backing of a magazine I write for sometimes,
02:31
I decided to sample the very best, or most expensive, or most coveted item
02:34
in about a dozen categories,
02:41
which was a very grueling quest,
as you can imagine.
02:43
(Laughter)
02:45
This was the first one.
02:46
A lot of the Kobe beef that you see in the U.S. is not the real thing.
02:48
It may come from Wagyu cattle,
02:51
but it's not from the original, Appalachian Hyogo Prefecture in Japan.
02:53
There are very few places in the U.S. where you can try real Kobe,
02:56
and one of them is Wolfgang Puck's restaurant, Cut, in Los Angeles.
02:59
I went there, and I ordered the eight-ounce rib eye for 160 dollars.
03:03
And it arrived, and it was tiny.
03:07
And I was outraged.
03:09
It was like, 160 dollars for this?
03:11
And then I took a bite,
03:13
and I wished that it was tinier, because Kobe beef is so rich.
03:15
It's like foie gras -- it's not even like steak.
03:19
I almost couldn't finish it.
03:22
I was really happy when I was done.
03:24
(Laughter)
03:26
Now, the photographer who took the pictures for this project
03:27
for some reason posed his dog in a lot of them,
03:31
so that's why you're going to see this recurring character.
03:33
Which, I guess, you know, communicates to you
03:36
that I did not think that one was really worth the price.
03:38
White truffles.
03:42
One of the most expensive luxury foods by weight in the world.
03:44
To try this, I went to a Mario Batali restaurant
03:46
in Manhattan -- Del Posto.
03:48
The waiter, you know, came out with the white truffle knob
03:50
and his shaver, and he shaved it onto my pasta and he said, you know,
03:53
"Would Signore like the truffles?"
03:57
And the charm of white truffles is in their aroma.
03:59
It's not in their taste, really. It's not in their texture.
04:01
It's in the smell.
04:04
These white pearlescent flakes hit the noodles,
04:05
this haunting, wonderful, nutty, mushroomy smell wafted up.
04:07
10 seconds passed and it was gone.
04:12
And then I was left with these little ugly flakes on my pasta that,
04:14
you know, their purpose had been served,
04:18
and so I'm afraid to say that this was also a disappointment to me.
04:21
There were several -- several of these items were disappointments.
04:24
(Laughter)
04:28
Yeah.
04:32
The magazine wouldn't pay for me to go there.
04:33
(Laughter)
04:35
They did give me a tour, though.
04:37
And this hotel suite is 4,300 square feet.
04:39
It has 360-degree views.
04:42
It has four balconies.
04:44
It was designed by the architect I.M. Pei.
04:46
It comes with its own Rolls Royce and driver.
04:48
It comes with its own wine cellar that you can draw freely from.
04:50
When I took the tour, it actually included some Opus One, I was glad to see.
04:53
30,000 dollars for a night in a hotel.
04:57
This is soap that's made from silver nanoparticles,
05:01
which have antibacterial properties.
05:05
I washed my face with this this morning in preparation for this.
05:08
And it, you know, tickled a little bit and it smelled good,
05:11
but I have to say that nobody here
05:15
has complimented me on the cleanliness of my face today.
05:17
(Laughter)
05:19
But then again, nobody has complimented me on the jeans I'm wearing.
05:20
These ones GQ did spring for -- I own these -- but I will tell you,
05:26
not only did I not get a compliment from any of you,
05:30
I have not gotten a compliment from anybody
05:32
in the months that I have owned and worn these.
05:34
I don't think that whether or not you're getting a compliment
05:36
should be the test of something's value,
05:38
but I think in the case of a fashion item, an article of clothing,
05:40
that's a reasonable benchmark.
05:43
That said, a lot of work goes into these.
05:45
They are made from handpicked organic Zimbabwean cotton
05:47
that has been shuttle loomed
05:51
and then hand-dipped in natural indigo 24 times.
05:54
But no compliments.
05:58
(Laughter)
05:59
Thank you.
06:00
Armando Manni is a former filmmaker who makes this olive oil
06:04
from an olive that grows on a single slope in Tuscany.
06:06
And he goes to great lengths to protect the olive oil from oxygen and light.
06:10
He uses tiny bottles, the glass is tinted,
06:15
he tops the olive oil off with an inert gas.
06:18
And he actually -- once he releases a batch of it,
06:22
he regularly conducts molecular analyses and posts the results online,
06:25
so you can go online and look at your batch number
06:30
and see how the phenolics are developing,
06:32
and, you know, gauge its freshness.
06:34
I did a blind taste test of this with 20 people and five other olive oils.
06:36
It tasted fine. It tasted interesting.
06:40
It was very green, it was very peppery.
06:42
But in the blind taste test, it came in last.
06:44
The olive oil that came in first was actually a bottle of
06:48
Whole Foods 365 olive oil which had been oxidizing next to my stove
06:51
for six months.
06:57
(Laughter)
06:58
A recurring theme is that a lot of these things are from Japan --
07:08
you'll start to notice.
07:10
I don't play golf, so I couldn't actually road test these,
07:11
but I did interview a guy who owns them.
07:14
Even the people who market these clubs -- I mean, they'll say
07:16
these have four axis shafts which minimize loss of club speed
07:19
and thereby drive the ball farther -- but they'll say, look, you know,
07:23
you're not getting 57,000 dollars worth of performance from these clubs.
07:27
You're paying for the bling,
07:30
that they're encrusted with gold and platinum.
07:32
The guy who I interviewed who owns them did say
07:34
that he's gotten a lot of pleasure out of them, so ...
07:36
Oh, yeah, you know this one?
07:40
This is a coffee made from a very unusual process.
07:42
The luwak is an Asian Palm Civet.
07:48
It's a cat that lives in trees,
07:50
and at night it comes down and it prowls the coffee plantations.
07:52
And apparently it's a very picky eater and it, you know,
07:56
hones in on only the ripest coffee cherries.
07:58
And then an enzyme in its digestive tract leeches into the beans,
08:02
and people with the unenviable job of collecting these cats' leavings
08:06
then go through the forest collecting the, you know, results
08:11
and processing it into coffee -- although you actually can buy it
08:16
in the unprocessed form.
08:20
That's right.
08:24
Unrelatedly --
08:26
(Laughter)
08:28
Japan is doing crazy things with toilets.
08:30
(Laughter)
08:33
There is now a toilet that has an MP3 player in it.
08:40
There's one with a fragrance dispenser.
08:43
There's one that actually analyzes the contents of the bowl
08:45
and transmits the results via email to your doctor.
08:49
It's almost like a home medical center --
08:53
and that is the direction that Japanese toilet technology is heading in.
08:55
This one does not have those bells and whistles,
08:59
but for pure functionality it's pretty much the best -- the Neorest 600.
09:01
And to try this -- I couldn't get a loaner,
09:05
but I did go into the Manhattan showroom of the manufacturer, Toto,
09:08
and they have a bathroom off of the showroom that you can use, which I used.
09:13
It's fully automated -- you walk towards it, and the seat lifts.
09:17
The seat is preheated.
09:20
There's a water jet that cleans you.
09:22
There's an air jet that dries you.
09:24
You get up, it flushes by itself.
09:26
The lid closes, it self-cleans.
09:28
Not only is it a technological leap forward,
09:30
but I really do believe it's a bit of a cultural leap forward.
09:32
I mean, a no hands, no toilet paper toilet.
09:34
And I want to get one of these.
09:37
(Laughter)
09:39
This was another one I could not get a loaner of.
09:43
Tom Cruise supposedly owns this bed.
09:48
There's a little plaque on the end that, you know,
09:50
each buyer gets their name engraved on it.
09:52
(Laughter)
09:55
To try this one, the maker of it let me and my wife
10:01
spend the night in the Manhattan showroom.
10:03
Lights glaring in off the street,
10:05
and we had to hire a security guard and all these things.
10:07
But anyway, we had a great night's sleep.
10:10
And you spend a third of your life in bed.
10:12
I don't think it's that bad of a deal.
10:14
(Laughter)
10:17
This was a fun one.
10:18
This is the fastest street-legal car in the world
10:20
and the most expensive production car.
10:24
I got to drive this with a chaperone from the company,
10:26
a professional race car driver,
10:28
and we drove around the canyons outside of Los Angeles
10:30
and down on the Pacific Coast Highway.
10:33
And, you know, when we pulled up to a stoplight
10:35
the people in the adjacent cars kind of gave us respectful nods.
10:38
And it was really amazing.
10:42
It was such a smooth ride.
10:44
Most of the cars that I drive, if I get up to 80 they start to rattle.
10:46
I switched lanes on the highway and the driver, this chaperone, said,
10:48
"You know, you were just going 110 miles an hour."
10:51
And I had no idea that I was one of those obnoxious people
10:53
you occasionally see weaving in and out of traffic,
10:56
because it was just that smooth.
10:58
And if I was a billionaire, I would get one.
11:00
(Laughter)
11:02
This is a completely gratuitous video I'm just going to show
11:07
of one of the pitfalls of advanced technology.
11:10
This is Tom Cruise arriving at the "Mission: Impossible III" premiere.
11:12
When he tries to open the door,
11:25
you could call it "Mission: Impossible IV."
11:27
There was one object that I could not get my hands on,
11:32
and that was the 1947 Cheval Blanc.
11:34
The '47 Cheval Blanc is probably the most mythologized wine of the 20th century.
11:36
And Cheval Blanc is kind of an unusual wine for Bordeaux
11:40
in having a significant percentage of the Cabernet Franc grape.
11:43
And 1947 was a legendary vintage,
11:47
especially in the right bank of Bordeaux.
11:50
And just together, that vintage and that chateau took on this aura
11:52
that eventually kind of gave it this cultish following.
11:56
But it's 60 years old.
12:00
There's not much of it left.
12:02
What there is of it left you don't know if it's real --
12:04
it's considered to be the most faked wine in the world.
12:06
Not that many people are looking to pop open
12:08
their one remaining bottle for a journalist.
12:10
So, I'd about given up trying to get my hands on one of these.
12:14
I'd put out feelers to retailers, to auctioneers,
12:18
and it was coming up empty.
12:20
And then I got an email from a guy named Bipin Desai.
12:22
Bipin Desai is a U.C. Riverside theoretical physicist
12:24
who also happens to be the preeminent organizer of rare wine tastings,
12:28
and he said, "I've got a tasting coming up
12:32
where we're going to serve the '47 Cheval Blanc."
12:34
And it was going to be a double vertical --
12:36
it was going to be 30 vintages of Cheval Blanc,
12:38
and 30 vintages of Yquem.
12:41
And it was an invitation you do not refuse.
12:43
I went.
12:46
It was three days, four meals.
12:48
And at lunch on Saturday, we opened the '47.
12:50
And you know, it had this fragrant softness,
12:53
and it smelled a little bit of linseed oil.
12:57
And then I tasted it, and it,
13:00
you know, had this kind of unctuous, porty richness,
13:02
which is characteristic of that wine --
13:06
that it sort of resembles port in a lot of ways.
13:08
There were people at my table who thought it was, you know, fantastic.
13:10
There were some people who were a little less impressed.
13:12
And I wasn't that impressed.
13:16
And I don't -- call my palate a philistine palate --
13:19
so it doesn't necessarily mean something that I wasn't impressed,
13:23
but I was not the only one there who had that reaction.
13:27
And it wasn't just to that wine.
13:30
Any one of the wines served at this tasting,
13:32
if I'd been served it at a dinner party, it would have been, you know,
13:34
the wine experience of my lifetime, and incredibly memorable.
13:37
But drinking 60 great wines over three days,
13:40
they all just blurred together,
13:43
and it became almost a grueling experience.
13:45
And I just wanted to finish by mentioning a very interesting study
13:49
which came out earlier this year from some researchers at Stanford and Caltech.
13:53
And they gave subjects the same wine,
13:57
labeled with different price tags.
14:01
A lot of people, you know,
14:03
said that they liked the more expensive wine more --
14:05
it was the same wine, but they thought it was a different one
14:08
that was more expensive.
14:10
But what was unexpected was that these researchers did
14:12
MRI brain imaging while the people were drinking the wine,
14:14
and not only did they say they enjoyed the more expensively labeled wine more --
14:17
their brain actually registered as experiencing more pleasure
14:21
from the same wine when it was labeled with a higher price tag.
14:25
Thank you.
14:28

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About the Speaker:

Benjamin Wallace - Author
Benjamin Wallace is a journalist and author of The Billionaire's Vinegar, the true story of the world's most expensive bottle of (possibly phony?) wine. He's been a contributor to GQ, Details, Salon and The Washington Post.

Why you should listen

A Washington D.C. native and a current Brooklynite, Benjamin Wallace is fast establishing himself a master of the brainy nonfiction thriller, rooting up feuds and controversies in pop and less-than-pop culture while buddying up with their embattled and larger-than-life personalities (whom he sometimes meets on their way down). He profiled conserative mouthpiece Glenn Beck for GQ in 2007 shortly after the pundit landed a controversial slot on CNN, and in 2002 looked at chef Georges Perrier of Philidelphia's then-five-star restaurant, Le Bec-Fin.

Wallace's orderly, deadpan writing style hints at one of his secrets: his love (and talent) for playing the straight man to the once-mighty in downfall, right as they go aflame in tragicomic hubris. (The Billionaire's Vinegar is simply a pleasure, not least to schadenfreude junkies.) It's easy to imagine him, the bespectacled wallflower, watching as brouhaha over a wine bottle once valued at $165,000 -- the highest price fetched for a bottle, ever -- culimates in a court trial that reveals at least two of its main characters, a wine collector and a wine expert, to be frauds. Or at least emperors with no clothes.

More profile about the speaker
Benjamin Wallace | Speaker | TED.com