Worst Bubble Ever

June 25, 2011

Superman stood for Truth, Justice, and the American Way. Spider-Man taught that with great power comes great responsibility. But the superhero it might have profited you the most to have emulated is Kyle Baker’s Al Space. Al Space tried to teach the youth about the folly of investing in speculative bubbles.

Al Space debuted in 1991’s Epic Lite, an anthology of short pieces published under Marvel Comics’ Epic Comics imprint, which tended to feature underground or alternative comic artists like Baker. Al Space wore the cape, tights, and underoos de rigeur for costumed crimefighters, except he had a bit of a pot belly. Instead of leaping tall buildings in a single bound, he spends six pages talking to little Billy Brown about his comic-book collection. “Well, this sure is a big stack!” Al Space remarks. “Let’s take a look at—Wait… This is all the same comic.”

“I’m going to be rich,” Billy explains. “Did you know that last year three million copies of McFarlane’s first Spider-Man were sold?”—referring to Spider-Man #1, a fourth Spider-Man title that Marvel debuted in 1991 to accommodate the demands of its superstar artist Todd McFarlane to have total creative control of a title and the prominent byline that comes with it. Hoping to capitalize on the mania for McFarlane’s work, Marvel packaged it in a bunch of different formats. It was sold in a sealed plastic bag, requiring kids to choose between preserving the book in mint condition and opening the bag to actually read the comic. Or you could buy another version with a special black-and-silver cover. A second printing with a black-and-gold cover was released a few weeks later. There was also a special “chrome” edition printed on a metallic cardstock. The true collector had to have them all!

Al Space proceeds to remind Billy, “Did you know that according to the market research, there are about five hundred thousand comic book fans? That means that five hundred thousand people bought three million comics. Okay, so we can logically assume that these comics were bought as investments. That means that even if every fan reads one copy of the book, which they probably didn’t, there are at least two million, five hundred thousand copies in protective plastic bags. Which means that fifty years from now, there will still be two million, five hundred thousand copies of that book still in bags. There are two things which affect the value of a comic. Rarity and demand. That book will never be rare, and since every fan has multiple copies, there won’t be much demand for many years to come.” Billy is crushed.

Billy wasn’t the only one who succumbed to the mania for investing in comics in the early 1990s, and it wasn’t just kids, either. The June 13 issue of the Weekly Standard features an account by Jonathan Last of the boom in the comic-book industry in the early 1990s and the crash that followed. In Last’s account, comics became serious collectors’ items some time in the 1980s. Copies of Action Comics #1, which featured Superman’s debut, sold for $400 in 1974, $5,000 in 1984, and $82,500 in 1992. “Price gains for the high-value comics throughout the 1980s attracted speculators, who pushed the prices up further,” Last relates. Another major factor that fueled the speculative bubble was a change in the way distributors did business, which made it easy for nearly anybody to go into business selling comics. Mistaking the entry of thousands of new retailers for a massive expansion of their audience, Last writes, the publishers “upped their prices and began publishing more titles, adjusting the supply to meet what they thought was demand.”

*   *   *   *   *

In their book Manias, Panics, and Crashes: A History of Financial Crises, economists Charles P. Kindleberger and Robert Aliber describe the anatomy of a bubble as follows. It begins with an event that excites speculative interest. Rising prices encourage new entrants. The increase in demand presses against the capacity to produce goods, and new assets have to be created to satiate demand. Fraudsters get in the game. Historic gains lead to an overextension of credit. When gains begin to stagnate, distress and panic follow. Investors run for the exits, and then comes the crash. “The pattern is biological in its regularity,” write Kindleberger and Aliber. The same story happens again and again, whether it’s about tulips, dot-com stocks, real estate, comic books, or wine.

So I will not comment at length on the fact that the wine world is presently waiting anxiously for the Bordeaux first growths to release their 2010 futures prices, with many observers figuring that Château Lafite-Rothschild may well reach the $2,000-per-bottle mark. Buy some if you are a multimillionaire, but don’t buy any hoping to become one. The same principle holds true all the way down the hierarchy. There is a limited number of wine collectors in the world interested in owning these wines. There is a much larger number of speculators willing to exploit those collectors to make an easy buck. The Bordealais think the cash-flush Chinese will pay the unprecedentedly high prices they are asking. But who is actually buying Bordeaux futures: cash-flush Chinese, or speculators hoping to flip the goods to cash-flush Chinese when the wines ship in two years? I’m not sure I would want to be holding very many of those hot potatoes. Take a look at eBay: you can buy as many Spider-Man #1s as you want for just a few bucks.

*   *   *   *   *

In truth, however, the ridiculous prices being asked for Bordeaux over the last few years are only a small part of why I have almost completely lost interest in the wines. I started drinking Bordeaux in earnest with the 1995 vintage, and at that time back vintages were still plentiful on the shelves, so I was also able to taste through a number of older vintages back to the ’70s at prices I could make room for on a student’s budget. Most of the newer Bordeaux I have occasion to drink, even from estates reputed to be traditionalists, taste unrecognizable to me. It’s shocking to me how completely different the profile is from what it was as recently as a dozen years ago. And the further one goes back in history, the even more pronounced the difference is. In 1945, André Simon wrote that the wines of Burgundy “rarely possess quite the same light and delicate texture or body which is such an outstanding character of most fine clarets; they are as a rule more robust, more assertive, more immediately obvious.” Nobody today would characterize Bordeaux as light and delicate or consider Burgundy more robust and obvious.

The Bordeaux I remember, which were already considerably more modern than the wines Simon drank, were characterized above all by a sense of restraint. The physical sensation on the palate was overwhelmingly one of comfort, registering that feeling of instant gratification not unlike the feeling of sliding one’s feet into a perfectly fitting and broken-in pair of shoes. Attempting to catalogue the flavors with the usual taxonomy of tasting-note “descriptors” would have been a completely pointless exercise because the only meaningful way to describe the taste would be to say that they tasted like wine. No individual elements stuck out. Fruit was wholly immaterial. They did not taste like fruit any more than cheese tastes like milk. The new style of Bordeaux favors weight over comfort, multiplicity of flavors over integration, and fruitiness over vinousness—ultimately, the feeling they are trying to instill in the person drinking them is not so much a feeling of satisfaction or gratification, but a sense of being awed and impressed.

Which brings me back to Spider-Man.

If you page through the old comics of the so-called Golden and Silver Ages of the medium—the periods covering the introduction of the iconic DC and Marvel superheroes—the artwork seems rather plain and simple compared to the eye candy that turned a few of the artists like McFarlane into superstars. None of the work-for-hire pencillers and inkers of the ’30s or ’60s became stars. They worked for peanuts and died poor. But the thing about them is that they had learned to draw comics by studying life, whereas the star artists of the ’90s had learned to draw comics by reading comics. For example, John Buscema, who drew the Avengers and the Silver Surfer and pretty much every other superhero in the Marvel universe, trained as a boxer in New York in the 1940s and began painting portraits of other fighters—experience that doubtlessly came in handy drawing all those muscle-bound superheroes in tights, whose proportions might have been exaggerated a bit for effect but were still human forms that would have been recognizable to a Renaissance sculptor. The new wave of artists didn’t learn to draw the human form by studying boxers; they learned by studying Buscema—and just as Buscema exaggerated the proportions of the human form for effect, they would exaggerate the proportions of the heroes as drawn by Buscema. The images they produced were not drawings of people but drawings of drawings of people. The proportions were all wrong—any actual human so built would have broken into pieces from the impossible distribution of weight. Since they learned to draw from still panels, they didn’t have any anatomical sense of how muscles fit together and moved, so they tended just to draw a whole lot of bulges in the general shape of a person and divert attention away from the incorrectness of it all by filling in the spaces with a lot of lines and cross-hatching. Backgrounds were out of the question since they never learned perspective and didn’t have any experience drawing landscapes or much of anything else besides men in tights, so the negative space tended to be filled up with more lines and cross-hatching.

By far the worst offender was Rob Liefeld, who took the credit for creating X-Force at Marvel, got famous enough to appear in a Levi’s commercial, and whose style was vaguely reminiscent of McFarlane’s in its detail but much, much sloppier. In 1992, Liefeld and McFarlane quit Marvel to start their own comic company and recruited most of the other star talent at Marvel and DC to join them. The new company, Image Comics, promised contributors copyright ownership of their characters and total creative control, which in practice meant that the star artists began writing their own books despite having no demonstrated talent for writing and no training in the discipline other than reading comic books. The results were awful, but the artists’ star power and the type of collector’s-item gimmickry that McFarlane had previously deployed so successfully with his Spider-Man title instantly propelled Image to a market share competitive with Marvel’s and DC’s. It could not have been a coincidence that the total financial collapse of the comic-book business happened so soon after Image saturated the market with so many phony collectibles badly written and badly drawn. The formation of Image is the moment you can freeze and put in a gilded frame to pinpoint the precise moment the mainstream comic-book medium went irretrievably down the toilet.

Bordeaux has become the Image Comics of wine. There is a direct analogy between those artists who learned to draw from comics rather than from life and the contemporary oenologists who model their wines after other highly rated wines rather than fashioning wine for the function it serves in life—spreading joy around a table. Wine critics praised such legendary Bordeaux as the 1947 Château Cheval-Blanc because the exotic vintage took the wine’s usual opulence and exaggerated it; those hoping to curry favor with the critics today thus aim to create a profile reminiscent of what they imagine the ’47 Cheval-Blanc to have been, and exaggerate that, resulting in a wine not one step but two steps removed from the traditional form—and when that wine becomes successful, an array of copycats three steps removed from the traditional form proliferate. The critics don’t want their Bordeaux to taste simply of claret; they want it to taste of lead pencils, scorched earth, pain grillé, coffee, and tobacco smoke, so more toasted new oak and a malolactic fermentation in the barrel will add the requisite point-enhancing features just like all those extraneous lines and cross-hatching that give a badly drawn panel the illusion of detail. And of course every single one of these wines is a must-have collectible, and priced accordingly. I don’t know when that madness will end, but my spider sense is tingling.

For further reading:

  • Jonathan Last’s “The Crash of 1993″ in the Weekly Standard.
  • The 40 Worst Rob Liefeld Drawings. It has been ages since I laughed as hard as I did reading this.
  • An opinion of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit written by the illustrious Judge Richard Posner on a copyright dispute between McFarlane and writer Neil Gaiman, Gaiman v. McFarlane, 360 F.3d 644 (7th Cir. 2004). The best part is the understated frankness with which Judge Posner recounts the history of how McFarlane came to retain Gaiman to write a book: “In 1992, shortly after forming his own publishing house, McFarlane began publishing a series of comic books entitled Spawn, which at first he wrote and illustrated himself. . . . The early issues in the series were criticized for bad writing, so McFarlane decided to invite four top writers each to write the script for one issue of Spawn.”
  • Three of the all-time best graphic novels: Dave Sim’s Jaka’s Story (despite its being volume 5 of his Cerebus serial, you actually don’t need to read any of the preceding ones to follow it), Dan Clowes’s Ghost World, and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman: Season of Mists. The reason I mention these is that they were spawned outside the mainstream of the industry at precisely the same time the creative standards at Marvel and then Image were deteriorating into crap. (Clowes’s books were so far outside the mainstream that I couldn’t even get them at the comic-book store. I had to buy them in a coffee shop in the nearest college town, one of those places where none of the furniture or dishes matched and an androgynous folksinger was usually playing in the corner to an inattentive audience engrossed in Noam Chomsky books and body-ink magazines.) The originals of these comics actually turned into genuine collectibles and are rare enough to fetch very high prices, while the phony collectibles Marvel and Image churned out en masse can be bought today for less than their cover prices. I don’t think collectors will be sorry for missing the opportunity to add any of the highly touted Bordeaux made in 10,000-case quantities to their cellars. My bet is that in twenty years, it will be some of the esoteric wines brought in by small importers and sold in specialty shops like Chambers Street Wines that are most likely to be the ones exciting collectors’ passions. If you don’t believe me, ask Al Space.

A Perpetual Journey

June 9, 2011

If you are a member of the English nobility and your castle or country estate comes equipped with a cavernous underground wine cellar naturally cooled by the earth to a year-round fifty degrees, there is—I imagine—a wonderful kind of pleasure that can be had in tossing all manner of wines into the cellar without any concern for how to make them fit. If you are a member of the caste of Americans who actually works for a living and therefore needs to live in a city where storing your wine costs in the neighborhood of two or three dollars per bottle per year, there comes a time when a metastasizing wine collection is no longer in your best interest. If this time coincides with the time when you find yourself asking, “What the hell was I thinking when I bought that?” you may find yourself electing to send a portion of your stash to auction.

If the answer to the question “What the hell was I thinking when I bought that?” is “It had a ton of points from a publication identified in auction listings by its initials,” then this has the potential to be a profitable endeavor, especially if the wine is popular in China (more about that later). Unfortunately, if your collection is anything like mine, you are as likely to answer the question with something like, “It seemed interesting at the time,” in which case dispossessing yourself of the wine will almost certainly bring no pecuniary gain other than sparing you the annual two-to-three-dollar storage liability. Note to self: seeming interesting is a perfectly good justification for purchasing a bottle of wine, but you don’t always need to go for the six-pack.

Anyway, I found myself in the position of re-living several chapters of wine purchases past when I recalled a number of cases from storage with an eye towards selling them. The wines in question fit into a several different categories. Some were definitively bound for exile with no chance whatsoever of executive clemency; their very presence in my cellar stood as an affront to my pride and aspirations to good taste. These included two cases of 2003 Bordeaux, a vintage which got everybody excited at the time as its unprecedentedly hot weather fueled speculation that the wines would end up super-ripe, rich, and exotic, but in fact the opposite proved true as it was so hot—“How hot was it?”—it was so hot that the grapevines threw their hands up in exasperation at the labor of having to ripen at all, and the wines ended up green, hard, and tannic. It is 90 degrees in New York as I write this, which is so hot that nobody is talking about anything except to bitch about how awfully hot it is and young women are walking the streets dressed like strippers halfway through their act; add 15 degrees to that and you get the Bordeaux heat record set in August 2003. Amazingly, I was actually able to sell these wines for a bit more than I paid for them. The wines may have turned into asparagus but their high-90s point scores will remain with them forever.

There were also a handful of Bordeaux in category two, which consisted of wines I wish I could hold onto but which have sadly increased in value to the point where I can no longer justify drinking a bottle instead of selling it, and will likely never be able to afford again. This included my one and only bottle of Château Lafite-Rothschild, which as an emblem of luxury in a fashion similar to a Louis Vuitton bag has become a status symbol among social-climbers in China, where it is apparently a popular item to give as a gift to broadcast that you are a man of wealth and taste or to bribe a Communist Party official to shower your business with official favors. Things were so much better when the wines used for this purpose were California cabernets in the Napa Valley “cult” wine genre that I had no interest in drinking. I actually liked Lafite, but not as much as I liked the $500 I was paid for my off-vintage 2002. Hopefully this craziness will come to an end soon. In the meanwhile, if you are a Chinese Communist Party bureaucrat in possession of my lovingly stored Lafite, I hope it’s corked.

Finally, there is category three, which included wines that I liked on release but didn’t have the foggiest idea how they might age as well as a number of wines I suspected might not be developing so well but which I nevertheless wanted to taste before wishing any of them good-bye. I spent the last several weeks going through them and the experience led me to do quite a lot of thinking about what we are hoping to accomplish when we cellar wine. For example, every now and then you taste a wine that is so transcendentally amazing that it’s like a novel you don’t want to end; you want to share it with everyone you know and to have a bottle at your disposal whenever you want to relive the experience. When we put a wine like this in the cellar it is often more about the satisfaction of ownership than the anticipation of what the future holds. Perhaps manifesting the accumulative habits of our hunter-gatherer ancestors, there is a certain personality (and if as a kid you kept your baseball cards meticulously organized in plastic pages in D-ring binders, you have that personality) that finds comfort in collecting things, as if they could offer the reassurance that everything meaningful to us could be stored away somewhere safe to be retrieved, unchanged, whenever the desire strikes.

But those transcendentally amazing experiences are not always reproducible results. Sometimes the thrill of that very first experience is the result of exactly that—the very first experience—and the wine that meant so much to you the first time around doesn’t hold up in reruns. (In other words, some wines are like ABC’s Lost, which would make you feel like a giant sucker if you were to watch any of its story arcs a second time around, and other wines are like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which you can watch in reruns hundreds of times—at least I can—and still experience the same emotional resonance as the original airing.) Henry James wrote that “there are two kinds of taste, the taste for emotions of surprise and the taste for emotions of recognition.” Some wines offer more satisfaction in the surprise department than the recognition department. It’s like a lot of tourist attractions. Once is enough.

There is also the fact that wine changes. It gets old and frail and sometimes just dies.

We live in an era in which professional wine critics condition consumers to think that aging wine is a science. They set forth anticipated drinking windows closing decades hence to the exactitude of a particular year not even rounded off to the nearest five or ten. And they do this despite having a track record of wrongheaded predictions that should have clued us in to the folly of the exercise ages ago. There is a great little book Questions of Taste: The Philosophy of Wine which includes an essay by one Ophelia Deroy exploring the epistemological limits of our ability to make projections about a wine’s future. For example, of the phenomenon of a wine we characterize as “closed,” she writes, “It seems (at least to me) a sort of prophetic judgment, reserved to sibylline viewers of wine, to be able to know (or guess) that ‘there is something here that isn’t here yet. . . . In these cases, we do not simply say something about the way things actually are, but we claim to sense now how they will or could be in the future. Many will agree here that we overstep the boundaries of prudence here and go beyond what we can legitimately claim to know.” She then hypothesizes of a tasting of a St.-Émilion which both “Jane” and “Paul” agree tastes dull but disagree as to whether the dullness reflects poor quality or a closed state. Deroy reasons that for Jane’s “closed” assessment to have an informed basis, it must be true that she tasted an older vintage of the same wine which seemed similarly closed at a similar age but ultimately improved and that she is capable of remembering that initial sensation with sufficient clarity to draw comparisons between that memory and the glass in front of her. Deroy is skeptical that anyone can engage in this “complex relational judgment” when experiments have shown that “people have difficulties in distinguishing not only between many vintages but between only three glasses, not even memorized but all present and available for tasting.”

The thought exercise most people seem to be performing when they purport to project a wine’s ageability does not reflect the experiential basis of Jane’s thinking. Rather, most people seem to have a dogmatic belief that wine ages “on” one or another characteristic (such as “balance,” or “structure”) and then draw the conclusion that a wine will age in close proportion to the degree to which it exemplifies that characteristic. The best way to refute that theory is to taste through a few wines at age five or ten that all tasted pretty much the same when they came out, which describes a lot of wines in my category three. Many of these were rieslings from Germany, about which there is even more confusion and misinformation when it comes to aging than any other category of wine. There is no question that riesling has the potential to be among the most long-lived of wine-grape varieties. But that does not mean that every riesling that tastes impressive on release will benefit from age. This is a difficult truth to come to terms with because they can be so phantasmagoriously delicious on release that it seems incomprehensible that anything that can burst with such psychedelic beauty can turn into a can of stale Mott’s apple juice after as little as eight years, but that is occasionally what happens. What’s worse, because young riesling is so viscerally delicious, the wines destined for Mott’s apple juice decrepitude don’t necessarily taste any different on release from the wines that will maintain their glory. In other words, if you want to make a prediction about their future—whether explicitly in the form of a tasting note’s “anticipated drinking window” or implicitly in the decision to put the wine in your cellar—it is not an intellectual exercise wherein you can arrive at the proper conclusion by making deductions about the characteristics of the wine in front of you. Instead it is essentially an exercise in faith. If you are not inclined towards blind faith, the best evidence at your disposal is history. It’s a safe—although far from certain—bet that the wines that have aged well in the past will age well in the future. Absent that track record, it’s just guesswork and bullshit.

Fortunately, my tastings of category-three wines left me with a number of wines that validated my faith and which will continue to be points of pride in my cellar. I am very happy to be one of the only people around who will be able to pour aged versions of wines like Meinhard Forstreiter’s Tabor grüner veltliner or Domaine Karydas xinomavro, both of which more than rewarded the four years they spent hibernating in their cardboard boxes and still tasted fresh enough to justify holding on to the rest awhile longer. But all in all I ended up sending about a dozen cases away for sale and could probably be just as content sending away a dozen more.

When the poet Langston Hughes quit school to go out to sea he took all his books with him and then, to leave his old life behind, threw them all overboard. All of them except one—Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Apropos of nothing, my favorite verse from that book is this one:

I know I have the best of time and space, and was never measured and never will be measured.
I tramp a perpetual journey, (come listen all!)
My signs are a rain-proof coat, good shoes, and a staff cut from the woods,
No friend of mine takes his ease in my chair,
I have no chair, no church, no philosophy,
I lead no man to a dinner-table, library, exchange,
But each man and each woman of you I lead upon a knoll,
My left hand hooking you round the waist,
My right hand pointing to landscapes of continents and the public road.
Not I, not any one else can travel that road for you,
You must travel it for yourself.
It is not far, it is within reach,
Perhaps you have been on it since you were born and did not know,
Perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land.
Shoulder your duds dear son, and I will mine, and let us hasten forth,
Wonderful cities and free nations we shall fetch as we go.

If you’re looking for a toast tonight, you could do worse. May all of the wines in your cellar be Leaves of Grass!

For further reading:

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