By Mark Gauert
City & Shore Magazine
The man on the far side of the table had waited a long time for this.
“I used to own some of the biggest nightclubs in South Florida,” Michael Jay said. “So back in the ’80s, when I made my first million dollars, I said, ‘I’m going to buy my first Louis Trey.’”
He placed his hands on either side of the royal red box on the table containing the bottle of Louis XIII cognac – the “Louis Trey” he’d bought in 1989 to celebrate. Inside, the amber liquid Victor Hugo called the “liquor of the gods” rested in Baccarat crystal on champagne silk.
“This is my very first bottle that I purchased with my own hard-earned money,” he said. “It’s never been opened.”
And he had not come to open it now.
No, “That will be enjoyed one day when my kids get married,” he said. “That’s going to be the ‘this-is-it’ moment.”
Jay and the other cognac aficionados and journalists around the table at Zuma in Miami had come for lunch with Baptiste Loiseau, the 37-year-old Cellar Master behind Louis XIII, “one of the most luxurious spirits in the world.”
I’d met people who’d wanted a baseball or a photograph or a book signed. Jay was the first person I’d met who wanted his bottle autographed.
“You’ve brought something really special,” marveled Loiseau, who’d flown in from France to talk about the spirit that “takes generations of Cellar Masters over 100 years to craft.” He’s only the fifth Cellar Master in 144 years to hold the title – and one of the youngest.
Loiseau didn’t craft the cognac in the decanter he’d brought from France to share with us that day. He only started at Rémy Martin in 2014, and the storied flavors floating in the bottle of Louis XIII – which retails for $3,000 – need time to flower.
“It’s only something that you get after decades and decades of aging,” Loiseau said. All the scents and flavors of passion fruit, roses, honey, myrrh, plum, honeysuckle …
“And incense,” he said, “like when you go to a church. These aromas are exactly what you feel when you are blessed.”
That seemed like a tall order for an offering in a cut-crystal glass, on a lunch table at Zuma in Miami.
But as another man from the House of Rémy Martin – in a crisp gray suit and white gloves – unclasped and gently slid open the royal red box, positioned the stemware and poured, oh, $300 worth of Louis VIII into each glass, I felt like I’d stepped up to a 40-proof sacrament.
Was I even worthy to drink from the glass Loiseau had prepared for us?
“There’s something special about it,” Jay said, relishing the moment at hand. “People don’t realize it’s $150 a shot or $200 or sometimes $300.
“But to me it’s worth it,” he said. “It’s that little thing that tells me I made it.”
Loiseau took up one of the glasses and began to smell the cognac – breathing in all its subtle layers of aromas.
“I will guide you through this tasting,” he said. “But I also need you to express yourself. What are your sensations and impressions?
“Because it’s also a question of feeling,” he said, “and memory.”
The man in the crisp gray suit stepped back from the table. All the glasses were ready – served neat, no ice, as the Cellar Master had recommended.
“I raise my glass to you,” Loiseau said. “Let’s toast and make some noise!”
And we did. I’d left my recorder on, and, listening to it later, all I could hear was the sound of fine crystal stemware touching other fine crystal stemware around the table. Ping. Ping. Ping-ping. Like peals of church bells after a Saturday wedding in the countryside of France.
I gazed up through the amber light floating in my glass. At decades of white grapes grown in the chalky soils of the Grand Champagne. At barrels of oak cut exclusively from the forests of Limoges. At careful blending, from Cellar Master to Cellar Master, until all the luxurious aromas were all … just … right.
Still feeling unworthy, I raised the glass to my lips.
“Santé,” I said.
And took a sip.
* * *
Luxury isn’t what it used to be.
We’re losing interest in things – the bling for bling’s sake, the designer label at any cost, the shopping bags with marquee logos swinging out of boutique doors on our arms – in favor of experiences.
“The financial crisis of 2008 brought on an almost unprecedented pause in the luxury market,” Steve Kraus wrote this February in the Marketing Insider. “It was particularly jarring because it stood in marked contrast to the ‘aspirational luxury shopping’ that drove the luxury boom of 2005-07.
“Luxury as status symbol seemed terribly out of step,” he said, “and the trend (continuing today) of spending on experiences rather than things got its start.”
The Wall Street Journal followed in March with a report that Swiss watchmakers are worried younger people are not following their elders’ interest in fine watches.
“Your father might have bought a fancy Swiss watch,” Matthew Dalton wrote. “But the thought doesn’t occur to you – for most of your life, you’ve used your cell phone to check the time. Instead, you book a getaway to Costa Rica, which you document extensively on Instagram.”
Also in March, Boarini Milanesi, the ne plus ultra Italian handbag maker, declared, “There is always that unmistakable something about luxury brands that makes them ‘luxurious.’ Sometimes it’s the looks, sometimes it’s the extraordinary attention to detail and some other times it can be the service that is offered.
“Imagine having all of this and even more: A special and unique experience that leaves an unforgettable trace in your memory. This is what Boarini Milanesi offers.”
Experience and memory, over time, makes Luxury.
Yes, it’s nice to have a $5,000- to $60,000 handbag, in colors inspired by great masterpieces of Italian art. Or a $643,360 Rolls-Royce Phantom, with the position of the stars on the day you were born encrusted in crystals above your head. Or a $2.7million emerald and diamond necklace with matching earrings you can see sparkling, approximately, from space.
Just remember this about luxury now: It’s not so much about the things you have – it’s how the things you have help you to experience.
So when jewelers Marc and Devorah Feder were planning their new 4,000-square-foot Jay Feder Jewelers boutique in Boca Raton, they wanted the showroom to have a “living room feel.” (Complete with an aquarium of seahorses, just around the corner from that $3,435,000 million emerald and diamond necklace, earring and ring set). So many people who’d come to shop with them over the years had wound up sharing stories about how a piece of jewelry helped them to remember a person or a place or an experience in their lives.
“I like it when people come in and chill out [in the showroom],” Devorah said just before the grand opening in January. “We open wine on Thursday nights and people come and they really chill out with us. That’s what I wanted. I wanted it to be welcoming.” (Drop by sometime and ask the Feders to tell you some of their own stories.)
Monarch Air Group at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport helps clients create experiences worth remembering through private air travel. Executive Director David Gitman can arrange a ski experience in Switzerland, for example, starting around $80,000. Having a private jet at your immediate disposal would certainly qualify as a luxurious, maybe even extravagant, experience – but many of the clients here, he says, fly under the radar.
“For many people, this is not luxury,” Gitman said. “This is just how they travel.”
And how do they use an on-demand private flight service?
“We flew flowers once,” he said. The client chartered a small cargo airplane – for about $15,000 – to fly 2,000 pounds of roses from Fort Lauderdale to an island in the Caribbean.
“All going to one lady,” Gitman said. “A very lucky lady.”
Then there was the time he flew a puppy home for a family in Palm Beach County. Somehow, he recalled, the family had become separated from their pet while on vacation in the Turks & Caicos.
“They asked me how much it would be to charter a Learjet to bring the puppy home,” he said. “I told them it was around $20,000.”
A pause on the line.
Then, “Is there a less-expensive option?”
“We can put the puppy on a turboprop and, you know, it’s not as nice a ride [as a Learjet],” Gitman said. “But it will be 50 percent of the price.”
After a few moments of out-of-earshot, back-and-forth conversation, the voice came back on the line with a decision.
“My puppy is not going to fly a turboprop.”
So Gitman personally flew in the Learjet to the Turks & Caicos, collected the puppy and flew it back to Fort Lauderdale.
He didn’t get to see the family at the airport, he said – they sent a car and driver to pick the puppy up.
But he heard about the reunion later.
“There was joy all over the place,” he said.
It’s details like this – a necklace that reminds you of a romantic evening, a bouquet of roses delivered by private jet, a puppy wagging happily home – that make for unforgettable experiences.
* * *
I set the $300 glass of Louis VIII cognac down on the table at Zuma in Miami, the “liquor of the gods’’ still radiating warm in my mouth.
I was trying to discern the flavors – the passion fruit, roses, honey, myrrh, plum, honeysuckle – the aromas you feel when you are blessed.
But the Cellar Master had wanted me to express myself, and my honest impression was, “Wow … that’s some strong cognac!”
To me, the 40-proof warmth overwhelmed all the storied flavors.
I was not alone.
“Do you want to finish mine?” a colleague from the press asked quietly. “I can’t.”
I took it because I thought I should give it another chance. I wanted to believe.
But it was the same.
I felt unworthy of the experience with this luxurious object of desire. All those decades, all that aging, all that blending.
All of it wasted on me.
I wanted to fly in a puppy, and hug it.
Until I remembered something else the Cellar Master had said: More than what meets our senses, experiences are also a function of feeling, and of memory.
Michael Jay remembered his first million and watermarked it with a taste for Louis Trey. Marc and Devorah Feder remembered stories from their clients and built a showplace in their showroom where they could share them. A family from Palm Beach remembered the joyful time spent with their puppy and jetted the wayward pet home again.
At the end of my brief pursuit of luxury, I didn’t have a private jet or a million-dollar necklace or a Rolls-Royce – or even much cognac left in my crystal-cut glass.
But I remembered all the experiences I’d shared along the way.
And felt blessed.