The Cellar Effect: The Peculiar Correlation Between Wine And Watch Vintages
Two devouring passions, two sources of pleasure, exchange, and endless sharing. Wine and watches inspire collectors and enthusiasts young and old. But a critical question must be asked, are they linked in their creativity, development, aging, and final result? A major existential question deserving an answer.
Viticulture culture can be traced back almost 8,000 years. It's even older than the art of time measurement, which is between 5,000 to 6,000 years old. Mechanical watchmaking is a more recent phenomenon dating back to the 10th century. Despite the age gap, horology and viticulture still share an ability to inspire passion, both in relentless collectors and savvy connoisseurs. Additionally, both of these crafts embrace the notion (and desirability) of vintage – a phenomenon that's generally over-valued in the watch industry as of late.
Comparing their parallel histories would take more of a book than an article. Consequently, to determine what extent a correlation exists between outstanding vintages from these two fields, many choose to consider only the 20th century or to just look at wristwatches. This is all very subjective, is not fundamentally useful, and is simply to address topics we love.
Nature is uncontrollable by definition. We know this has a direct influence on vintage wine and their quality. Is it possible economic conjunctures also impact watchmaking creations? In any case, who saves who?
Is creativity unleashed in times of deep crisis? Likewise, does nature "decide" to comfort mankind with exceptional wines during these dire periods? One could believe so upon discovering the wonders – both horological and viticultural – born at the end of the ’20s, beginning of the ’30s, during one of the worst economic crises of modern times.
The Rolex Oyster – the cornerstone of modern watchmaking – debuted in 1926. In 1927, Patek Philippe unveiled the most complicated watch in the world: the incomparable, Packard. In 1929, Jaeger-LeCoultre created the world’s smallest caliber: caliber 101 with 74 components, yet it weighed less than 1 gram. In 1930, the sales volume of wristwatches overthrew pocket watches for the very first time. Then in 1931, Rolex Perpetual introduced automatic winding with its limitless oscillating mass: the rotor was born!
During the same time, viniculture provided the world with some of the great vintages – some are still fabulous to drink at almost 100 years old – from Bordeaux (1928 & 1929), Burgundy (29), the Rhône Valley (28), Champagne (28 & 29), and Sauternes (26 & 29). Maybe there truly is a link between both worlds…
Similarly, after the traumatizing Second World War and the advent of nuclear destruction, wine conspired to be fantastic. A mythical year across all vineyards, 1945 marked the beginning of the Thirty Glorious years with a series of legendary vintages: 1947, 1949, 1955, 1957, 1959, and 1961.
In turn, post-WWII mechanical watchmaking took major steps forward. Designs of the ’50s and ’60s improved and helped to forge modern watchmaking. Today, they are largely reused, retweaked, and relaunched proof of their priceless value. In 1955, Vacheron Constantin unveiled the Ultra-Thin. Then, a Rolex Oyster Special dove 10,916 meters to nearly the bottom of the ocean in the Mariana Trench.
In 1969, a defining event for all mankind propelled a timekeeper to iconic status – in the truest meaning of this widely overused term. The Omega Speedmaster walked on the moon. This mesmerizing event almost eclipsed the birth of three other emblematic chronograph watches that same year: the Zenith El Primero, the TAG Heuer Calibre 11, and the Breitling Chrono-Matic.
In the vineyard, the mood was less flamboyant at the beginning of the ’70s. The 1972 Patek Philippe Nautilus and the 1976 Audemars Piguet Royal Oak deserved to have their unforgettable equivalent in bottles, but it seems you can't have everything. Was nature sensing the birth of the Quartz watch? The only exception was maybe in Sauternes where, in 1970, 1971, and 1976 exceptional vintages were produced. The aromatic complexities of which could rival the mark left by its two contemporaneous behemoths of horology history.
New crisis, new starts
As the 1970s came to a close, the Quartz Crisis hit its peak when quartz sales overtook mechanical for the first time. The mechanical watchmaking industry was suffering, badly. Wine attempted to bring back some joy with a spectacular 1978 crop in Burgundy, but it was short-lived. Fortunately, the ’80s came to the rescue of both disciplines. When The Swatch watch was launched in the US in 1982 and 1983 in Europe, Jean-Claude Biver made it known far and wide that Blancpain would keep making mechanical timepieces only. Then the cavalry arrived as 1985 saw the creation of the AHCI, a true seed field of watchmaking research and creativity. This time period also marked the debut of some of today's most acclaimed independent watchmakers.
Wine culture answered with multiple “bangs” by offering our palates anthological vintages like the amazing Bordeaux 1982, '85, '86, '88, and the superlative 1989, which some consider the best vintage of the century!
The same year, Patek Philippe celebrated its 150th anniversary with horns and banners of the mechanical world: the caliber 89 and its 33 complications. Franck Muller unleashed the Aeternitas Mega in 1992 and watches become “oversized” with the Audemars Piguet Royal Oak Offshore in 1993. A. Lange & Söhne, risen from the ashes, launched the now unavoidable Lange 1. Independents continue rising as well, spearheaded by Philippe Dufour and his 1996 Duality.
In the vineyard, 1990 left its mark followed by a superb '95 and '96. Micro-production of garage wines flourished and prices skyrocketed, just like in watchmaking. Then came the long-awaited 2000 vintage which coincided with the 2001 birth of the all-category champion of independents, Richard Mille.
Sadly, the last known great vintages came in 2005 and 2009, because subsequent crops are still too young to be fully judged. On the mechanical side, however, one must note the only true revolution of the last few years: Bulgari's Octo Finissimo. Debuted in 2012, it is just starting to achieve icon status among aficionados. The future will tell if the “faux vintage” craze adopted by many brands will produce compelling vintages.
Only time will reveal whether a vintage is truly great, exceptional, or mythical. The major difference resides in the ephemeral nature wine. Unlike mechanical wonders, wine disappears when appreciated. Watches can last a lifetime and be passed down from generation to generation. Still, the love of wine and watchmaking can – and must – be perpetuated. The passion and joy they create need to live on.
This is, without a doubt, their greatest correlation.
(Photography by Pierre Vogel)