Consuming Collectibles: The Classics

The first time I held a bottle of Château Lafite-Rothschild, my palms actually began to sweat. This, of course, was the last thing I wanted to happen, especially as a young wine writer new to the business: Sweaty palms raised the risk of my dropping it! I gently returned it to its spot on the table and slowly began to back away, looking, I imagined at the time, like the frightened subject of some terrifying medieval king, taking my leave and not wanting to turn my back as he gnashed away on a massive pheasant leg, the juices dripping from his bushy beard.

In hindsight, I was being ridiculous: This was just a bottle of wine. Sure, that iconic 1975 Bordeaux could have covered several months’ worth of car-lease payments for the Acura I drove at the time, but it wasn’t so outlandishly precious that the world would have stopped spinning on its axis if I had dropped the thing. It was a bottle of wine from an underrated vintage, and produced by a château that’s been at or near the top of the French wine world for so long that Thomas Jefferson was a passionate fan and client. Year after year, though the details of the wine certainly change (it’s called “vintage variation” for a reason), Lafite’s inimitable Lafite-ness shines through with incredible consistency. And its reputation is as solid as can be.

It is, in other words, a classic.


Interestingly—and perhaps unsurprisingly—I had a similar experience the first time I held a Rolex Submariner. It wasn’t anything that fans of the brand hadn’t seen and worn a million and three times before—not a museum-worthy 6204, not the actual 6538 that Sean Connery wore in his first turn as James Bond in Dr. No, just a regular, beaten-up, early-2000s Sub with a cyclops magnifying the date and a slightly jangly bracelet. But it was a Rolex Submariner, the first real one I’d ever held, and the combination of its heft in my (sweaty) hand, its place in the pantheon of horology, and its design language that had remained so remarkably consistent for half a century at that point, all had an effect on me not all that different from the Lafite.

This is the power of classics, and one of the most profound ways in which the worlds of both wine and watches overlap.

But what makes a classic? Trying to come up with a definition is, if not an effort in futility, at least far more challenging than it initially seems like it ought to be. For a long time, I was happy to fall back on the definition of what constitutes “obscenity” that Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart formulated in the opinion he issued in the 1964 case of Jacobellis v. Ohio: “I shall not today attempt further to define the kinds of material I understand to be embraced within that shorthand description; and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it…”

Stewart was referring to whether or not the director Louie Malle’s film “Les Amants” (“The Lovers”) constituted pornography, but we can just as easily apply it to the issue at hand here: What constitutes a classic? Well, I know it when I see it.

Personally, I tend to believe that aesthetic consistency is at the heart of any wine or watch (or car, for that matter) that might be considered a classic. Wine professionals and passionate amateurs often work to impress others with their ability to blind taste (that is, to taste with no identifying information given about the liquid sloshing around their glass) and identify the producer of a particular wine. And, indeed, it is an impressive feat to be able to do so, albeit of questionable real-world utility. Often, it comes down to a matter of deduction, of narrowing the scope of potential sources of the wine based on key characteristics. But there are some wines that have been so consistent for so long that they are instantly recognizable to their fans as a result of some reliable character that they possess. The impossibly silky texture of Lafite, and the high-toned floral notes that are counterbalanced by something that always brings to mind an image of pencil shavings dusted over a mug of tea (I know, I know…), are a dead giveaway when I taste. I’ve had dozens of vintages of this wine over the years, and from warm to cold ones, dry to wet years, harvests of abundance and ones of the opposite, Lafite is Lafite. I know it when I see it.

The same can be said of classic watches. Many of us—myself very much included—obsess over the details of any changes that are made to the Rolex Submariner or Explorer, to the Omega Speedmaster… Last year, when Rolex unveiled its two-toned, 36 millimeter Explorer, I lost hours of sleep reading think-pieces and analyses about what it all meant, whether a two-toned Explorer could even embody the ethos of exploration itself, articles and comments (oh, the comment sections were majestic!) ostensibly about horology but that could have been written by PhD candidates in philosophy with a particular slant in the direction of epistemology: How, they seemed to ask, could we know anything with certitude anymore if the Rolex Explorer can be had in a two-toned version?

But, of course, two-toned or not, 36 millimeters or 39, worn on an aftermarket Nato strap or its famous bracelet, an Explorer is an Explorer is an Explorer: The language of its essential design has not fundamentally changed in decades. Sir Edmund Hillary would recognize the new 124271-001 as a descendant of the not-yet-called-Explorer that he wore on his ascent of Mount Everest in 1953. There are significant differences, of course: Hillary’s has triangular hour indices even at 3, 6, and 9, where the Explorer as we know it has Arabic numerals in those quadrants. The sword-shaped hands of the Hillary watch are very different, too. But one look makes it abundantly clear that the DNA is there: The thread of a consistent design language manifests itself in the curve of the case’s flanks, the beautiful yet no-nonsense tool-watchitude of it all that ties it so intimately with its more modern incarnations. The Explorer, in other words, just like the Submariner or the Speedmaster, is a classic.

It’s also important to note that money has nothing to do with what defines a classic. The Hamilton Khaki Field Mechanical, which precious few watch lovers in my life would argue isn’t a classic, can be purchased new for less than $400—not inexpensive, to be sure, but a hell of a bargain in the world of well-made, iconic mechanical wristwatches. There may be as many iterations of G-Shock as there are stars in the sky or bubbles in a bottle of Champagne, but there is a clear, consistent thread connecting them all: The frog-like bulk and color of my GA700US-3A and the Royal-Oak-referencing shape and vivid red of my GS2100-4A couldn’t be more different…yet they are both immediately recognizable as G-Shocks: Classics (and classics for less than a hundred bucks, to boot.)

In the world of wine, classics can be had for fortunes (a bottle of the legendary 2004 Krug Clos du Mesnil Champagne will run you a cool $4000; Screaming Eagle, which started off as a cult wine and has earned its way into the world of wine classics without losing its cult cred, is around the same price for their 2004), but they don’t always require a massive outlay of money. The 2018 Chateau Montelena Chardonnay will set you back less than $70, and it’s among the most iconic and classic of California Chardonnays around. The 2018 Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir from Oregon’s Willamette Valley retails for around $85. Not inexpensive by any means, but a serious value for such a classic wine.

But why does all of this matter in the first place? Well, I’d argue that classics ground us, root us in a widely agreed-upon aesthetic and mode of expression. They provide consistency, which, given the speed with which change happens in our modern world, is deeply important. They give us a solid context within which to consider the old and the new, the been-there-forever and the new-to-the-scene. They give all of us who love wine, who love watches, who love cars or film or fashion or architecture or whatever else, a common language to discuss our passions. Classics tie us together, even as they provide endless opportunities for disagreement. And they tie us in to a bigger story than any one of us could ever occupy on our own.

Lately, my older daughter and I have been catching up on “For All Mankind” on Apple+ after dinner. It’s been fascinating to see the evolution of the Omega Speedmasters that the characters wear as the years slip by in the timeline of the show. The night after we picked up my new Speedy, she wanted to learn about what tied the new one on my wrist to the ones in the world of the show. Out came the iPad, and we began flipping through the seemingly endless variations both familiar and more obscure that Omega has released over the decades. All of them, she noticed—from the pre-Moon 2998-61 to the Mark II to the Silver Snoopy Award and beyond—looked, as she put it, “Like cousins, or even closer than that, even though they’re all kind of different.” In a world of constant change, of mind-bogglingly varied options, classics matter now more than ever.

Related Posts
Brian Freedman is a wine, spirits, travel, and food writer, restaurant consultant, and event host and speaker. He regularly contributes to, Food & Wine digital, Whisky Advocate, and more. Follow him on Instagram @FreedmanReports