Consuming Collectibles: Unicorns

I’ve been struggling to write this first paragraph for hours now. The issue, I think, is that the robin’s-egg blue dial of the Patek Philippe Nautilus 5711/1A on my right wrist keeps distracting me. Its balance between warmth and vibrancy, and the way its brushed-and-polished surfaces refract the glints of light bouncing off the bottle of 1992 Screaming Eagle next to my computer, are somehow pulling my attention away from the words on the screen. On my left wrist, the new-old stock Rolex Paul Newman Daytona that I recently won at auction is of a different weight than the Patek, which is completely throwing off the rhythm of my typing. It’s a challenging morning here, indeed.

Alas, I’m making this all up. The watch that’s strapped to my wrist is a TAG Heuer Professional from 1999—a piece that I absolutely love (it was my first “serious” watch, the one that my parents presented me with upon graduating from Penn State University with a bachelors in English and a more than likely oversized liver after five years in Happy Valley) but that cost approximately $6,499,000 less than the PP. And of course, there is no bottle of Screamer by my computer; I’m in Las Vegas for a speaking engagement right now, and it’s not yet eight in the morning. I’m washing down a pastry engorged with what looks like nine pounds of Nutella with a mediocre cup of coffee and a one-liter bottle of luke-warm Aquafina.

In other words, I’m about as far from unicorns as one could be.

The 1999 TAG Heuer, and a bottle of 1982 bottle of Pétrus

But that doesn’t mean my day is any worse for it. Indeed, everytime I look at this watch—black dial, steel case, bracelet, and (recently replaced) bezel, and every last scratch on them all 100% my own doing—I’m brought back to the moment when it was gifted to me, of all the symbolism and years and memories bound up into it. It’s been a faithful companion for more than two decades now, accompanying me to dozens of countries, bearing witness to my proposal to my wife, to the birth of our children, to the purchasing of our first house, and more laughter and tears than I could ever possibly recall.

As someone who makes his living writing and thinking about wines and spirits, I know all too well how easy it is to get caught up in the chase for unicorns…or, barring the ability to afford them, to get caught up in the feelings that not having them occasionally brings up.

Would I like to be able to pop the cork from a bottle of 1992 Screaming Eagle? Of course! I have tastebuds, don’t I? But as someone who’s been fortunate enough to savor more than a lifetime’s worth of unicorn bottles, I can report back that, though they are almost always delicious—I still have occasional dreams about a particular bottle of 1982 Pétrus, a perfectly cellared 1961 Latour, a well-aged Sine Qua Non that a friend opened on a random Tuesday evening—they aren’t necessarily worth the exorbitant bandwidth and obsession they’re often given.

Worth the price of admission?

My suspicion is that, for most watch collectors and wine lovers, we got into these worlds because of something far greater than unicorns. Whether we’re talking about the wonders ticking away on our wrists or the liquid sloshing around in our glasses, both are often used to mark the moments that make up a life. And you don’t necessarily need unicorns to accomplish it. The 1940s Movado doctor’s watch that I purchased in the early-aughts is an absolutely stunning piece, as is the Wittnauer with surprisingly subtle diamond hour marks and a case-back engraving that commemorates my grandfather and grandmother’s anniversary decades ago. They both connect me to the past even as I add to the reservoir of emotion contained in each by wearing them in my own daily life. And the bottle of 2012 Bollinger Champagne that we plan on opening to celebrate moving into our new house next month promises to be magnificent—decade-old bubbly from a beloved house is never a bad thing. It costs a few hundred dollars and can be found with relative ease. And while that’s certainly not inexpensive, it is approachable. Both the watches and the wine accomplish their mission of enhancing the moment and creating memories with equal aplomb and style. Their lack of (made-up-word alert!) unicornitude is no drawback at all.

That having been said, it’s important, I think, to give the unicorns their due. Because it would be disingenuous to claim that they don’t occupy a deeply important part of the world of both watches and wine. In some cases, the technology that’s developed for unicorn watches exists at the bleeding edge of horology, and ultimately finds its way into more accessible pieces, albeit in often very different form. The same goes for the vineyard management and work in the winery that often define their wine-world equivalents. (With wine, of course, there’s also the added issue of terroir, of the juice expressing some ineffable truth about a particularly unique patch of planet Earth in unforgettably delicious ways.)

For me personally, I am no fan of the aesthetics of most Richard Mille pieces, but I certainly appreciate the technology that they represent, and why they’re so important. I also wouldn’t be surprised to see some iteration of their work with carbon fiber and movement-suspension systems trickle down to watches that can be had if not cheaply, then at least more affordably, at some point in the not-too-distant future.

With wine, I already drink better than I ever would have imagined possible. I have the incomprehensibly good fortune to taste some of the greatest wines in the world on a more or less regular basis. But that doesn’t mean that I prefer the unicorns to everything else. In fact, my own experience is that, when most wine pros get together, a unicorn or two may very well gallop into the room, but it’s likely to be enjoyed alongside a deeply idiosyncratic assortment of other bottles as well. I can’t count the number of times I’ve sipped a wine that costs more than I make in a week alongside an under-$50 gem that has something equally profound to say about where it was grown and the people who ushered it along its journey from the soil to the bottle.

In the end, that’s what a passion for watches and wine is all about: Appreciating the details of what makes a particular movement, a particular dial, a particular bottling, so special. Chasing unicorns can be edifying in its own right, and actually experiencing them firsthand is often a paradigm-shifting experience. But less-obsessed-over watches and wines have the potential to be just as rewarding.

That having been said, if I had the money and the connections to be able to acquire that spectacular Tiffany-blue Nautilus, and then toast my good fortune with a bottle of 2002 Krug Clos d’Ambonnay, I’d do it in a heartbeat. But I would never give up my beloved TAG Heuer, or my insistence on pairing the pepperoni pizza from our favorite local spot with a bottle of $20 Vietti Barbera. There’s room for it all, and appreciating the full range of what the worlds of watches and wine have to offer is a surefire recipe for a rewarding journey with both.

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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