The Nebuchadnezzar Edition

On wine, large formats, and decadence

Jann Schwarz (JS) is a WITI contributor and bon vivant from the Engadin valley. He wrote an exceptional piece on bandanas and also Swiss army blankets, which if you are a new subscriber you should be sure to read pronto. -Colin (CJN)

Jann here. Methuselah, Salmanazar, Nebuchadnezzar. Does this ring a bell? No? Well, how about Jeroboam? Are we getting warmer? If the names sound familiar, maybe it’s because you are an avid reader of the Old Testament. Or you recognize them because you lead a life so charmed that you are at least peripherally aware of very large-format wine bottles, the subject of this deliberately decadent, exceedingly effete, effervescently escapist edition of WITI.

Even if you don’t know the names, you may have been fortunate enough to partake of a Magnum or Jeroboam in happier times, hopefully at a wedding, a birthday, or a very fancy baby shower. Or maybe even during a slippery 2 AM slide into decadence at a Las Vegas nightclub years ago. We won’t judge you. 

Named mostly after biblical kings to invoke grandeur, large-format wine bottles date back to the 18th century. In recent years they have become particularly popular for Champagne, due to the sparkling wine’s association with public celebrations and luxury in general. You have probably seen TV footage of Formula One racing drivers celebrating victories by spraying each other with Jeroboams of whichever champagne brand happens to be the sponsor. 

This advertising worked, as it’s a straight line from there to the conspicuous consumption of sparkler-illuminated “bottle trains” in high-end nightclubs. Carried in with great fanfare by attractive waitstaff, they are an ideal way for oligarchs and billionaire-adjacents to flex their wealth. Even more effective than gold-leaf steaks for fleecing patrons, the bottle train racket enables Vegas club owners to charge $180K bar tabs at the end of a particularly debauched night at Tryst.

According to WITI’s forensic accounting analysis of said Tryst 2011 bar tab, a Nebuchadnezzar of Veuve Clicquot, one 15 liter giant bottle equivalent to 20 regular bottles of VC Yellow Label, clocked in at twenty-five grand at the Wynn nightclub, plus 20% gratuity. That’s $1500 per regular-bottle-amount of champagne that wholesales for under $30. Not a modestly sized markup. But then again, immodesty is the name of the game, as nobody buys this stuff in a club to get a bargain, or to slowly savor the bubbles. It’s peacock feathers in liquid form.

This may be just as well, since the quality benefit of large formats is questionable. The more reasonably-sized Magnums and Jeroboams are said to be good for very fine wines with long aging potential. The surface-to-air ratio between the wine and the bottom of the cork is called ullage. The amount of ullage in small bottles can oxidize the wine, causing it to age prematurely. This is why you should think twice about ordering that half bottle of vintage red in a restaurant. Very large formats of biblical proportions develop at a slower pace of maturation, but their corks are usually hand-cut to fit the larger mouth of the bottle. This means there is significant potential for air leakage that will spoil the wine in the long term unless it's an ultra-premium bottling. 

Besides, anything above a Jeroboam is so over the top and hard to maneuver that you really need a team of professional waiters to do it for you. Unless you want to end up like this schmuck.

Why is this Interesting?

“Moderation is a fatal thing. Nothing succeeds like excess,” wrote Oscar Wilde. 

Large format wine bottles are a kind of ludicrous, expensive visual joke, and they have next to no utilitarian value. They’re a bad idea I’ve always found irresistible. That is, at least up to a comparatively modest Jeroboam size, usually bought at a wine merchant for a reasonable sum. I am Swiss and we like our excess conducted in a measured, orderly fashion. 

If I were a futurist, I would predict large formats as a major H2 2021 luxury trend. Most of the world has just spent an entire year in forced moderation, acting as reasonably and cautiously as possible, and avoiding large social gatherings at all cost. The braggy, Bacchanalian vibe of large format wine bottles are the pure antithesis of all that, because they embody the spirit of getting carried away. Large format bottles bring the fun because they signal fun. As harbingers of convivial merriment during large festive gatherings, they are a kind of fetish for what we’ve all been missing during the past annus horribilis. I predict more than a handful of Jeroboams and Nebuchadnezzars will get cracked open as the summer temperatures and COVID vaccination rates start to rise…

And it’s not just about showing off, at least outside of the club context. There is scientific evidence that the format of food and drink consumed quite radically changes the way we perceive its taste. Chocolate with rounded corners tastes sweeter, and champagne poured from a massive bottle tastes like you’re living the good life.

I would go as far as to speculate that a love for large formats of food and drink is genetically imprinted on us from back in the hunter-gatherer days, when feast or famine was not just a figure of speech. This thread carries through to Homeric feasts, where dozens of oxen were slaughtered to mark a victory in battle in ancient Greece. And from there it’s on to our more recent farm-dwelling ancestors, preparing a whole lamb or goat on a spit only once a year for a holy day dinner celebration.

The good news is that you too can join in the fun, without going too much into debt. Magnums are widely available at every price point, and a Jeroboam of decent red (4 regular bottles) can be had for under $150. I promise it never fails to elicit a lot of excitement at the dinner table.

If this still sounds too pompous and flashy for your taste, you may well have a point, and I am grateful to you for reading this far. But perhaps consider substituting wine with a more egalitarian draught keg—the Jeroboam of beer—at a backyard barbecue. In the end, no matter what we’re drinking this summer in the company of friends will likely taste better than it ever has before. (JS)

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Noah (NRB) & Colin (CJN) & Jann (JS)

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