Phylicia Rashad Is Everybody’s Mom

Phylicia Rashad, right, and Susan Kelechi Watson in a scene from the NBC drama ‘This Is Us.’
Phylicia Rashad, right, and Susan Kelechi Watson in a scene from the NBC drama ‘This Is Us.’ Photo: Ron Batzdorff/NBC

Phylicia Rashad has two children, but she has acted as a mother to many more in a career defined by maternal roles.

It began 35 years ago with the introduction of Clair Huxtable on “The Cosby Show,” the paradigm-shifting sitcom that permanently imprinted Ms. Rashad on generations of viewers as a mother figure. From then on, her most memorable parts have formed a sort of mom-heavy family tree, though with much variation among the characters.

“Mothers are the same and yet they’re not. Know what I mean?” says the 70-year-old actress.

Ms. Rashad won a Tony Award in 2004 for her portrayal of Lena Younger, struggling on behalf of her children in “A Raisin in the Sun.” In the “Creed” movies, sequels to the “Rocky” saga, she tried to safeguard her boxer son. On TV, she was a power-hungry matriarch in “Empire,” scheming on behalf of her politician son. Even younger viewers know her as a matronly force, thanks to her cameo in the music video for Drake’s “In My Feelings” (now with 181 million YouTube views). From a balcony, she shooed the rapper away from her house and her daughter.

Ms. Rashad’s latest fictional mom is in the hit TV series “This Is Us,” an NBC drama that dives deeply into parent and sibling relationships. She appears in one episode, airing Tuesday. She plays an educator who clashes with her daughter (played by Susan Kelechi Watson).

Motherhood was just one factor in understanding the character. “Humanity,” Ms. Rashad says, is more important to doing her job. “What does this person want, in this moment and beyond? These are honest questions that you ask yourself in developing any role.”

Ms. Rashad, who was raised in Houston and studied fine arts at Howard University in Washington, D.C., played some mothers in her theater work before “The Cosby Show” premiered in 1984. She says she had an advantage in such roles after giving birth to her first child, a son, in 1973.

From that point, she recalls, “I could look at actresses portraying mothers and I could see who was a mother and who wasn’t. It had nothing to do with their talent. There was a sense.”

Ms. Rashad, right, on opening Night of ‘A Raisin In The Sun’ on Broadway in 2004.
Ms. Rashad, right, on opening Night of ‘A Raisin In The Sun’ on Broadway in 2004. Photo: Getty Images

During her audition for the role of Clair Huxtable, she was startled by one scene’s resemblance to a real situation from her own life.

“When I read the script, I said, ‘Who’s been hiding in my closet!’ The scene was Theo [Malcolm-Jamal Warner] not having done his homework properly, and his room was a mess, and Clair was exasperated. And I was having that same discussion with my son, before I got that script.”

She recalls modeling Clair’s character on two women she admired: a former neighbor who became a state supreme court judge, and a family friend who worked with disabled people.

“They were both given to service, they loved music, and loved to dance and laugh. Both loved their husbands and adored their children, and were fierce about it,” she says.

As a mother of five, Clair Huxtable joined a long line of sitcom moms, but the character broke ground as an African-American lawyer and feminist. She was stern, but also intuitive and sexy, with a hard look as familiar as her peals of laughter.

“My best friend came to a taping and said, ‘Phylicia, you ought to be ashamed of yourself, taking these people’s money. You’re just up there being yourself,’” she says.

Ms. Rashad, left, and Raven-Symoné in a scene from ‘The Cosby Show.’
Ms. Rashad, left, and Raven-Symoné in a scene from ‘The Cosby Show.’ Photo: Everett Collection

When tens of millions of people were tuning in for each episode of “The Cosby Show,” Bill Cosby was sometimes referred to as “America’s Dad.” That standing was destroyed with his 2018 conviction for sexual assault, a crime for which he is serving up to 10 years in prison.

Ms. Rashad is in demand, with an as yet unrevealed role in an upcoming Tyler Perry project titled “A Fall From Grace” and another role as an instructor in a series for the Oprah Winfrey Network called “David Makes Man.”

None of her mother roles made her real-life role as a parent any simpler. “It’s easy when you’re scripted and the children are scripted too,” she says.

During the phone interview for this article, Ms. Rashad briefly paused to take a call from her son. He was checking to make sure she had arrived home safely after driving through a snow squall.

When she was carrying her second child, Ms. Rashad concealed her pregnancy on camera during tapings of “The Cosby Show.” Born in 1986, daughter Condola Rashad is an actress who stars on the Showtime drama “Billions.”

Ms. Rashad, left, with her daughter Condola Rashad, who is also an actress.
Ms. Rashad, left, with her daughter Condola Rashad, who is also an actress. Photo: Getty Images

Her mother recalls, “When she was a little girl, my daughter would say, ‘Mommy, there’s always something about every character you play that stays with you and you bring home.”

Not so in the case of Violet Weston, the fire-breathing matriarch of “August: Osage County,” whom Ms. Rashad played on Broadway in 2009. (“Violet did not get past the edge of my dressing room. She was madness,” the actress says.)

Her other less-than-perfect stage moms include: Big Mama in “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” (a 2008 production directed by Ms. Rashad’s sister, Debbie Allen) and Medea, the character in the Greek tragedy who kills her own children.

In 2004, when Ms. Rashad portrayed a 285-year-old soothsayer in the Broadway premiere of August Wilson’s “Gem of the Ocean,” she heard a theory about the unifying theme of her acting career.

After one performance, Ms. Rashad recalls, her mother, Vivian Ayers, a poet and playwright, told her, “No matter who you’re playing, you’re always being me.”

Write to John Jurgensen at

Chicago Police Investigating Whether Smollett Coordinated Alleged Attack

Chicago police want to again question Jussie Smollet, a star on the ‘Empire’ television show who says he was the victim of an attack.
Chicago police want to again question Jussie Smollet, a star on the ‘Empire’ television show who says he was the victim of an attack. Photo: Richard Shotwell/Associated Press

CHICAGO—Chicago police are investigating whether Jussie Smollett, the “Empire” television star who said he was attacked last month by two people yelling racial and gay epithets, coordinated the attack, according to a person familiar with the matter.

Police interviewed two men in recent days that they had initially described as potential suspects but then released without charging.

The two men are black and admitted to police that they had purchased a rope used in the alleged incident and were paid, according to another person familiar with the matter. One of the two men appeared on “Empire,” that person said.

Now, police are seeking to question Mr. Smollett again.

“He is not listed as an offender, we just have some information that we have to run by him,” said Chicago Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi on Sunday.

In a statement released by Mr. Smollett’s publicist, lawyers for the actor rejected allegations that he played a role in his attack.

“Nothing could be further from the truth and anyone claiming otherwise is lying,” the lawyers said.

The attorneys said one of the men was a personal trainer hired to help Mr. Smollett get ready for a music video.

They said Mr. Smollett will continue to cooperate with the investigation and anticipates being updated by police.

Mr. Smollett initially told police he was returning home from a nearby Subway sandwich shop early on Jan. 29 when he was approached by two men yelling epithets about his race and sexual orientation. He said the men hit him in the face, put a rope around his neck and poured an unknown chemical on him.

The attackers, Mr. Smollett later told police, also told him, “This is MAGA country,” a reference to “Make America Great Again,” a slogan popularized by President Trump.

Since then, investigators have reviewed hundreds of hours of security-camera footage while searching for evidence. They also focused on the rope said to have been used in the attack and identified the retailers who sell it.

Mr. Guglielmi, the police spokesman, said Mr. Smollett has been “very consistent” about his story when speaking with investigators.

Mr. Smollett spent time Thursday answering follow-up questions from police, according to a publicist for Mr. Smollett. He had discussed the alleged attack in interviews, providing additional details at times.

Write to Erin Ailworth at and Douglas Belkin at

The Fitness Plan for Serious Schmoozers

When Michelle Kichline was appointed chair of Chester County Board of Commissioners, she had to swap postwork yoga for early-morning fitness classes at Purenergy studio in Paoli, Pa.
When Michelle Kichline was appointed chair of Chester County Board of Commissioners, she had to swap postwork yoga for early-morning fitness classes at Purenergy studio in Paoli, Pa. Photo: Ryan Collerd for The Wall Street Journal

Being an elected official can feel like attending a wedding six days a week. As chair of the Board of County Commissioners in Chester County, Pa., Republican Michelle Kichline says it’s common for her to sit down to the equivalent of a wedding feast almost daily. “When every day of your life is a special event, you will put on weight,” she says.

Ms. Kichline is responsible for a county west of Philadelphia that’s almost as large as Rhode Island. “I might get asked to attend a breakfast on the border of Maryland and then speak at a lunch near Lancaster County,” she says of the job she’s held since 2014. After six months on the job Ms. Kichline was feeling anything but the model of wellness.

Her dedicated yoga practice fell to the wayside as classes overlapped with evening work events and the combination of extensive driving and large meals started to take a toll. “The constant eating and lack of exercise was zapping my energy,” she says. She’d just turned 47 and was also struggling with perimenopause.

Ms. Kichline lifts weights during a group fitness class at Purenergy studio.
Ms. Kichline lifts weights during a group fitness class at Purenergy studio. Photo: Ryan Collerd for The Wall Street Journal

Despite not being a morning person, she found a gym near her home in Berwyn, Pa., that offered early classes. At the time, her children, now 20 and 17, were old enough that she could leave them sleeping and get back in time to wake them up for school. “The first few months felt like I was in a constant state of jet lag,” she says. “It was like resetting my biological clock to wake at 5 a.m. and go to bed by 9:30 p.m. But you adjust. It sounds ridiculous, but I have more energy waking up that early.”

Ms. Kichline, 52, also got extra disciplined about her eating habits, avoiding bread and dessert. “There’s almost always chicken breast,” she says. “In fact, I keep a running tally of which restaurants have the best chicken.”

In a profession where she’s in high demand, she’s learned to prioritize her own well-being. “When you’re working in the public sector, it’s your job to say yes,” she says. “But to be my most effective, that means taking time for myself, too.”

The Workout

The gym near Ms. Kichline’s home offers boot camp, spin, boxing, barre and more, so she started to mix up her old routine of running, weights and yoga. “As I get older, I realize I need variety not just to prevent boredom, but in order to recover,” she says. “If I just run long distance every day, I feel it in my knees, or if I just lift weights it strains my joints.”

Two to three mornings a week she takes a high-intensity interval training class that combines rowing, running, kettlebells and TRX exercises. “I feel like I get the most bang for my buck with that workout,” she says. Twice a week she joins a weight-training class and occasionally she attends spin.

“I thought I would hate group-fitness classes,” she confides. “But those early-morning classes feel like a family. Everyone knows you got up very early and are there to focus. We don’t talk a whole lot, but it feels supportive.”

Once a week she attends a vinyasa yoga class. She keeps a foam roller by the TV in her living room and a strap for stretching is always in the car.

On days she can’t make it to the gym, she makes a point of taking the six flights of stairs to her office and walking her two dogs.

Ms. Kichline says cross-training with boot camp-style workouts have helped prevent boredom and injuries.
Ms. Kichline says cross-training with boot camp-style workouts have helped prevent boredom and injuries. Photo: Ryan Collerd for The Wall Street Journal
The Diet

When Ms. Kichline can control her meals, she eats a Mediterranean-inspired diet of fish and vegetables. Mornings begin with a cup of English breakfast tea and a green protein smoothie. She’s given up sandwiches.

“At events, I just eat the protein and vegetables off the bread,” she says. But she’s not carb-free. “I snack on popcorn and my husband is an amazing cook, so if he makes spaghetti and clams, I’m enjoying it.” On Sundays, the family makes a big pot of food, like turkey chili or chicken soup, which can be used for leftovers. She says avoiding cocktails at events is easy. “All I have to say is, ‘I’m an elected official and I have to drive. I’m sure you understand,’ ” she says.

The Gear & Cost

Ms. Kichline pays $145 a month for her annual membership at Purenergy Studio, which includes unlimited classes. She has a pair of Asics Gel-Nimbus 21 running sneakers ($150) and Asics Gel-Quantum 180 TR cross trainers ($120), as well as a pair of Shimano RP2 bike shoes ($90). She shops sales for Lululemon , Under Armour , Nike and Athleta apparel. She wears a Schosche Rhythm+ heart rate monitor ($80). She spent around $20 for her foam roller.

The Playlist

“My guilty pleasure is classic rock,” she says. “When ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ comes on, it really gets my blood rolling when I’m running.”

Ms. Kichline rows during a high-intensity interval training class at Purenergy. She says the workout is a one-two punch of strength and cardio.
Ms. Kichline rows during a high-intensity interval training class at Purenergy. She says the workout is a one-two punch of strength and cardio. Photo: Ryan Collerd for The Wall Street Journal

Don’t Just Sit There

We all know long periods of sitting are detrimental to our health. According to a 2015 study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine prolonged sedentary periods increased the risk for cancer and cardiovascular disease and almost doubled the risk of diabetes, regardless of physical activity.

“You really need to make an effort to counteract the effects of sitting for eight hours a day,” says Donald Hensrud, director of the Healthy Living Program at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. “Just being active won’t cut it. You need to dedicate about an hour of exercise a day.”

Dr. Hensrud says those who log hours behind the wheel have it tougher than desk jockeys. “You can’t just stand up from driving,” he says. He suggests trying to break up long drives with stops to stretch and walk around and using red lights as a chance to do twists or upper-body stretches. Having proper posture in the car or having your driver’s seat ergonomically analyzed can help prevent aches. Parking farther away to get in extra steps also helps.

Diets can also fall victim to drive-through window meals. Dr. Hensrud suggests always having a healthy, filling breakfast like egg whites or peanut butter and toast before a long morning commute. He always keeps nutritious snacks like nuts and fruit handy for long drives to prevent having to scavenge for food.

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‘Seeing the Divine: Pahari Painting of North India’ Review: Multifaceted Devotion

‘Durga Confronting the Demon Mahisha in the Form of an Elephant,’ by the Master at the Court of Mankot (active c. 1680–1730)
‘Durga Confronting the Demon Mahisha in the Form of an Elephant,’ by the Master at the Court of Mankot (active c. 1680–1730) Photo: Steven Kossak, The Kronos Collections

New York

On the third floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in a gallery overlooking a hall filled with South Asian statuary, bear and monkey soldiers look on in dismay as their divine leaders are assailed by enemy arrows; light reflects off the beetle-wing jewels of a fanged goddess; and a boar-headed avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu wades neck-high in a gray, swirling ocean, a gold mace resting on his shoulder while, by his feet, an orange demon sinks to the depths. Elsewhere, scenes feature the Hindu god Krishna—as a blue-skinned child sneaking a handful of butter from the churn; as a lad, perched in a tree on a riverbank, watching as bathing beauties whose clothes he’s stolen shyly rise from the water; as a lover eagerly embracing a maiden.

Seeing the Divine: Pahari Painting of North India

The Met Fifth Avenue
Through July 21

These are but some of the 20 17th- and 18th-century paintings and drawings featured in “Seeing the Divine: Pahari Painting of North India.” They are by artists in kingdoms nestled in the Himalayan foothills, all but four folio-sized, and together they show off the richness of this chapter in South Asia’s art history. Their palettes range from saturated reds and yellows to mauves and pastels, with some painters using bold, dynamic strokes reminiscent of folk art and others displaying styles associated with Mughal courts. But the selection of works, which includes a 26-foot-long festival banner made around 1800, also brings out some of the dynamics at the core of the bhakti tradition in Hinduism. Bhakti, or devotion, is a spiritual path that uses music, dance, poetry, literature and such rituals as bathing, dressing and garlanding statues believed to house deities.

What we see here are painters bringing to life ancient poetry and epics with an eye to engaging viewers emotionally. Some depict favorites—witness the three wonderful Ramayana scenes attributed to Manaku, one of the great 18th-century Pahari masters. Or the tale of Krishna’s elopement with Rukmini, an act that so provoked a thwarted rival suitor that he marshaled his forces. The story fills the embroidered banner, starting right to left on the lower register, then doubling back on the upper, left to right. This split composition allows noncontiguous scenes to play against one another so that as we look at the happy couple, born aloft on a palanquin amid much celebratory pageantry, we also take in the murderous mayhem of war hovering above like an evil omen.

‘Krishna as a Child Stealing Butter,’ folio from the devotional text of the Bhagavata (c. 1780)
‘Krishna as a Child Stealing Butter,’ folio from the devotional text of the Bhagavata (c. 1780) Photo: Steven Kossak, The Kronos Collections

Other works surprise with rarely illustrated scenes. Kurt Behrendt, Met associate curator of South Asian art, displays a number of the latter, including an eye-popping painting by a master artist who worked at the Court of Mankot between about 1680 and 1730. It portrays the goddess Durga confronting the demon Mahisha as he, having been decapitated by a swing of her sword, shape-shifts from human to elephant.

What is striking is the degree to which Pahari paintings also map and elicit reactions to the divine. Mahisha’s disembodied head, for example, looks up at Durga with an expression of submission even as he makes a last-ditch effort to outmaneuver her. For its part, the depiction of Vishnu’s boar avatar (described above and painted about 1775-80 in Kangra or Guler) exudes such calm and control as to be placid—a reassuring quality in a deity charged with maintaining the cosmic order. And two small groupings directly address the relationship between human devotee and god, a dynamic often described through the metaphor of lovers.

‘Krishna Dances in the Raslila with the Gopis (Female Cowherds)’ (c. 1750)
‘Krishna Dances in the Raslila with the Gopis (Female Cowherds)’ (c. 1750) Photo: Steven Kossak, The Kronos Collections

The first group (all from about 1775-80) illustrates moments in the Gita Govinda, a 12th-century poem by Jayadeva. It begins with Krishna and his beloved Radha in the forest at night, followed by Radha sitting alone, her henna-tipped fingers limp, eyes downcast. She longs to be with her lover, like the pair of birds in the background. In the next painting, Krishna is encircled by maidens who embrace, touch and reach for him while others drink him in with their eyes as they await their turn. The god is like the nearby tree entwined with vines, engaged with them all even though—such are the limitations of the human form—he can lock eyes with only one….unless, as a painting from about 1750 illustrates, Krishna multiplies himself as he does at a Raslila celebration in order to dance with an endless number of women, every couple gazing into each other’s eyes, every relationship simultaneously unique and universal.

So central to Hinduism is this visual contact—known as darshan—that it is fitting that the show ends with three portrayals of rulers standing, hands clasped in respectful salutation. They are looking at and being seen by gods their bhakti practice has brought before them in a vision. Painted in different court workshops, the differences in palettes, compositions and overall styles elicit yet another emotion, this time from us: admiration.

The Secret to Searing Pork Chops Without Setting Off a Smoke Alarm

LOOK AT this beautifully seared pork chop, perched on a plate of beans and greens dotted with roast tomatoes and olives. The third Slow Food Fast recipe from New Orleans chef John Sinclair comes together in under a half-hour. How is that even possible?

For starters, choose chops well under 2 inches thick: They’ll cook on the stove top without any additional time in the oven. “Just regulate the heat and flip a lot,” said Mr. Sinclair. “That brings the internal temperature up at an even pace and cooks the meat through without…

Exclusive: Step Inside YSL’s New Parisian Headquarters

The new Parisian headquarters.
The new Parisian headquarters. Photo: François Halard for WSJ. Magazine

Anthony Vaccarello has nearly finished giving a tour of the just-opened 140,000-square-foot headquarters of fashion house Yves Saint Laurent in a tony corner of Paris’s seventh arrondissement when, heading toward the exit, he says he’s saved his favorite part for last. After looping across the vast courtyard of the former 18th-century abbey, through the showrooms, we pass through the front gate at the rue de Bellechasse. There, on the driveway at the edge of the sidewalk, the cobblestones under our feet rumble as we slowly start to descend: It turns out to be a platform elevator that takes us down, Bond-villain style, to a small parking lot. Painted black lacquer with gleaming white markers, it’s more appropriate for an upscale bondage club than a place to stash the company’s off-duty town cars.

Yves Saint Laurent’s creative director, Anthony Vaccarello.
Yves Saint Laurent’s creative director, Anthony Vaccarello. Photo: François Halard for WSJ. Magazine

“I could spend all day in here,” Vaccarello says. The 39-year-old fashion designer has always been a low-key personality, loath to toot his own horn, even though he has enjoyed double-digit sales growth at Saint Laurent since he was named creative director in April 2016. So maybe it makes sense that in this new mothership, the result of three years of work, he prefers a hidden space over all else.

Aboveground, the complex—there is a main office building, which is historically registered, and two converted stables—houses most of the company’s 400-some Paris-based employees. Complementing the grand reception room that Vaccarello uses for on-site meetings are a few somber pieces of furniture by Jean-Michel Frank and Alfred Porteneuve. Herringbone parquet floors underfoot give off a comforting creak. Vast, sun-strewn spaces throughout the abbey are punctuated by artworks by Daniel Buren and Franz West, as well as tribal pieces from New Zealand and Kenya. Some are on loan from the personal collection of François Pinault, founder of Kering, the luxury conglomerate that acquired Yves Saint Laurent in 1999. Others, like a Mapplethorpe, are from Vaccarello, and some, like a pair of illuminated columns, are from the estate of Yves Saint Laurent himself, who died in 2008.

A room featuring a Jean Prouvé table and a Pierre Jeanneret stool, next to a 1982 photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe. “We wanted to leave behind [the former headquarters at] Avenue George V and position the Saint Laurent brand somewhere more elevated and chic,” says Vaccarello.
A room featuring a Jean Prouvé table and a Pierre Jeanneret stool, next to a 1982 photograph by Robert Mapplethorpe. “We wanted to leave behind [the former headquarters at] Avenue George V and position the Saint Laurent brand somewhere more elevated and chic,” says Vaccarello. Photo: François Halard for WSJ. Magazine

Vaccarello handled the interior design, only his second time tackling such a large redecoration project, after redoing, in a similarly spare style, a 5,400-square-foot hôtel particulier in the sixth arrondissement. He lives there with his husband, Arnaud Michaux, who works alongside him in the YSL atelier. “We need that much space for the dog,” Vaccarello says, laughing. Nino is a French bulldog, whose needs are not exactly those of a Great Dane, “but he’s nervous.” (The breed is a house specialty: Monsieur Saint Laurent had a string of four, each one named Moujik.) Vaccarello is of Italian heritage but he grew up in Brussels, where he studied fashion at La Cambre; he says that his aesthetic restraint comes from his Belgian side. “I just can’t concentrate when the space is too charged.”

The rue de Bellechasse headquarters was the idea of Francesca Bellettini, president and CEO of Yves Saint Laurent. When she arrived from another Kering brand, Bottega Veneta, in 2013, the house’s main design atelier was in Los Angeles, where its former creative director, Hedi Slimane, was based. (He is now at Celine, owned by Kering’s luxury conglomerate rival, LVMH.) The dressmaking and tailoring ateliers were in Paris, on the rue de l’Université, and support staff was spread out over several other offices throughout the capital. “It’s something I said from the first day that I joined,” says Bellettini, 48, in an interview with Vaccarello. “We need to bring everybody together in order to emphasize the sense of belonging and make it easier to create a new culture.”

The main staircase.
The main staircase. Photo: François Halard for WSJ. Magazine

A location did not reveal itself immediately, so Bellechasse broke ground only in January 2015. From the beginning, Vaccarello’s job included monthly meetings about the project, which was still in its earliest construction phase. “We wanted to leave behind Avenue George V,” he says, referring to the longtime headquarters in the eighth arrondissement, “and position the Saint Laurent brand somewhere more elevated and chic. This place represents everything we’ve been trying to do.” Costs will remain the same. “I am a former banker,” says Bellettini, who once worked at Goldman Sachs. “It has to make financial sense.” It is a muscular gesture as well, setting down such a huge footprint in the high-priced heart of the city while competitors like Chanel and Hermès have moved offices and production ateliers to the nearby suburb of Pantin. (Vaccarello uses the rue de l’Université atelier, a 10-minute walk away, as his design studio.)

When Vaccarello arrived at Yves Saint Laurent three years ago, true to his customary discretion, it wasn’t with an explosion. The bomb had already been detonated by Slimane, who took the reins in 2012 and radically changed almost every aspect of the brand. (Yves Saint Laurent Beauté, owned by L’Oréal, is the sole part of the Yves Saint Laurent universe he did not touch.) Slimane supplanted the tepidly pretty, bourgeois style of the house’s previous designer, Stefano Pilati, with a rock-and-roll spirit more appropriate for Hollywood Boulevard than Paris’s rue de Grenelle. He gutted the boutiques, redesigning them in a severe style: gray, black and white marble and chrome. He even removed the founder’s first name from the brand. (Protest T-shirts circulated in response, bearing the message “Ain’t Laurent Without Yves.”)

At the beginning of his Saint Laurent tenure, Slimane was mostly excoriated by fashion critics, but retailers cheered his rigorously unsentimental creative destruction because from it came the kind of clothes most people actually wear these days. Among seasonal offerings, Slimane built a core collection available year round: perfecto jackets, skinny black jeans, simple blazers, Chelsea boots. Slimane doubled annual sales in his first three years, to about €707 million ($794 million) in 2014. By 2016, when he left, revenues had surpassed $1 billion. Today, under Vaccarello’s creative stewardship, they have reached €1.7 billion ($2.03 billion).

A space designed by Vaccarello for his personal use, with Jean-Michel Frank armchairs, Arno Declercq side tables and Kenyan funerary figures.
A space designed by Vaccarello for his personal use, with Jean-Michel Frank armchairs, Arno Declercq side tables and Kenyan funerary figures. Photo: François Halard for WSJ. Magazine

“When I joined Saint Laurent we were at about €560 million [$740 million] in revenues,” says Bellettini. “And at that time, in the company, they were all talking about getting to €1 billion. I wanted to help people see what the potential of this brand could be. Everything was here to make it even bigger.” Bellettini hired a management consulting firm, and together they established a long-term goal for three times higher.

“I remember when I sat down with Mr. Bergé,” she says, referring to Pierre Bergé, the founding CEO of the house and Yves Saint Laurent’s partner, who maintained a mentoring role until his death in 2017. “I said, ‘This company can get to €3 billion.’ He was smiling so much. He was very happy.”

Bellettini had known for months before it was announced in April 2016 that Slimane would be leaving, so she was able to think carefully about his replacement. While some legacy fashion houses reinvent themselves from scratch every few years with a new creative director—Dior, Lanvin and Balenciaga come to mind—brand confusion can be a result. Bellettini wasn’t interested in reversing a direction that had proven so successful. She was asked to make a list, and put only one name on it: Anthony Vaccarello.

A large ’60s-era Daniel Buren painting greets visitors in the black-and-white lobby space.
A large ’60s-era Daniel Buren painting greets visitors in the black-and-white lobby space. Photo: François Halard for WSJ. Magazine

Vaccarello, who launched his own line in 2008, shares important aesthetic touchstones with his predecessor: He is skilled at sharp tailoring, loves graphic black and minimalist presentation and is driven to repeatedly rework the tent poles of a wardrobe. By the time he came to Bellettini’s attention, in addition to his eponymous company, he was the creative director of Versus, Versace’s second line. “We started to see a lot of magazine editorials of our accessories shown with Anthony’s ready-to-wear,” Bellettini says. “I said, ‘Who is this guy?’ What he designed went very well with us. I saw what he was doing for Versus, and I loved the fact that he was respecting what Versus is, but you could still see him. When you look at Anthony’s own label over time, you can see that he had a signature without even having a logo. He doesn’t need to go to the moon one season, and then another season to Brazil. It was consistent.”

Both Bellettini and Vaccarello have had to grapple with the brand’s long and weighty heritage. Each asked to see the archives immediately upon arrival. “You have to pay respects when you join a maison like this,” Bellettini says. “Saint Laurent is a company that all French people love and believe is their own. Everyone has their opinion of what you’re doing.”

Vaccarello felt a similar pressure upon receiving Bellettini’s offer. “I had said no to a lot of houses and propositions, but you can’t say no to Yves Saint Laurent. Once you’re here you feel responsible for the other people around you.” He says he finds it odd to see his own designs in the archives hanging next to the master’s. “It’s flattering to see what we’re doing next to [Yves Saint Laurent’s] work, but I don’t go back to see my own clothes there. I don’t want to see my things frozen and finished. I try not to think about all that.”

In past interviews, Vaccarello has professed admiration of Slimane’s reinvention of Saint Laurent. “I have a lot of respect for him, doing what he believes in,” Vaccarello told me for Harper’s Bazaar in 2016, right before he was named Saint Laurent’s creative director. “He doesn’t give a shit. I think [his work at YSL] is great.”

A wall of the showroom, in a former stable. “I wanted to help people see what the potential of this brand could be. Everything was here to make it even bigger,” says Yves Saint Laurent CEO Francesca Bellettini, who projects it can reach €3 billion in revenues.
A wall of the showroom, in a former stable. “I wanted to help people see what the potential of this brand could be. Everything was here to make it even bigger,” says Yves Saint Laurent CEO Francesca Bellettini, who projects it can reach €3 billion in revenues. Photo: François Halard for WSJ. Magazine

It required no adjustment to maintain the core collection approach set by Slimane—who has also carried this structure with him to Celine. “The DNA is very real,” Vaccarello says. “It’s natural here to do a blazer or a tuxedo, it’s part of the culture. We don’t do a coat with three sleeves. That realness is fascinating to work with. It’s a wardrobe, which is Saint Laurent. I like that a woman can pick something up from three seasons ago and not feel out of style.” Vaccarello did not feel the need to overhaul the existing boutiques, which are, under Bellettini, a target for future expansion. (By the end of last year, there were 219 worldwide.)

“Graphically [the design] was so pure and simple; I didn’t want to do something too charged just to say I did it.” This applies to the next boutique Saint Laurent will unveil, in the former space of the Parisian boutique Colette, on the rue Saint-Honoré. “The lights will be warmer, and we’ll add some more vintage elements,” he explains, to soften the existing template, not overhaul it.

Having another steady hand on Saint Laurent’s creative tiller makes Bellettini’s job easier. “It allows us to build an authentic relationship with the client over time. People aren’t surprised to enter the store and say, ‘Oh, my God, it’s all pink! What happened to Saint Laurent?’ From a business standpoint what Anthony is doing is incredible. You get more longevity to the product so you can delay the moment you have to take it off the racks. It allows me to improve the margins of the company,” she says.

An entrance, featuring the original logo as commissioned by Yves Saint Laurent.
An entrance, featuring the original logo as commissioned by Yves Saint Laurent. Photo: François Halard for WSJ. Magazine

Bellettini has also focused on vertical integration and supply-chain efficiency, investing in new production facilities in Italy, and she reorganized the corporate structure to give the main regions worldwide—Japan, Asia-Pacific, North America and Europe—more autonomy and efficiency. “The president of each region has a CEO function in that retail, wholesale, communication, human resources and finances for their region report to them,” she explains. “Then they report directly to me. I consider them my eyes and arms in the market. They can give me very useful information to execute strategy in the best possible way,” which is important as luxury brands stumble in adapting themselves to emerging markets.

Another goal is having clothing represent more of the company’s bottom line, giving dressed-up glamour on the runway a stronger presence in stores. “Relying on accessories alone is too risky,” says Bellettini. The shows have had a more public profile as well: Since Vaccarello’s third outing, the runway presentations took place at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.

Louche voyeurism has been part of Saint Laurent’s identity since Yves Saint Laurent commissioned Jeanloup Sieff and Helmut Newton to shoot ads in the ’70s, and Vaccarello takes to it naturally. Slimane opted for stripped-down black-and-white portraiture, and Vaccarello often does too. But the advertising campaigns he commissions from photographers and directors like Collier Schorr, David Sims, duo Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin and Nathalie Canguilhem, such as a spring 2018 campaign with Kate Moss dangling from a helicopter topless in a fur chubby, encourage fantasy over stark realism. Vaccarello also has a millennial’s instinct for social media. He’s expanded the company’s Instagram account, @ysl, from nearly 357,000 followers in 2016 to 5.5 million, personally approving every post that goes up, including Polaroids from fittings and behind-the-scenes montages that have the kind of improvisational feel that drives engagement. He has also commissioned unusual artworks, starting with a 2016 series of erotic bondage photographs by the Japanese artist Araki of Vaccarello’s frequent muse, model Anja Rubik. That has given rise to a Saint Laurent initiative called Self, collaborations with contemporary artists such as the photographer Daido Moriyama, artist Vanessa Beecroft and, next up, writer Bret Easton Ellis, who is contributing a video.

The CEO and designer are turning into close partners. “If I have to make a big decision, Anthony is the first person I call,” Bellettini says. Working dinners easily became social occasions. Vaccarello cooks pasta for the homesick Italian and turns Bellettini onto her pop-culture entertainment, most recently the TV series The Handmaid’s Tale and Sharp Objects. He says he thinks of her when he designs the collection, especially the tuxedos, which have become Bellettini’s black-tie uniform. So well does he know his CEO’s taste that he surprised her with a French bulldog as a gift. “I never would have made the decision to do that myself,” she says. Now it turns out that hers, Pepe, has fallen in love with Nino.

Says Vaccarello, “There’s no separation between work and life.”

The Expert’s Guide to Scoring Décor Deals Online

Christiane Lemieux at home in New York.
Christiane Lemieux at home in New York. Photo: Weston Well for The Wall Street Journal

HOW MANY PEOPLE do you know who have scored an authentic Sputnik lamp on eBay for $30? Exactly. When Christiane Lemieux sold her interior-design retail brand DwellStudio to Wayfair—now the largest e-commerce destination for home furnishings and décor—in 2013, she stayed on as executive creative director. Thanks to Wayfair, which she refers to as the “university of e-commerce,” she soon acquired PhD-level authority in digital decorating and shopping. Ms. Lemieux’s strategy for her Sputnik killing: “It was knowing exactly what I wanted, putting in as many search terms as possible and sifting through.”

Having learned to deliver luxury at a digitally native price point, she left Wayfair and launched her own direct-to-consumer home-furnishings brand, The Inside, in 2017, with made-to-order furniture customizable in more than 100 upholstery patterns. This month, the Inside debuts a collection of 15 fabrics with U.S. heritage textile purveyor Scalamandré. We convinced Ms. Lemieux—who continues to travel and scour the internet for inspirational textiles—to share a few secrets of the digital design trade.

Slipper Chair in Rattan Baldwin Bamboo by The Inside x Scalamandré; A Sputnik chandelier.
Slipper Chair in Rattan Baldwin Bamboo by The Inside x Scalamandré; A Sputnik chandelier. Photo: 1st Dibs (chandelier)

Before I make an impulse buy online, I tell myself: it’s much harder to return furniture than it is a lipstick or a T-shirt. And without sounding too Marie Kondo, make sure it makes you happy.

The easiest mistake when shopping for design online is: failing to think about a product’s scale [relative to your space]. When in doubt, buy something slightly overscale. A too-small carpet or sofa is sad. If something isn’t perfect, I’d rather it’s slightly larger.

The best online furniture-shopping tip is to: be specific when searching. Put in tangential search terms and the world is your oyster. Add a designer, a time period, other details. Try “gray chair with metal legs” instead of just “gray chair.” And search different sites. If I’m looking for a paperweight from [Austrian modernist] Carl Auböck, for example, I’ll go to Etsy and eBay and 1stdibs.

To ‘game’ eBay: be aware that professional dealers, which you can identify by their pictures, prices and other inventory, will likely charge you more of a market rate versus someone clearing out their garage, who might not know what they’re sitting on. Admittedly, this is a vast generalization.

In my shopping cart right now are: drinking glasses from Finnish brand Iittala on Wayfair.

Before pulling the trigger on a big online home-furnishing purchase: measure. And if you’re getting ready to assemble furniture that’s being shipped to you, think about how many pieces are coming with it. Depending on how long it will take you to put together, it may be worth it to hire a TaskRabbit to help.

The room in my house I’d most want to update is: my kids’ bedrooms. Kids change so quickly: One day it’s Nerf guns and the next, it’s Fortnite. I’m solidly in Fortnite now. My son’s a bit of a hoarder. His idea of an acceptable level of clutter and mine are very different.

The best upscale auction site for the home: depends on your budget. Rago Auctions in New Jersey is great and less expensive than some of the super-highbrow name brands. It’s more under the radar.

Something I’ll never buy in a store again is: a mattress. I just bought two mattresses for my kids, they come in a box and it’s so easy. Honestly, who wants to go to a mattress store?

What I’ll never buy online: the finishing touches, like the things I find traveling or that are personal, like books. I like to pick those out myself. I get pleasure from that.

I spend a ton of time—and money—on: 1stdibs, for sure. eBay, too. I love vintage design books and find a ton of them there.

Clockwise from top left: Gucci, pre-fall 2019; Carl Auböck paperweight; vintage design books; Iittala drinking glasses.
Clockwise from top left: Gucci, pre-fall 2019; Carl Auböck paperweight; vintage design books; Iittala drinking glasses. Photo: F. Martin Ramin/ The Wall Street Journal (glasses, books)

Get the most money and least hassle selling home furnishings with: either Craigslist, Furnishare or eBay. It’s a regional thing. What you want to do is create multiple listings and see where you can get the best deal. Furnishare will actually pick up your items.

My Instagram interior-design pet peeve is: the way everything is starting to look the same—white interiors with nondescript midcentury furniture. I want to see people express themselves more. Design should jump off the page.

I learn about trends by: keeping an eye on the runway in terms of color and prints. There’s definitely this celebration of the maximal that hasn’t been the case for a long time. Gucci creative director Alessandro Michele nailed his pre-fall 2019 show.

The best underappreciated online source of vintage furnishings is: Etsy. Their vintage vendors are really good. You can put “vintage” in as part of the search term.

The best app for design information is: Instagram because of its hashtag filter. If I’m looking for something very specific, like a Carlo Scarpa chair, I can go to #CarloScarpa and see everything available on Instagram, which is a big yield. It feels like the internet of images sometimes.

The best way to use Instagram for inspiration is to: follow a mix of designers, bloggers, furniture companies, photographers and architects, and then follow the people those people follow. It’s really about what speaks to you. You can start to create a look and feel of what you’re after.

For good free design advice on the internet, go to: the furniture company selling you stuff. Design advice is part of the transactional flow for most companies now. And obviously there are blogs like Apartment Therapy and 1stdibs where you can get advice, not specific to you but good nonetheless.

My #1 rule for decorating with the internet is: Make sure you measure. Honestly, that’s where all of the problems happen. Do your job and measure the space, and you’ll be happy.

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How to Host a Dinner Like a Pro

WARM WELCOME Founders George Brower, Ti Adelaide Martin and Carol Markowitz in a classroom at the New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute.
WARM WELCOME Founders George Brower, Ti Adelaide Martin and Carol Markowitz in a classroom at the New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute. Photo: Daymon Gardner for The Wall Street Journal

TEACHING hospitality is more than teaching service. It’s more than “ ‘Put the fork like this,’ ” said Ti Adelaide Martin. As a proprietor of the venerable Commander’s Palace restaurant and scion of a New Orleans restaurant dynasty, Ms. Martin knows what it takes to make guests feel welcome—and she’s ready to pass that knowledge on.

On Jan. 7, Ms. Martin unveiled the New Orleans Culinary and Hospitality Institute (NOCHI), in partnership with her cousin, restaurateur Dickie Brennan, and developer George Brower. The nonprofit school offers a 5-month certificate program for aspiring restaurant professionals taught by acclaimed New Orleans chefs such as Donald Link and Susan Spicer. The school also hosts enthusiast classes for the public, and a full-service restaurant, the NOCHI Café.

The Culinary Arts Certificate coursework includes thorough training from industry pros in customer service and front-of-house skills. “Students first learn the technical side of service, and then we get into the philosophy of hospitality and how to convey it better,” said Ms. Martin.

It might be as simple as pulling a chair out, or it might mean a tour of the kitchen or wine cellar. According to Ms. Martin, this is taught through “systems, not just smiles.”

At Commander’s Palace, for instance, forms posted in each part of the house inform staff if a guest is celebrating a special occasion or has particular preferences. “Having that system in place makes it easier for us to be warm and gracious and hospitable, and to connect,” said Ms. Martin. “The other night we had a guest who drinks a certain brand of liquor that we didn’t have in house. So we sent somebody to the store to get it.”

The NOCHI concept has gestated a long time. In 1983, Ms. Martin’s mother, the late, legendary restaurateur “Miss Ella” Brennan, helped rewrite restaurant history when she gathered industry luminaries in New Orleans for the American Cuisine Symposium. During the event, top chefs such as Jeremiah Tower and Jonathan Waxman put forward a new model for American dining rooted in strong farmer-chef relationships, seasonal cooking and local ingredients. “People now want to know, ‘Who is making the food, where did it come from and how did it get here?’ ” said Ms. Martin. She believes the next step in the food revolution her mother helped foment 35 years ago must be as much about what happens around the table as what goes on it.

To that end and to mark the 125th birthday of Commander’s Palace, this past fall Ms. Martin revived the symposium. Now called the American Cuisine and Hospitality Symposium, the event offered a renewed focus on what Ms. Martin considers a dying art. “It starts with bringing hospitality back to restaurants,” she said. “I feel that if everything goes right, and people leave happier than when they arrived, they’ll be a little kinder outside.”

Ms. Martin hopes that in the same way chefs have risen to star status, front-of-house staff will get the recognition they, too, deserve. “I have a photograph of one of my valets standing in pouring rain at absolute attention with a golf umbrella over a guest while he is getting drenched,” she said. “That valet is a hospitality hero, and those people need to be highlighted and praised.”

‘I feel that if people leave happier than when they arrived, they’ll be a little kinder outside.’

Miss Ella, who died last May at the age of 92, called Commander’s a “fine-dining joint,” and it remains the sort of place where servers select an appropriately colored napkin for each guest, so as to not leave a trace of lint on garments. It is also the sort of place where guests dance, waving those napkins, in the trail of a jazz band parading through the dining rooms during brunch. Often described as “haute Creole,” the cooking runs to high-low classics such as bread-pudding soufflé, cultivated over generations by some of the nation’s greatest chefs, including Paul Prudhomme, Emeril Lagasse, Jamie Shannon and current kitchen leader Tory McPhail.

As a restaurateur, Ms. Martin continues to hone that style of hospitality with 21st-century diners in mind. Last September she opened Picnic Provisions & Whiskey with Mr. McPhail and business partner Darryl Reginelli. She describes the new restaurant as “fast fine” dining. Patrons can play a game of cornhole while enjoying crawfish boil fried chicken and smoked fish-collar dip.

Though Picnic Provisions & Whiskey is a very different restaurant from Commander’s, it retains the same emphasis on hospitality. “Picnicking itself is hospitable,” Ms. Martin said. “It’s about sharing. It’s about having fun and everyone being at the same level.”

With staff, Ms. Martin emphasizes connection. “Body language is a big part of what we work on. There’s a warm, professional way to stand and walk, and there’s a hospitable way to get out of other people’s way,” she said. It’s one of the first things students who work at the NOCHI cafe learn.

“Enthusiast” cooks visiting NOCHI for a one-off class learn a thing or two about a genuine New Orleans welcome, too. In a class called “The Lost Restaurants of New Orleans,” for instance, writer and NPR host Poppy Tooker schools students in a grand tradition. “We’re talking about an era when restaurateurs were setting the example and making personal connections,” said Ms. Martin. “They were at your table, looking after you.”

Every “Enthusiast” class culminates with participants sitting down to a meal together—with drink pairings. “There is a phrase that I firmly believe in,” Ms. Martin said. “ ‘Instead of building a bigger fence, let’s build a longer table.’ It starts there.”

Fried Chicken at Picnic Provisions & Whiskey in New Orleans.
Fried Chicken at Picnic Provisions & Whiskey in New Orleans. Photo: Daymon Gardner for The Wall Street Journal
Crawfish Boil Hot Fried Chicken

This spicy fried chicken is served at Picnic Provisions & Whiskey, where owner Ti Adelaide Martin aims to revive the art of hospitality.

ACTIVE TIME: 2 hours TOTAL TIME: 18 hours (includes marinating and chilling) SERVES: 4-6

2 whole chickens (3½-4 pounds each), cut into 8 pieces each

4 quarts cold water

4 tablespoons Zatarain’s Crawfish, Shrimp & Crab Boil

3 cups flour

3 teaspoons salt

1½ teaspoons black pepper

1 teaspoon Creole seasoning

Vegetable oil for frying

1. The night before: In a large pot, combine chicken, water and crab boil. Transfer to refrigerator and let chicken marinate overnight.

2. Prepare the chicken: Remove chicken from brine and pat dry. In a medium bowl, whisk together 1 cup flour, 1 teaspoon salt and ½ teaspoon black pepper. Dredge chicken through flour mixture to coat. Arrange dredged chicken on a sheet pan in a single layer. Transfer chicken to refrigerator and let sit, uncovered, at least 2 hours. (This extracts excess water for a crisper skin.)

3. In a medium bowl, whisk together 2 cups flour with 2 teaspoons salt, 1 teaspoon black pepper and Creole seasoning. Remove chicken from refrigerator and dredge in new flour mixture to coat liberally. Shake off excess flour.

4. Fry the chicken: Fill a large skillet with ¾ inch vegetable oil and heat to 350 degrees. Working in batches to avoid crowding pan, fry chicken until a thermometer inserted at meatiest point reads 165 degrees, 9-12 minutes per side. Transfer fried chicken to a wire rack and season with more salt, pepper and Creole seasoning to taste.

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The Rolls-Royce of Multi-Cookers

The Rolls-Royce of Multi-Cookers
Illustration: Matthew Cook

WE CAN OFFICIALLY stop debating which is better: the heat-conducting prowess of a Dutch oven or the touch-of-a-button convenience of a multi-cooker. Have it both ways with the Musui-Kamado, from the Japanese company Vermicular. The ingenious design sets an enameled cast-iron pot on an induction-heating base. The lid seals in moisture for remarkably succulent roast chicken—or how about sweet potatoes “steam roasted” with a mere spoonful of water? Radiant heat and precise temperature control make the process foolproof, whether you’re braising, baking, steaming or even sous-vide-ing. $670 for the set, $300 for the pot alone,

The Wall Street Journal is not compensated by retailers listed in its articles as outlets for products. Listed retailers frequently are not the sole retail outlets.

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How to Decode a Wordy Wine Label

How to Decode a Wordy Wine Label
Illustration: NIC FARRELL

SOME WORDS ON WINE labels, such as “Chardonnay” or “Sonoma,” have real meaning and convey specific and genuinely useful information. Others, such as “Private Reserve” or “Hand Selected Lots,” do not. In fact, in the U.S., to label a wine as “Private Reserve” or assert that it’s produced from selected lots, a winemaker—or marketer—is required by law to do nothing more than say that it is.

Words do have selling power, of course. Take the Kendall-Jackson Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay, created by the late Jess Jackson in 1982. The sweetish Chardonnay, positioned as the carefully selected work of a “vintner,” was an early example of the kind of creative labeling I’m talking about. The wine’s taste was populist, as was its price (about $12 in today’s currency), yet the term “vintner” had a soigné sound. The wine was an immediate hit.

Longtime Kendall-Jackson winemaker Randy Ullom, who has made several vintages of Vintner’s Reserve Chardonnay over the years, offered this take on the name: “I believe [Mr. Jackson] wanted to make it stand out and considered ‘Reserve’ as a quality statement, especially since he was fermenting it in barrels. And ‘Vintner’s Reserve’ was even more special, coming from the vintner him or herself.”

Never mind that there was no non-reserve Jackson wine to which the Vintner’s Reserve could be compared. One of the wine world’s great marketers, Jess Jackson helped establish a trend. Today there are lots of “Vintner’s Reserve” and “Proprietor’s Reserve” and “Winemaker’s Reserve” wines, as I found during a recent visit to a few local wine shops.

In the U.S., wineries are allowed to use many front-label terms that have no “regulatory definition,” according to Gladys Horiuchi, media relations director of the San Francisco-based Wine Institute. She sent me a list of such terms that she and her staff have compiled over the years, including “Vintner’s Reserve” as well as “Old Vines,” “Old Clones,” “Private Harvest,” “Barrel Select,” “Bottle Aged,” “Proprietor’s Blend”—and on and on.

The Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau’s rules on labeling state: “Labels may contain information other than the mandatory label information required…if such information complies with the requirements of such sections and does not conflict with, nor in any manner qualify statements required by this part. In addition, information which is truthful, accurate, and specific, and which is neither disparaging nor misleading may appear on wine labels.” This gives wineries rather wide latitude.

To get a sense of the sort of impact terminology can have on consumers, I gathered a group of friends to assess a number of wines based solely on their labels. To them, “Reserve” clearly invoked a notion of quality; the term, though it has no legal definition in the U.S., suggests a stash of the best wine, set aside for the discerning. As my friend Julie put it, “I’d definitely buy a wine with a name like Proprietor’s Reserve or Vintner’s Reserve because the wine sounds better, more serious.”

Do drinkers understand what “Hand Selected Lots” means? (Another vague term, this one suggests—but doesn’t necessarily mean—that the winemaker walked the vineyards in search of the best fruit.) Among the bottles my focus group considered, the one labeled “Hand Selected Lots” happened to be the cheapest Chardonnay—$10 suggested retail—from Clos du Bois. The winery’s pricier offerings include its $16 “Sonoma Reserve” Chardonnay and a $24 “Calcaire” Russian River Valley Chardonnay that I can only presume takes its name from the calcareous limestone soils much prized by winemakers around the world.

Why would a winery make its cheapest Chardonnay sound like the fanciest? I put this question to a Clos du Bois spokesperson in an email. The reply I received didn’t address that question but noted instead that the winemaking team selects “the best lots from our source vineyards throughout California” for the $10 wine.

My friend Julie isn’t the only wine drinker I know who is susceptible to any wine with “Reserve” on its label. For years my Uncle Noel, a worldly and sophisticated man, made it his self-declared mission to drink only “the reserve wines.”

There are other ways that wineries establish notions of scarcity and selection to sell wines. For example, they sometimes assign them numbers. What did my group of label-reading friends make of the Vineyard Block Estate Limited Block 558 Reserve Chardonnay from California, with the number 04173 on its front label? “That sounds special and rare,” said Holly. “It sounds like a numbered Picasso print,” offered Julie. In fact, this “limited edition” bottle cost me a mere $13.

‘I’d definitely buy a wine with a name like Proprietor’s Reserve or Vintner’s Reserve because the wine sounds better, more serious.’

In some countries in Europe, wines labeled “Reserve” or “Grand Reserve” must, by law, undergo longer aging in the bottle, the barrel or both. In America, where no such rules apply, the term could mean anything—though in some cases the designation “Reserve” is actually attached to wines of high quality. One such example, the consistently impressive Beringer Private Reserve Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, has been produced for more than four decades.

I reached out via email to Mark Beringer, chief winemaker at Beringer Vineyards, to ask if he thinks “Reserve” is at risk of losing meaning. Does he worry about so many inferior wines co-opting the term? He replied that he was less concerned that Beringer Private Reserve wines would be misunderstood than he was about the possibility that consumers would buy some other “Winemaker’s Reserve” bottle and be disappointed by its quality. “The onus and danger is more on the producer of that wine,” he wrote. “Simply calling something reserve doesn’t make it so.”

American wineries aren’t the only ones to employ puffed-up terms with vague meanings to sell their wines. In Argentina, for instance, quite a few wines are labeled “High Altitude.” Made mostly from Cabernet and Malbec in Argentine vineyards that may or may not lie at truly elevated altitudes, these wines range from inexpensive to pricey. Anyone may label a wine “High Altitude,” according to a spokesperson for the Wines of Argentina; the Argentine government does not regulate where and how wineries must cultivate their grapes in order to use the term on a label. As it happened, none of the wine drinkers I polled were impressed by the term. They had no idea what it meant, though Julie speculated that it sounded like a wine to drink après ski.

Equally meaningless, misleading or downright annoying are some of the “descriptive” paragraphs wineries employ on a bottle’s label to sell the wine within. The wordy label of Meiomi Rosé notes “chilly fog” and a “soft hand in the cellar” as key factors determining the character and quality of the wine. On the label of the Chateau St. Jean Cinq Cépages, no fewer than 17 words are used to say very little: “Classically crafted to showcase layers of complexity, this wine blends rich texture with the elegance of Sonoma.”

What in the world is a “soft hand in the cellar,” and what does the purported “elegance of Sonoma” say, really, about how or where the wine was made or what it tastes like? If winemakers and marketers would just stick to words with established and specific meanings, wouldn’t wine consumers be that much better off?

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