Interview: Kristen Shirley, Founder of La Patiala

An expert with impeccable taste pens the first-ever luxury encyclopedia

From champagne vintages and caviar bumps to spectacular destinations and the nuance of haute horology, Kristen Shirley knows it. A tenured journalist (formerly a fashion editor at Elle, and a member of the editorial team at Elite Traveler), Shirley transformed her expertise into La Patiala, an online encyclopedia for all things in the expansive luxury sector. A unique resource, the destination aims to demystify exclusive worlds and equip those who are curious with the language to do so. Shirley launched the platform earlier this year with a thorough Watch Encyclopedia and today debuts the Champagne and Sparkling Wine Encyclopedia, which offers guidance regarding everything from selecting to sabering to savoring long after a bottle’s been opened. None of it would matter if Shirley didn’t approach everything from the perspective of a beginner, despite being an expert. Not only does that allow her to avoid becoming desensitized to the grandeur and its context, it also helps her explain it to others with compelling clarity. Shirley loves telling stories and in the details she discovers something pleasing and informative is born. To learn more about the site’s inception, we spoke with her in advance of the Champagne and Sparkling Wine Encyclopedia’s launch.

Why did you embark upon this great adventure? 

When I moved from Elle to Elite Traveler, I covered everything luxury: watches, jewelry, wine, spirits, travel. It was really difficult to learn about all these different categories. For example, I was trying to figure out the difference between a Six Senses and an Aman, a Ritz-Carlton and a Four Seasons. It was hard to find someone to put this all into context—and a lot of publications share news but assume a baseline of knowledge.

Over the years, I became an expert. I’m a huge nerd. I always go above and beyond. I took classes at the Gemological Institute of America to get the Applied Jewelry Certificate. I received the Level 2 Award in Wine & Spirits and the Level 3 Award in Wine, from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, which involved hundreds of hours and thousand of flashcards. I wanted to be able to share this information with people. Originally, I thought it was going to be a book but it sort of outgrew what could be contained in a book. That’s why I started La Patiala.

Courtesy of La Patiala

Information is always changing. How do you plan on updating the encyclopedia?

I launched it in January with about 100 stories. A lot of the content is evergreen. The way you taste wine is never really going to change. I think those stories will always be there, but I will update them if I learn something that will be helpful to other people. For something like the Watch Encyclopedia, the dive watch definition isn’t going to change, but the best models will. As new models come out, I will re-edit my selection, replacing them as necessary.

The internet is all about democratization of knowledge while luxury is often about exclusivity. How are you bridging this with your writing?

Even if you can’t afford to stay at the St Regis in New York, you can go and have tea. I remember a couple of years ago I was in Miami with a friend, walking along the beach and I said, “Oh, let’s go get a drink at the Ritz-Carlton” and he was like, “We’re not staying there.” He didn’t know you could just go. The service was great. He was so overwhelmed by how nice everyone was. I want people to know this is possible.

Do you think your encyclopedia can inform experts, as well?

If you’re a watch collector or a watch expert, you might not know as much about whisky or champagne. You can go to those categories. That’s what sets the encyclopedia apart. It speak to so many subjects with an authoritative voice that people can trust.

You’re a rare resource in the world of caviar. How did this happen?

It’s not something I ate growing up. We didn’t have caviar or oysters. The first time I had caviar, it was a revelation. I was in Zurich for Art Basel with La Prairie and they hosted a dinner at Baur au Lac. They were walking around with the biggest tin of caviar I have ever seen. They asked me to put some on my hand. I asked what was happening here and they said, “Lick it off, crush the eggs on the roof of your mouth and enjoy.” It was my first caviar bump. I’ve never looked back.

The word encyclopedia has this tome-like outdated design association. How did you design an encyclopedia for 2022 and beyond?

I came up with the idea while on a beach. I imagined the wire frames in my head and how I wanted to organize it all. A lot of websites have great information but it’s hard to find. I designed this layout so that each landing page—like caviar or champagne—will always have the same one to seven featured stories at the top. Other stories will below that.

Ultimately, who is your audience?

This is for everyone that’s interested. I’ve written it to appeal to a lot of people, with everything from really entry-level information like what’s a crown on a watch to how tourbillons work and métiers d’art.

What brands are doing luxury well?

I think Hermès does a superb job. Krug is fantastic. The way the house is still so small allows it to create something so rich. In terms of jewelry, I am really passionate about small designers like Fernando Jorge.

Hero image courtesy of Dom Perignon