old bottlesIt is not just a beverage but a revelation, almost a spiritual experience for some people. For others, wine is a subject that commands years of deep and sustained attention. Why?

David White asks a variety of sommeliers for their answers:

A “great wine,” Madrigale contended, “offers an honest reflection of where it came from…

“Wine is not just a beverage,” he said. “It’s a story.” …

Consider older wines. They’re a connection to the past and each bottle has a story to tell. I’ll never forget the evening a friend shared a 1961 Château Ausone.

The estate is one of Bordeaux’s most celebrated, and 1961 was a legendary vintage. The wine was stunning—still fresh and vibrant—but that was almost beside the point. In 1961, John F. Kennedy was inaugurated and France was still at war with Algeria. So while tasting the wine, much of my focus was on those who made it and the world they inhabited.

But there is something missing in this explanation.

It is true that wine tells a story about its place of origin or its vintage year written in the flavors and textures of the wine itself–the weather, the soils, the sensibility of a culture and, of course, the decisions of the winemaker all leave their marks that can be read off the features of the wine.

But many things have origins and a story. Yet they don’t fascinate the way wine does. Anything from the past—a book, a dish, an old toy—has an origin and often its story is written in the margins or in the tarnished finish. But these objects don’t necessarily stimulate the imagination. An ordinary book written in 1961 is just a book. In the absence of some personal connection you might have to it, its origin and story are not a matter of significance.

Why then should an Ausone made in 1961 be so captivating?

Some wines stimulate the imagination because in addition to having an origin and a story they are  beautiful. Their beauty is not incidental to the story; it is what stimulates us to care about it.

Contrary to what White claims, the fact that the “61” Ausone  was stunning is not beside the point; its beauty is what turns the mind toward the story, induces in us that curiosity and exploratory impulse that feeds passion.

Stories are inert, just dead facts, unless they somehow stimulate the imagination and beauty is one effective stimulus.

Some wines are so articulate at telling stories because their complexity and depth make the story worth telling. Had the Ausone been oxidized I doubt its story would have been at all interesting.

It has become a cliché to extoll the story-telling capacity of wine. But we should not forget that, in the end, it is about flavor.