Do We Really Want Stories Instead of Quality?

ancient wineryWe are often told by people in the wine industry, especially PR professionals, that new generations of wine drinkers no longer care about scores or critical commentary. They want a good story.

Stories have long been part of wine culture. Many of the storied wineries in Europe go back several centuries. Their tales of surviving war, political turmoil, market disruptions, and family in-fighting are legendary. Stories of long-standing traditions, persistence, overcoming odds, personal idiosyncrasies, and quality transformations arouse interest in a wine and are more compelling than a dry recitation of facts.

But do we want to drink wine from the best story tellers or the best winemakers? Doesn’t quality matter more than the story in the end? I suppose if you think there is no such thing as wine quality, and one wine is just as good as another, then you might as well buy the story (or the label or the attractiveness of the tasting room personnel).  But hopefully the idea that wine quality is a myth will suffer a much deserved demise as the new generation of wine lovers gains more experience.

One motivation behind this interest in stories is that wine consumers want authenticity. “Authenticity” is a troubled concept but essentially it means that consumers want to know there are real people who care about wine quality behind the wine they’re drinking. Stories can help reinforce that perception of authenticity by establishing a personal connection. But all wines are made by real people and many of them do care about wine quality. The fact is most stories  about wineries don’t differentiate one winery from the next. After all, everyone has a story. The question is whether the story tells you anything interesting about the wine. In most cases they don’t.

There is a standard story arc that many winery stories share. A couple toiling away at corporate jobs visits wine country and is inspired to make wine. After taking some classes, much planning and even more saving, they scour wine regions for suitable and affordable vineyard land, find the plot that calls to them, and take the plunge risking everything for the chance to enjoy the wine lifestyle. After years of hard labor and hard times their plan pays off. (Whether they’re actually making money or not is not part of the story) We are assured that they adore their community and are dedicated to making wine that reflects the distinctive character of their vineyard.

There is nothing wrong with this story. The values it expresses are admirable and of course the details will matter in some cases. But unless they express something distinctive or original about the wine or the people it isn’t obvious the story is adding to the experience. Stories are interesting; the same story over and over, not so much.

No doubt perceptions of wine quality are personal and people want to make their own decisions about such matters. The days of a handful of critics determining what’s worth drinking are thankfully gone perhaps forever. But critical commentary never was a substitute for actually experiencing the wine.  Stories are no substitute for experiencing the wine either.

I suspect the clamor about the importance of stories is coming from people whose job is to find something interesting to say in their marketing materials. There is nothing wrong with that either. They’re just doing their job.

But in the end it’s what’s in the glass that counts.

3 comments

  1. This is a false premise. We don’t have to choose between stories and quality, we can have both. But in a world where there a literally thousands of really good wines, how can those wines reach a larger market?

    The Wine Spectator rates roughly 7,000 wines over 90 points each year. While you may not agree with the criteria, it is clear that wonderful wines are being made all over the world right now. But every time I hear a winery talk about it’s commitment to quality, my eyes glaze over. I don’t want to know HOW they make their wine. I want to know WHY they make their wine. Making good wine is not enough to be successful in this world. You also have to effectively communicate about your wine. And that means telling stories, not just repeating endless mantras about quality.

  2. Paul,
    Thanks for commenting. I agree it can be a false dichotomy but some of the discourse about stories seems to suggest it.

    My issue is not with stories but with stories that are uninformative or don’t differentiate one winery from another. I agree also about platitudes about quality. To the extent they are platitudes and not informative explanations that give us insight into the wine they are equally useless.

    I sympathize with the problem. Wineries have to communicate about their wine and with the enormous quantity of wine on the market they have to differentiate their product from everyone else’s. If the stories are too similar they can’t do the work you want them to do.

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