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.