Good Stories or Good Wine

old wine barrelsThe current fashion for good stories in the wine industry follows a peculiar logic.

Good stories stand on their own. They are enjoyable, interesting, informative, sometimes gripping—a good story always makes information more accessible. A winery’s story can offer all of that. More importantly, it can help us understand their wines and where they came from.

But is the story more important than the quality of the wine? Would you eat in a restaurant with a good backstory if the food was bad? Would you read a book by an author with an interesting biography if the book was boring and  uninformative?

Pleasure isn’t the only reason we might consume something. We might want to experience an unfamiliar dish or important book even if we don’t expect to like it. There is always something to be learned from an experience. The same is true for wine—a wine with an interesting backstory might be worth a try just out of curiosity or “for science” as my son says. But once you conclude a wine offers nothing of interest, why care about the story?

For the consumer, good stories can enhance good wine. They will do little for bad wine.

One reason for the current fascination with stories in the wine industry is that many wines taste the same. There is little distinctive about them. A winery can draw attention to itself with a good story even if their wines are pedestrian. It makes good business sense but is otherwise peculiar.

If you make great wine you won’t need a story. If you make bad wine, your story won’t help. If your wine is O.K. maybe the story keeps you in business.

Are good stories for the mediocre?

2 comments

  1. It’s not one or the other Dwight. But the challenge for the wine business is that there are more than 120,000 wines on the US market, and (using one measure of quality) at least 7,000 wines that score over 90 points from the Wine Spectator. Almost ALL of the 120,000 wines are rated above 80 points–meaning that they are good, commercially acceptable wines. That’s a lot of good wine. So how to distinguish between those wines?

    You can choose to differentiate them by trying to explain how differently they taste. One has notes of cassis, cedar, and cigar box. The other has notes of cigar box, cedar, and cassis. Both are well balanced, elegant and have a long, luscious finish. And then we go down the rabbit hole of thinking that one might have just a hint of stone roses, while the other has nuances of white flowers…(whatever that means. Neither term is helpful–there is no such thing as stone roses, and white flowers can be anything from geraniums to orchids to jasmine.)

    But one is made by a family with eleven generations farming the same parcels, while the other is made by a massive corporation who won’t even identify the name of the winemaker. Does that make a difference in how you think about the wines? For most people, it does.

    If you went to a restaurant where the food was very rustic Greek cuisine and the service was somewhat informal, you might not go back. But if you found that restaurant on a back street in a tiny town on Mikonos, you might be charmed. Same food. Different back story.

    The same is true with wine. Flavor descriptors only tell part of the story of the experience of drinking a wine. And drinking wine is an experience that encompasses not only organoleptic elements, but cultural and emotional ones as well.

    If you ignore those, you ignore part of the essence of wine.

  2. While I typically avoid “by appointment only “ wine tastings, my gut feel is the seductive, back story, history lesson is vital to differentiating their fruit bomb from the next one just up or down the wine road.

    Also, Dwight, I note that a few importers and entrepreneurial wine retailers use the back story for the semi-artisan wines they are recommending. Kermit Lynch and North Berkeley utilize it routinely. And I must admit that at times I’m occasionally nudged towards buying a few bottles, usually from the retailer. But you’re correct, occasionally the wine does not confirm the story.

    Cheers!!

    Tom

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