I noted recently that wine writing is faced with a dilemma. It must describe the individuality of wines and capture the full range of their expressiveness using a conventional vocabulary and general concepts that really aren’t up to the task. A list of fruit flavors and oak derived aromas don’t capture the wine as a whole. Yet, when wine writers stray beyond a conventional vocabulary they are criticized for being obscure.
In most contemporary wine writing, the problem of describing the individuality and uniqueness of a wine has been solved by focusing on a winery’s story. The path to quality winemaking is often circuitous, full of problems to be confronted, and requiring vision, courage and dedication. Winemaking is usually a story about the uniqueness of a particular place and if the personality behind the wine is also distinctive that may go some way toward explaining the distinctiveness of the wine. The individuation and novelty of the wine is captured by the individuality and novelty of the story behind it. This is a reasonably successful strategy—we love stories, and when they are about places and people, uniqueness and individuality can be evident in the unfolding tale.
However, there are limitations to this approach. The first is that the features of the wine itself may slip into the background, especially those holistic properties that descriptions of aesthetic attention must point to. The distinctiveness of a winery’s story may have some aesthetic appeal on its own since narratives can be aesthetic objects. But the wine itself is the primary locus of aesthetic attention; if the wine is not distinctive, the aesthetic appeal of the winery’s story is diminished. Secondly, there are many outstanding wines that are blends of grapes from several vineyards, in some cases, several regions. Thus, they lack the sense of place that is seemingly required by a compelling backstory. Furthermore, many wineries that make compelling wines lack a long and storied tradition and their owners and winemakers walked a conventional, unremarkable path toward their achievement. In other words, what is distinctive is their wines, not the story behind them.
The stories of place and struggle are an essential part of wine discourse; the wine world would be a poor place without them. The historical story often plays a central role in explaining the appeal of a wine. But telling that story cannot replace the need to describe and evaluate what is in the glass. In the end, this fascination with stories, to the extent they replace a concern for what is in the glass, will not serve wine culture well. We drink wine to enjoy flavors and textures; we have other media for telling stories.
Nothing can replace the need for compelling tasting notes.