Wine Needs Stories But it Doesn’t Need a Prop

19 crimesAndrew Jeffords is absolutely right on the importance of the imagination for making wine interesting.  In his essay “Stories Should Cling to Wine Like Mussels to Rope” he writes:

In an endeavour, meanwhile, where you’re appealing directly to the curiosity, the emotions and the aspirations of the consumer, imagination is of paramount importance. It’s the electrical charge which fires engagement.

Wine is such a field. It’s a strange, mysterious substance which comes from a distant place and is made by magicians in stained t-shirts. It smells good and tastes great. It relaxes you, and brings you closer to your friends and family, as well as to faraway places on earth.

The imaginative charge which should attach to such a product is almost limitless – and as high-voltage as you like, or dare.

He goes on to complain that the self-presentation of most wine brands is dull and pedestrian and the best wines are often the worst offenders:

Those of us who communicate about wine have to shoulder some of the responsibility for this. We take our cues too readily and too reverentially from those we write about; we get so tangled up in wine’s complexities that we forget to communicate the joy, the fun and the intrigue which matter more than the complexities themselves. Wine’s traditions and institutions cast over-long shadows. It’s hard to find the sunlight of imaginative originality there.

But his solution I find a bit puzzling. His example of a wine brand that presents that “joy, fun, and intrigue” is 19 Crimes, the Australian-based supermarket wine with the picture of a convict on the label. 19 Crimes refers to British prisoners who were sent from Great Britain to Australia in the 18th Century thereby avoiding execution. They were alleged to have committed one of the 19 crimes that were considered to be beyond the pale but were allowed to start new lives in the colonies. You can buy the wine, download the app, and here the story of the convict on your label.

These histories make interesting stories and the brand seems to be popular so it looks like a successful and original marketing venture. But what do these stories of adventure and redemption have to do with the wine? (I’ve tasted the wine. There is nothing adventurous, deviant, or illicit about it.)

Stories are essential to wine but the stories that matter are about the wine—stories about persistence, a battle with nature,  family traditions, a sense of place, and what the wine means to the people who make and drink it. Like any aesthetic object, wine provokes emotions, stimulates the memory, makes us conjure images of idylls, characters, joys and pains, its flavors, textures, and rhythms acting as muse, catalyst, and dreamweaver. But these essential stories begin with the wine. They are generated by the wine’s qualities, an extension of the wine, not appended to the wine as an irrelevant adjunct

The wine makes the story; the story doesn’t make the wine. Wine stands on its own. It’s enjoyed for its virtues and doesn’t need a prop.

By all means, bring in the imagination and intrigue and de-emphasize the analysis and jargon. As Jeffords writes:

Imagination illuminates and humanises wine; it stops it from becoming a ghetto for geeks.

But lets keep the focus on the wine.

3 comments

  1. 19 Crimes creates a human connection with the consumer. In an obvious way, it simply tells a good story about the history of the source of the wine: Australia. That is an absolutely legitimate goal for a wine aimed at the export market. In a less obvious way, it connects the consumer and the winemaker–both of whom find that they share a belief that these stories are interesting and fun–a real human connection.
    Your request that all stories focus specifically on the wine may work for a few wines, but the vast majority of wines–particularly wines in the category of 19 Crimes–won’t have stories that capture the imagination or build a human connection so successfully. Can you think of another wine in that category that does?
    And we have to give credit to Jeffords. At least he is not asking for stories that highlight the specific size of the pebbles in the vineyard, the sunny hillsides that ripen the grapes perfectly, the loving care of the winemaker, the attempt to capture the essence of the region in the bottle….yawn. Sorry. I started to fall asleep there.
    Jeffords is right. 19 Crimes should be congratulated on their success in finding a way through the endless tripe on most wine bottles to create a real human bond with its consumers. Good on ’em!

  2. Dwight !

    Kermit Lynch was one of the first to capture my attention with the “essential stories” of the wines and the people behind them.

    I still favor that approach over those with cute labels that offer entertainment but little else.

    Tom

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