Is the Story More Important than the Wine?

Don't let the tail wag the dog when it comes to choosing a bottle
Dec 2, 2015

Imagine a restaurant where the food is unpleasant but people dine there because it has a good story behind the kitchen and its chef. Unless you're eating for the irony, there's just too much good food out there to give a restaurant like that any serious thought.

Now, substitute wine for food. What's more important to you: whether a wine is delicious, or whether it has a compelling story behind it? I ask because there are those in the wine business who argue that it's all about the backstory, and how a wine tastes is almost beside the point.

That's a bold statement. There's also something slightly precious about it, as if you the consumer can't grasp a wine's merits without a first-person tour de force of the vineyard and winemaking process.

Baloney.

I love telling stories. It's what I've done for a living for 30 years. Long before I started reviewing wines, I wrote for daily newspapers. I told readers about movie stars and politicians, interviewed a mass murderer on death row and wrote about other tragedies and mayhem, but also about simple pleasures like a secret swimming hole or the science behind lightning bugs.

My experience as a journalist was a key reason I joined Wine Spectator. We use our wine reviews as a launching pad for storytelling. But if the taste of a wine isn't compelling, why tell its story? Would you turn to a dinner companion and say, "This steak isn't very good, but I hear the farm is beautiful"?

For me, it comes down to this: besides nourishing our body, isn't pleasure a crucial reason we eat and drink?

At times we choose to taste something as an experience or a challenge. Exotic or spicy dishes like Korean kimchi come to mind, and I still remember my first raw oyster as a Midwestern teenager. It's similar with wine, but more complicated. A young Italian Barolo is not meant for casual quaffing, but with experience you learn to discern how it will age.

Even with those caveats, I find it hard to buy the argument that story trumps taste. Most wine drinkers don't have the time or inclination to explore the backstory of a bottle before buying it. I try to tell as many good stories about wine as I can, but when I review a wine and make a recommendation, I do so on the quality of the wine alone.

Opinion

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