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

You Might Also Like

Don’t Care About Tariffs on European Wines? How About the Value of Your House?

Don’t Care About Tariffs on European Wines? How About the Value of Your House?

Many Americans believe tariffs on wine will stick it to the French, but the evidence shows …

Feb 13, 2020
Newton's Revival

Newton's Revival

A 40th anniversary celebration honors the England-born vintner who was one of the first to …

Mar 31, 2020
Malbec's Evolution in Argentina

Malbec's Evolution in Argentina

Mendoza's Alta Vista winery has achieved great success with the grape under the guidance of …

Mar 31, 2020
Dry January Is B.S. How About Moderation March?

Dry January Is B.S. How About Moderation March?

It’s healthy to assess your relationship with alcohol. But healthy relationships last …

Jan 24, 2020
My Dinner with Thelonious Monk

My Dinner with Thelonious Monk

Senior editor Bruce Sanderson brushes shoulders with genius in a tasting of a Tuscan …

Feb 29, 2020
Goals for 2020

Goals for 2020

Executive editor Thomas Matthews considers the ways to be a better wine lover in the year …

Feb 29, 2020
WineRatings+

WineRatings+

Xvalues

Xvalues

Restaurant Search

Restaurant Search