The Most Important Word in Wine Today

In our ultracompetitive wine world, can you succeed without a narrative?
Feb 1, 2011

Some of you, knowing my particular passions, would imagine that I would submit that the most important word in wine today is “terroir.” Nope. I would instead submit that it is "narrative."

What happened to terroir? Nothing. It's doing just fine, thank you. We see it everywhere. And, if we don't see that particular term, we see something evocative of it. (My favorite is on Heinz ketchup bottles: "Grown Not Made." It’s ketchup, for heaven's sakes!)

Clearly, terroir is now embedded. Everyone—and everywhere—has terroir. A winery or a wine region jostling for that distinction now finds itself in a roller derby pack of competitors elbowing each other, all howling the same "somewhereness" sales pitch. Time to move on, folks.

Recently, I was talking with a chef whose restaurant was awarded three stars by the Michelin Guide. I congratulated him and, as we chatted about the mysteries of Michelin, I mentioned the name of another chef whose cooking I admire enormously but who has yet to be awarded more than just one star. I confessed to being baffled by this, especially given the chef's extraordinary talent.

The three-star chef agreed that the other guy is indeed a great talent. "But the problem with [him] is that his food has no narrative. That's why he hasn't gotten more stars." Frankly, I had never thought about it that way. But I saw his point.

Cynically, you might view this as no more than Stephen Sondheim's immortal line in the musical Gypsy: “You gotta have a gimmick if you wanna have a chance!”

But it's not a gimmick. Instead, this business of narrative is vital, and never more so than today. In terms of wine, the reason is as simple as it is stark: The wine world hasn't merely changed, it's exploded.

Ask anyone in the wine business—whether in wine production, wholesale, retail or hospitality—and to a man and woman they will tell you that the scope and complexity of wine has transformed utterly in the past 10 years.

This is hardly news. But what is new—and likely here to stay—is the double whammy of vastly increased competition coupled with the devastating effect of a worldwide recession. The two combined have altered the landscape of wine in a way never before seen.

Bottom line: It's no longer enough to say that your wine comes from "somewhere." You've got to say more, and better.

The idea of "narrative" is not simply a story but, rather, a story that sticks, that has resonance and allows its recipient to see the world differently. Think of French Champagne as an example. You see the world differently through a glass of Champagne. Somehow it, well, sparkles. It's not the wine; it's the narrative.

Bordeaux is reeling, as I said in my previous web column, not only because of a decline in quality in everyday Bordeaux but also—and especially—because of an inability to convey a compelling narrative that resonates with a modern audience.

Not only does a new generation of wine drinkers not know the Bordeaux story, but I suspect they sense (accurately, I believe) that the folks in Bordeaux don't even care to tell their tale. And when they do, it's on the Bordelais’ own terms, not those of their intended consumer. Well, tant pis, as the French themselves would say—tough luck. Guess whose wines aren't selling?

For centuries Bordeaux had an effective narrative, one that traded upon an aristocratic vision, an hauteur, even. Back in the day, that sort of thing worked, like having snooty sales people in an exclusive shop. But is it effective today? I don't think so. Or if it is, it sure doesn't trickle down to the petits châteaux have-nots.

"Napa Valley has vaulted into the nirvana of narratives: It has become a symbol. It doesn't get any better (or more lucrative) than that."

The late Baron Philippe de Rothschild of Château Mouton-Rothschild was a visionary in many ways, but he was a revolutionary in modernizing his narrative. The same applies to Angelo Gaja in Italy, who powerfully revised—inspiring fellow producers along the way—the oppressive, even degrading, old Italian wine narrative of cheap wines on red-checked tablecloths.

This is why "narrative" is damn near everything today—necessarily allied to appropriate quality at the right price.

Burgundy, for example, enraptures people, as its narrative is far more than just Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. What so moves people is its centuries-long consecration to the voice of the land. There's a spirituality that comes through in its very vocabulary.

Narrative is what Argentina will have to convey in order to transcend Malbec. A grape variety alone is not a narrative. Without narrative, Argentina's newfound export success is precarious and potentially evanescent.

Narrative is what Australia will have to develop in order to regain its rightful place on the shelves and, especially, to acquire the respect that its best wines deserve. Australia never delivered a narrative. Instead, they confused a cheap price with a good story.

An essential narrative is what all of the ambitious "new" wine nations—Hungary, Greece, Portugal, South Africa, Chile, New Zealand—have to acquire. Look at Chile, for example. It's making ever-lovelier wines. But what does Chile have to "say"? What do its wines stand for and convey? What's the—you guessed it—"narrative"?

This is a tall order. Some wine districts, such as Champagne, have worked long, hard and brilliantly in creating a narrative that serves them well. Among newcomers, Oregon has found a narrative not only in its focus on Pinot Noir but also in resolutely, even combatively, celebrating an artisanal approach. That combination gives them narrative grip.

Napa Valley, for all of the chaffing it gets for its excesses, has brilliantly created a compelling narrative. And yes, you can thank the late Robert Mondavi for his potent role in spearheading this. (It was no coincidence that Philippe de Rothschild sought to partner with Mondavi to create the joint venture called Opus One. The baron knew a fellow storytelling genius when he saw one.)

Napa's narrative is the fusion of privilege with democracy, of allowing its visitors to dream that beauty has a place and a possibility in the modern world. So seductive and compelling is this "fairy tale democracy" narrative that Napa Valley has vaulted into the nirvana of narratives: It has become a symbol. It doesn't get any better (or more lucrative) than that. Think Tiffany. Or Ferrari. Or even the slogan-become-symbol of "diamonds are forever."

Every place has its story, its culture and a capacity to make people both dream and reach for their wallets. But it's no longer enough to say "somewhereness."

To borrow from Sondheim, if you wanna have a chance, you gotta have ... well, you know.


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