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Is the Story More Important than the Wine?

Don't let the tail wag the dog when it comes to choosing a bottle
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Dec 2, 2015 10:00am ET

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.


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.

Mark Lyon
Sonoma, California —  December 2, 2015 1:13pm ET
If we are going to introduce fine wine for consumers to enjoy, we need to not prejudice their thoughts; rather endorse their likes. I can't tell you how many times I attempt to find out what our friends & family prefer, then find the right wine matchup. (ie, preferring sweet wines, low tannin reds, etc.) Finally, I detest slick marketers who think that brands trump what inside the bottle based on a story than what's in the bottle. So many brands are ancient relics because a "wiser than us" wine exec thought that putting lesser wines in the bottle at lower costing has no real world consequences so long as the PR machine continues. It assumes that consumers really can't distinguish good from not so good. It is both condescending and short sighted.
Tim Fish
Sonoma County —  December 2, 2015 1:44pm ET
Thanks for the comment, Mark. Well said.
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst, Il —  December 2, 2015 4:01pm ET
No, of course, the story isn't more important than the wine. In fact, sometimes the "story" is simply that the wine tastes so damn good.

But anyone who hasn't experienced the pleasure of a wine which "speaks" of the place and culture from which it comes, I think is missing out.

Tim Mc Donald
Napa, CA USA —  December 2, 2015 4:44pm ET
Baloney indeed. Taste and deliciousness always trumps the story Tim. You are 100% correct in the notion that once a wine tasted blind & is decided as quite compelling, only then will the reviewer/drinker want to know more. Launch into storytelling mode. Even wines where to story is already a bit known, still need the endorsement after the blind taste. Exciting Wow wines have the edge over average wines always. Cheers!
Paul Jacroux
Kirkland, Washington, USA —  December 3, 2015 12:50pm ET
Telling the story is part of selling the wine.
For me the story is often the tie breaker. The bar has been raised so high that it's hard to choose what wine NOT to buy. The story helps.
Pamela Heiligenthal
Willamette Valley, OR —  December 3, 2015 11:25pm ET
You hit it on the nail, "…if the taste of a wine isn't compelling, why tell its story?" Stories are nice, but in the end, it’s the product that matters. Same thing goes for movies, food, etc. A great movie trailer doesn’t always make a great movie, which is why I usually like to go see the movie before seeing the trailer!
Steve Kubota
Bellingham, WA, USA —  December 4, 2015 5:42pm ET
I agree. Taste is more important than the back story. The "romantic," back story aspect on wine labels are not as important to most consumers while shopping for wine at retail stores and wine shops. Very rarely do I see consumers turning the bottle around to read the label information on the back of the bottle.

I find that consumers can be swayed and influenced to purchase wine by the stories (great selling tactic) while they are visiting wineries and vineyards tasting wine they've never previously tried. The back story on the label is still secondary to taste and is often one of the reasons why they do not enjoy the bottle as much at home with family and friends as they did at the winery.
Daniel Davis
New Orleans, LA, USA —  December 4, 2015 10:40pm ET
Tim, I think this is an important topic for several reasons. I'm glad you chose to write about it, because it's time to push back.

Foremost is the deleterious effect that this proliferation of "story-driven" wines has had on the casual consumer's confidence in his or her wine-buying decisions. Rather than focusing on regional typicity of style and grape cultivar or learning the names and styles of the legendary winemakers of a place, the consumer is told--implicitly or explicitly--that they must seek out the latest rebel or faux-garagist in order to find a wine worth drinking. It has become a competition of label designs and obscure, incongruous blends rather than the slow, methodical honing of craft and reputation.

This devalues the single most-important thing any consumer can ever know about wine--what he or she actually LIKES. In my opinion, the ultimate definition of quality is: do you like it? Yes? Then it is a wine of quality.

We are, however, social creatures, and we naturally seek the approval of those who are selling wines to us. As those who sell wines learn interesting stories (many crafted by marketing agencies), it is natural for them to focus on and wish to share this "insider" knowledge. But, what does this knowledge bring to the ultimate enjoyment of a bottle of wine by the consumer? The story should come AFTER the wine is chosen, not before.

It is so very important that those of us in the wine trade to remember that we are in the business of service--service to the ultimate consumer of the products that we sell. First seek to understand what your customer likes to drink and the context in which he or she will be drinking it. Then bring them to the wine that fits the bill. Tell them the back story later, as a way to help build loyalty to that wine or winemaker--and to you as a wine professional.

The next big issue with these "story-driven" wines is the skewing of the price-value equation. It becomes very difficult for consumers to understand why Wine X--with an elaborate back-story, an uber-cool label, and throngs of cool young somms dying to push it in their restaurants--is twice as expensive as its neighbor even though there is not a sufficiently appreciable or compelling difference in quality. All that glitters is not gold.

Finally, I feel that many young winemakers are pushed into the feedback loop of being rewarded for crafting a narrative rather than crafting the very best wine of which they are capable. As they (and their financiers) are rewarded more and more for the story and the package, there is less focus on the wine. Inevitably the story arc bends toward extensions of the brand, consultancies, ever-more-titillating experimentation... But what will be the wine that defines this winemaker and rests in his or her cellar until the grandkids can enjoy it?

I know that I'm a traditionalist and that many, many of my customers enjoy wines that are a little too cutting-edge for my taste. I'm fine with that. I offer the wines that my customers want and truly enjoy doing so. I feel strongly, however, that there is far too much focus on the lighting these days. Let's pull it back a bit and remember that the important things are the glorious liquid inside the bottle and the person who swirls it in the glass.

Dan Davis
Daniel Sherer
Windsor, CA, USA —  December 7, 2015 7:14pm ET
Great blog...when "selling" a story lends a certain credibility and gives the "seller" a comfort zone as he/she leads the consumer down a path well plotted. As a "drinker" I have a story for every bottle of wine I ever had. Some of my stories are colorful and precise like tasting 1989 Haut Brion on the property and some are reminiscent of a good time at a friends house for dinner with a bottle of Gaja San Lorenzo 1997. Stories foreshadow and support the enthusiasm and much like reviewing a movie, you are apt to lead into the review without displaying the ending by using the "back" story to lay out the concept. And, as always, it will be completely up to the end user, the movie goer or the person drinking the wine, to be satisfied or not.
Don Rauba
Schaumburg, IL —  December 8, 2015 10:13pm ET
Bravo, Tim. This blog was like a breath of fresh air and I'm in complete agreement with you, and most of the interesting commenters above.

Much of "wine talk" involves the act of selling, especially from the vantage point of the consumer. Walk into a store and you're never quite sure whether you're hearing a sales pitch, a genuinely insightful recommendation, or some lopsided combination of the two.

But when the wine doesn't sell itself on its taste (and by extension, score/review) then what can the winery/distributor/retailer do to move it, other than appeal to someone's imagination through creative storytelling? A great story is a useful sales tool, but (as one great salesman I know once quipped) when they start counting "the flowers on the mountainside", it's a warning sign (to me).

It would be wrong to discount every romantic story, surely many great wines also have great stories. But if we're ever to have integrity about what we drink and what we consider to be great wine, we need to filter some of it out. I think we must trust our palates first, possibly followed by the advice of carefully chosen mentors in the wine industry, including the words (descriptors, not scores) in reviews. After all, the score is really just the size of the exclamation point at the end of the review's final sentence. Thank goodness reviews don't leave quite enough room for creative storytelling to be included!


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