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Drinking Out Loud

The Most Important Word in Wine Today

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

Matt Kramer
Posted: February 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.

Scott Elder
The Dalles, OR —  February 1, 2011 2:19pm ET
Matt – I couldn’t agree with you more, but with one caveat – the narrative has to be true and real and not something created for marketing purposes. I think that’s what you were alluding to with the Heinz ketchup slogan. I believe it’s hard to find true and real these days, especially in wine.

Finding true and real in wine, whether it is in the narrative or the wine itself, depends so much on the person behind the wine. That person is part of the terroir amalgam – wine should impart a somewhereness and a somebodiness. A true and real narrative can only come from a true and real somebodiness.

www.thegrandedalles.com
Morewine Bishar
Del Mar, California —  February 1, 2011 2:51pm ET
Good points!

We see this narrative thing powerfully at work in the "wine of the people" aura surrounding Zinfandel. The Zin lover rejects all the "aristocratic" BS about "noble" varietals. No self-appointed aristocrats for this grape. This is a wine first grown here by immigrant farmers with real dirt under their fingernails, as part of their struggle to make a new life in a new land.

Zin isn't a pure-blood. The old vineyards are all field blend mixes with the lowly (but great) Petite Sirah, Grenache, Mataro/Mourvedre and a host of little-known others like Pinot St. George and Lord knows what! The wine is a mutt! And like most mutts, it's hardy, it's reliable and above all else, it's the product of the common man!

I better stop before I get carried away...

My only point here is that these narratives can play an important part in buyer (and drinker) psychology. Does drinking petit chateau Bordeaux make make one feel somehow part of the elite of the first growths?
Not really. Obscure Bordeaux makes one think "grocery store brands" and how exciting is that?

Somehow, the little guys of Bordeaux need to put a face on their wines. They need to communicate their struggle to the wine world, the struggle to excel, the struggle to survive. After all, this struggle is something we can all relate to.

David Clark
For The Wine Connection
Fernando Luce
Porto Alegre, RS - BRAZIL —  February 1, 2011 2:53pm ET
Dear Matt
I found your text very interesting and provocative. As I was reading a kind of dejá vu situation began to evolve. Your idea of narrative is a new way (perhaps much more encompassing) to describe an old and still very much up-to-date concept in marketing, that is product positioning: "my product (in your case wine) is better than all the others because.... it is Grown Not Made (for Heinz, as you mentioned)". My wine is better than all the competition because...(here goes your narrative). Congratulations. I really enjoyed reading your text. I might use it with my marketing students.
Jim Tobin
San Diego, CA, USA —  February 1, 2011 8:06pm ET
Matt,

I found your piece to be spot-on. As a wine shop
owner, I see first hand how important narrative
is to the consumer. After all, we all love a
great story, and have since the dawn of humanity.

One point you didn't make, though, is that narrative
is equally powerful - and just as important - for independent retailers like me. You can't throw a stick in my area without hitting dozens of places where you can buy a bottle. And while service, selection and price are certainly huge factors in maintaining customer loyalty, having a compelling
narrative sure doesn't hurt!

Thanks for the piece. Keep up the good work!

Jim Tobin
North County Wine Company
Andrew J Grotto
Washington, DC —  February 1, 2011 10:02pm ET
Matt, you were clearly a humanities major back in the day! So from one former humanities major to another: If the measure of a wine or wine region is it's narrative, doesn't that call into question WS's methodology of blind tasting, which is arguably intended to strip away narrative in favor of a more clinical focus on what's in the glass? And doesn't this mean that the more expository style that dominated wine criticism prior to WS and RP was a superior form of evaluation?
Martin Palmer
Hong Kong —  February 2, 2011 6:57am ET
Dear Mr.Kramer,


Thank You for your informative article. I come from a wine village in the Nahe Region of Germany.

Two years ago I opened a "Boutique Wine Company" in Hong Kong.

My story when hosting wine tastings in Hong Kong is about our culture in the Nahe Region and the many diverse soils and microclimates of the Nahe Region.


With kind regards,

Martin

www.finegermanwines.hk
Carlos Cherubin
Cleveland, Ohio, US —  February 2, 2011 7:29am ET
Matt,

great article. I am in the retail business, and what you called a "narrative" we call a "brand", which typically engenders an emotional content beyond the commodity in quesion, wine in our case.

Warm regards,

Carlos Cherubin

carlos0012358@yahoo.com
John Brody
Montreal Canada —  February 2, 2011 8:32am ET
Good ideas everyone. A narrative or story is how prople become loyal customers/patrons. Low cost or cheap is not a story and as quickly as popularity comes it can go(Australia wine). The problem with Bordeaux is the narrative was allways about the first growths but now that most cost in the $1000 plus range they are out of touch with most people. I am in retail sales and I try not to sell individual products but the companys who make them and their storys. I arrange my products by company not by type. How is a narritive created is the question and what makes people believe it and tell the story to others. Thats how the word gets around folks.
Kathy Dipietro
Dallas —  February 2, 2011 11:19am ET
Matt, great article - once again! The wines that sell in my store are the ones that I can tell a story about. Invariably if there is something "personal" that connects the buyer/consumer to the wine/product it becomes "theirs", they buy, they consume, they share the "story" with others, and the story/narrative takes on a life of its own. Wines without stories stay in the racks, (especially if untasted by the seller)languishing until the day it's discounted heavily, and then "price" becomes the story.

All well said. Salud! KathyD
Matt Kramer
Portland, OR —  February 2, 2011 11:59am ET
Mr. Grotto: You write: "If the measure of a wine or wine region is its narrative, doesn't that call into question WS's methodology of blind tasting, which is arguably intended to strip away narrative in favor of a more clinical focus on what's in the glass?"

Thanks for your note. I'm afraid that we shall have to disagree if only because the notion of "the measure of the wine or wine region is its narrative" is not quite what I wrote.

The narrative, as I explained, is not so much the "measure" as it is the means by which a producer or wine region can make its case to its customers. Without a narrative, people are more reluctant to reach for their wallets.

Blind tasting is clearly only one aspect of wine appreciation. It has its place. Whether blind or otherwise, we all know that "tasting" is different than "drinking". Both have their place and their uses – blind tasting included.

We also all know that there's more to wine than can be found solely by a clinical approach. I can assure you that none of my colleagues at Wine Spectator would disagree with such an assertion. Witness the number of articles in Wine Spectator that celebrate the pleasures of the table – with nary a clinician in sight!

By the way, you suggest that I was a humanities major in college. You're quite right: I majored in American history. To this day, I still read more history than anything else.

Thanks for your thoughts and for taking the time to write.
Simon Beck
Auckland New Zealand  —  February 2, 2011 4:42pm ET
Hi Matt
I was impressed when you spoke in NZ 2007 at the Export Forum about the same idea of having a real narrative & NZs opportunity to sell the dream of purity that we have down here & the idea of "Fattomano" (excuse any incorrect spelling) or the handmade concept. It really resonated.
We are really seeing the results with our brand The Crossings this year after a couple of tough years when price has ruled worldwide but we are trying to keep the faith. Having the dramatically beautiful Awatere Valley vineyards help
Thanks for the reminder Cheers Simon
James R Biddle
Dayton, OH —  February 4, 2011 6:38am ET

Matt,
Your "narrative" about "narrative" reached one of its goals--it generated a number of good posts from those recalling and re-imagining their own encounters with narrative hits/misses. What you caused me to recall were all the wine-maker led wine tastings I've attended. They ranged from here-I-am-to-pour-good-wines (which typically resulted in sales to those already drinking that wine) to let-me-tell-you-the-story-of-these-wines (which always attracted more first-time buyers). Given that narratives are attached to narrators (somebodies), industrial wines usually go for the professional narratives of branding and marketing challenges; such attempts often sound hollow and contrived--to my ears at least. In addition to sniffing our wines, some of us also demand that the narrative pass the "smell test." That's a test somebody, from somewhere, with something real should ace!
James R Biddle
Dayton, OH —  February 4, 2011 6:38am ET

Matt,
Your "narrative" about "narrative" reached one of its goals--it generated a number of good posts from those recalling and re-imagining their own encounters with narrative hits/misses. What you caused me to recall were all the wine-maker led wine tastings I've attended. They ranged from here-I-am-to-pour-good-wines (which typically resulted in sales to those already drinking that wine) to let-me-tell-you-the-story-of-these-wines (which always attracted more first-time buyers). Given that narratives are attached to narrators (somebodies), industrial wines usually go for the professional narratives of branding and marketing challenges; such attempts often sound hollow and contrived--to my ears at least. In addition to sniffing our wines, some of us also demand that the narrative pass the "smell test." That's a test somebody, from somewhere, with something real should ace!
James R Biddle
Dayton, OH —  February 4, 2011 6:39am ET

Matt,
Your "narrative" about "narrative" reached one of its goals--it generated a number of good posts from those recalling and re-imagining their own encounters with narrative hits/misses. What you caused me to recall were all the wine-maker led wine tastings I've attended. They ranged from here-I-am-to-pour-good-wines (which typically resulted in sales to those already drinking that wine) to let-me-tell-you-the-story-of-these-wines (which always attracted more first-time buyers). Given that narratives are attached to narrators (somebodies), industrial wines usually go for the professional narratives of branding and marketing challenges; such attempts often sound hollow and contrived--to my ears at least. In addition to sniffing our wines, some of us also demand that the narrative pass the "smell test." That's a test somebody, from somewhere, with something real should ace!
James R Biddle
Dayton, OH —  February 6, 2011 12:55pm ET
sorry about the triple posting--I doubt it was worth one post and I know it wasn't worth 3--no clue about how the gremlins did that!

I just read an interview with Jean-Pierre Giraud, Managing Director of French Barrel company Taransaud. One of his final comments was: “In the wine industry, when you know the story of the wine, and you can put a face on the name of the owner and winemaker - the taste of the wine is very different!”

Obviously, I agree.

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