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Creative Storytelling In Wine Country

By Stephen Eliot

A week does not go by in which we once again hear how millennials and social media are changing the public perception of wine and, by extension, how it will/should be made and sold. The prime imperative for wine to be successful to the new generation of wine drinkers, we are repeatedly told is that it must have a “story” lest it be DOA in the new market. Without a story, it seems, a wine is without possible virtue, and, according to some philosophic observers, bloggers are the new stewards of taste whose raison d’être is to tell the story since, apparently, the old-guard of wine journalism cannot…at least in language that is meaningful to millennials.

Now, call me a relic, but I am disinclined to buy a wine based on its story. It is not the first time I have voiced that opinion here. Stories about a winemaker’s background and passion, while entertaining, may be and generally are wholly irrelevant to what’s in the glass. I want to know if a wine is tasty, balanced and complex or tongue-curingly tannic, hot, bitter, sour, chemically challenged or just plain unpleasant. All of those traits exist, and, sorry to say, I have had more bad wines that I can count made by vintners long on passion and short on winemaking skill. I have also thoroughly enjoyed countless bottles over the years made by folks that can only be described as soporifically boring, and my enjoyment was not lessened by the absence of a compelling tale about their wines’ geneses. And, I must say, I chatted last weekend with a couple of very talented winemakers who rolled their eyes and grinned ever so slightly when I asked for their opinions about the singular significance of a wine’s story.

I cannot help but wonder if story invention is around the next bend. Taking the lead from a decidedly unconventional political season, there may be those in the business of making, selling and buying wines who, if lacking a good story, simply make one up. It is what big-time advertising is all about, is it not? There is a lot of very “creative” writing making the rounds in the content-for-free world of the internet these days, and those most able wordsmiths may have found the perfect niche.

Now, I am not really worried that a discerning palate has become passé, it never will, but I am increasingly impatient with the parade of pundits who claim to understand wine and presumably appreciate it because it comes with a good story, and I am downright angered by those who are eager to sell it through such means. Adolf Coors had a story, so did Ray Kroc and a fellow named Trump.

Approach a wine first with as little prejudice or bias as possible. Think about its aromas, texture and taste, what you do or do not like about it, and maybe go so far as think about why. If it evokes pleasure, then a good tale may make the experience all the more satisfying, but, please, what is in the glass must come first and the story second. If not, I sense that the techniques of Madison Avenue, once described by the late William Safire as the “gimmicky, slick use of the communications media to play on emotions” lurk ominously in the wings.

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