I’m going to shock a few readers by saying the following. Please bear with me:
There was a pretty good article in Wine Spectator this past week. Or, at least, on the free portion of the Wine Spectator website.
I’ll spare a recap of the article, since you can read the whole thing here if you’d like. It’s by WS columnist Matt Kramer and his point is that, in this diverse wine world, it’s not enough for your wine to have terroir–the idea that a wine coming from a unique place is its most compelling selling point. But rather it needs to have a narrative–a story that sticks in the mind of the consumer.
That’s true, and I would argue, not a particularly new idea. Rapid proliferation of any one particular trend will necessitate new strategies for differentiating one business’s products from another.
And when you’re selling wine–and I mean hand-selling wine, not stacking the cases and slapping on a WS or Parker score–you’re always using narrative to sell and that paradigm has existed for years in those types of wine shops and from the suppliers who sell to them. For all wines above a certain price, what you’re paying for is a story–terroir plays a significant role in shaping that story, but it has never been the whole story.
But the article is compelling in its open acknowledgment of the massive expansion of the wine world and its impact on once bulletproof regions like Bordeaux. It does delve into the simpering business of Napa Worship, which might be premature given the recent troubles in the Valley. Perhaps the Napa narrative is starting to crack.
What I wonder, though, is where does Kramer think the narrative comes from? Other than mentioning a few specific 20th century wine luminaries who made strong efforts to shape their particular estates’ narratives, he doesn’t suggest how or from whom these narratives will develop. Do they just happen and then forty years later some guy from a wine magazine points and says–See? That’s what I’m talking about! It happened back then!
And here’s my point: these narratives Kramer claims need to be built, in many cases, already exist. It’s utterly condescending to suggest that Portugal, Greece, and Hungary need to build narratives. These countries have been producing wine for thousands of years and it’s the very fact that those countries have made wine largely outside of the narrative framework built by Wine Spectator and Wine Advocate that is part of the narrative that makes these wines so compelling to younger and more adventurous wine drinkers. There’s an authenticity–a lack of trend chasing posturing–that we find appealing. It’s not that these wines don’t have narratives that resonate–they don’t have narratives that resonate with Wine Spectator.
And it’s a narrative that will inherently exclude Wine Spectator’s involvement in shaping it unless the magazine is more forward thinking in how it plays its role in shaping it. Wine Spectator and Robert Parker’s swooning love for inky, dense high-alcohol Shiraz from Australia is directly responsible for building the Shiraz bubble of the mid 2000’s that popped spectacularly a couple years ago. It stripped away any narratives of regional specificity in Australia by advocating a monolithic Narrative of Australian Shiraz.
If what’s important is narrative, influential publications need to take responsibility for spreading those narratives and stop repeating the same interviews with the same general group of white guys in increasingly advanced middle-age. As a friend of mine once said about men’s fitness magazines: there are only so many ways to write the same article about running.
(And while it’s great to say that blind-tasting and rating wines on a 100-point scale is merely one small part of wine appreciation, it is one very large part of Wine Spectator’s influence and attempts to play down its importance run counter to, well, reality.)
If you can’t find compelling narratives to write about from countries with centuries of history and whose stories have already resonated with wine drinkers who don’t read Wine Spectator–well, I suppose that’s why those drinkers don’t read Wine Spectator.
If you want some narrative leads, just let me know.