Should Wine Stories Be True?
A few years ago, some marketing guru decided that storytelling was the best way to sell products, companies and brands. It has since become the norm. Countless blog posts and articles on HubSpot, Forbes, Fast Company and the like have dissected its usefulness and determined it a necessity for brand survival. There’s fact based psychology behind it too, demonstrated in this infographic on OneSpot. Humans love stories. Storytelling and story absorbing is a primary pathway our brains use to understand the world and our place in it. As a writer, obviously I’m a huge fan of storytelling and, frankly, it’s how I make my living. But when our priorities make entertaining and informing secondary and money making primary, we begin to take great liberties in our storytelling, stretching and skirting the truth. Ah, sweet capitalism. But does it matter? As a truth seeker, it does to me.
Perhaps nowhere in the marketing world are such egregious stretches of truth proudly displayed as in the spirits industry. Spirits companies are notorious for peddling far fetched tales about the origins of their sacred elixir. In Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits, author Jason Wilson pokes fun at these PR pitches for being too common and too ridiculous. He recalls the romantic tale told to him by the folks at St. Germain, an elderflower liqueur in a beautifully sculpted bottle, that describes old men wearing berets while hand-picking each elderflower from the foothills of their native French Alps to make what Wilson calls “bartender’s ketchup” (though it is lovely dashed into a mimosa). In the same chapter, “Romance: They Pour It On,” he reports on a trip to the Jäegermeister distillery where he catches a glimpse of the secret herbal recipe and discovers “that the rumors of deer’s blood and opiates [as ingredients] are completely unfounded.” But they got very nervous when he attempted to copy down what’s actually in the recipe.
Recently, I heard a good one about a liqueur that’s been made for well over 100 years by the same, unchanged secret recipe, which only two people know and neither of them knows the recipe in its entirety. This straight from the marketer’s mouth. Dear spirits companies, Do you really think anyone believes this shit? Or is that not the point? It strikes me as a cover for the truth, that neither you nor I, and probably not the sales team, will ever know what real or manufactured bits are in the bottle. But maybe we don’t care, because the drink is palatable, delicious in a cocktail, and it gets us drunk. We are living in dark times after all, awash in fake news, colorful marketing prose, self-aggrandizement and greed; that’s how Trump got elected and that’s why we need all the booze.
We are a culture that has ascribed branding to each individual. The image driven platform Instagram is a perfect representation of this; look where I am, what I’m doing, what killer old wine I’m drinking, and who I’m with. Crafted images and text suggest flawless lives worthy of envy. Over time, they create a false connection between the viewee and the viewed. That falsity breeds loneliness and delusion. At best, it’s a distraction from living one’s own true life, whether you’re the poster or the voyeur. Is it possible that this is all we know, that our behavior is largely subconscious, so marinated in the bombardment of advertising for every single product known to man? Story sells, whether it’s your own or a company’s, and the one universal truth all Americans can agree on is that we all want more money - and more attention, more respect, more glamor - and so we are all buying and selling pretty much all the time.
The wine business is also heavy with storyselling, though more sly, more nuanced in their tales than spirits people. The wine industry is the boozers’ upper class, with private school educations and crystal glassware. I say this because you will never hear a winemaker tell an importer, sommelier, journalist or blogger that their ingredients - presumably only grapes - come from a top secret location and their winemaking process requires two men, a black dog, and pulling a sword from the stone to unlock the recipe. In the spirit world, place matters less. In the wine world, place is everything and the expression of place is foremost. Still, a good story can distract and shade off-truths, and plenty of commercial producers sidestep the place-process-ingredient conversation. As for ingredients, approximately 200 additives, not grapes, are allowed in a bottle of wine, none of which are legally mandated to be listed on the bottle or anywhere else. Welcome to the magician’s hour.
Self-appointed storysellers, aka marketers, grab on to buzz words that resonate, beating them dead, until the original meaning is completely lost. Exhibit A, “Authentic.” Words like sustainable, practicing organic, native yeast, natural, and minimal intervention get tossed out like so many corks of empty bottles. I use these words myself and I often take them to heart, or at the very least, politely sit with them a minute to see if they ring true. The thing is, there’s a spectrum for all these practices and most winemakers who invoke the sacred lexicon do fall somewhere on the spectrum. However, that spectrum is long and knotty with deep grooves of truish statements and shady practices. I’ve decided the only way to know if a story is earnest, is to look the winemaker in the eye as he tells it. Of course doing that for every wine that crosses my lips is about as realistic as the two 90-year old sister nuns who’ve been hiding one half each of their great-great-grandfather’s hand-written amaro recipe in their Depends, revealed only to God, who then commands an unwitting peasant type searching for salvation to make the bitter nectar. If this is beginning to sound overly cynical, please see aforementioned Trump comment. Cynicism and the death of democracy operate inversely, like sugar and acid in ripening grapes.
Here’s a hand-drawn graph I made in my quaint, sunlit apartment in a 200-year old Creole cottage in the Marigny Triangle while the cat rubs luxuriously against my jaded calf to illustrate. It’s the most romanticized graph I’ve ever created.
To be fair, Trump is not the problem, but the the result of a cycle of beliefs long ago adopted by early Americans that at some point before our lifetimes defaulted into a spiraling cycle of chasing cash at all expense. But what about the unbridled misogyny and racism that elected the crazy bastard?! You’re thinking. Both circle back to the belief that women and people of color are taking from the misogynist and the racist what he’s most afraid to lose: employment, social status, opportunity, identity, money. We tell ourselves stories to justify our beliefs and we tell each other stories to sell those beliefs and the products we believe in, even when the confidence in a product is simply the belief that a paycheck is attached to the sale. I’m not saying that all stories told to sell a thing are inherently dishonest, but the temptation to elaborate for monetary gain is prescient and furtive.
And now that I’ve thoroughly bummed you out and possibly pissed you off, let me assure you there are some cracks where the light gets through. Because the wine business is also a corner of the consumer marketplace where truth can be separated from lie without appointing a special prosecutor. Plus, for those less ethically concerned, a simple like or dislike of the wine will set you free.
PARSING THE WINE TRUTH
There are many occasions on this blog where I’ve written positive things about specific wineries and their wines, the longer posts as a public thank you for free goods, which I always state. I wrote those stories because I believe them and I trust the person who fed them to me. I wrote those stories because I suddenly had a lot of attention from wineries and PR companies who wanted to send me wine and host me at their winery and I wanted to try out being that kind of blogger. Honestly, some of my favorite posts were inspired by the generosity and transparency of a winemaker or winery spokesperson. Not everyone is full of shit or afraid to admit they might not be 100% on trend while also telling a good, genuine story.
I wrote a post about Torii Mor’s pinot blanc awhile back, which I discovered was made with industrial yeast. We soil snobs hate this. We want the place in the glass and manufactured yeast strains skew that conversation by imparting and accentuating specific aromas and flavors. But Torii Mor lists this information right on their website, and for that transparency, I gave them a thumbs up. Conversely, I’ve toured wineries while the winemaker boasted “no intervention” as we walked by a fat sack of tartaric acid sitting against the wall. Maybe they were selling me what they thought I wanted to hear, or maybe they consider adding tartaric acid a non-interventionist practice. I’ve also been sent samples of wines with a killer story and super cool website, but no depth. I don’t trust opaque pitches. Not surprising, there was an animal on the label and the wines were smooth as if they’d been pumped with Velcorin and Mega Purple, high in alcohol and the kind of sweet, overripe fruit flavors that still pass as dry wines.
Parsing a wine story for truth is easier to do the more you know about winemaking and vineyard practices, which takes time and devoted interest, but you don’t have to know the Oxford Companion to Wine front to back to win at this game. Hacking a wine story for honesty is like hacking a mechanic or pest control guy. You probably don’t know anything about cars or bug killing, but if you’ve got good instincts you can fish out a bullshitter without earning a degree.
Here are my tips separating the wheat from the chaff:
- Stories that sound like they could be appointed to a vodka or soda probably contain half-truths.
- Stories that are vague, that lack technical details on how a wine is made, where the grapes are grown and how, are like a job candidate with “tons of experience” but no resume.
- To take a page out of Terry Theise’s manifesto, be wary of scale. Artisanal wineries can only make so much wine. After about 30,000 cases, it gets damn hard to manage without becoming too removed from the process and still remain present. This I’ve heard from winemakers, and one who admitted astonishment to learn that Wells Guthrie, one of California’s superstar boutique producers in recent years, was making as much wine when he sold his brand, Copain Wines, last year to Jackson Family Wines, one of the ten largest wine companies in the world. I always ask what a winery’s annual production is for this reason.
- Stories that talk about “crafting wine” or trying to obtain a certain style are suspect, though not automatically tagged as embellished. True artisanal winemakers grow grapes, working with and not against the land, and allow the wines to make themselves. They might use industrial yeast to avoid a stuck fermentation and sulfur to prevent the wine from spoiling or becoming erratic. Again, this is a spectrum, but when a winemaker starts changing the composition of a wine to appeal to a specific palate, the family-owned tale loses credibility lightning-quick. Remember, Wal-Mart is family-owned.
- Importers worth their salt tell real stories because their producers have real stories. Many of them tend to be generous with winery information and wine details on their websites, including Neal Rosenthal, Terry Theise, Selection Massale, André Tamers of De Maison Selections, Louis/Dressner, Jenny & François Selections, and Kermit Lynch to name a few. These importers are also well-known for working with producers who live by natural and lutte raisonnée philosophies.
Wine is not just a commodity. It’s a connection to the land it’s from and the people who guide it into the bottle. It reaches into history and other cultures. It brings us together. In the best scenario, it offers us transcendence through revelatory deliciousness. If we allow these stories to be so flippantly obfuscated, all our sacrosanct edicts on the specialness of wine will tarnish like forgotten silver. Humans will devolve into consumer robots. We need meaning in our lives. I need meaning in my wine. So yes, wine stories should absolutely be true.