Richard Hemming: telling a good story about wine

on 10 July, 2015

Picture your favourite Champagne. Perhaps you’ve got more than one. Either way, I expect it occurred to you almost instantaneously, and that you conjured up an image of the bottle in your mind. Now ask yourself: why is it your favourite?

For most people, the answer to that question will not be cold and calculated. People rarely love a particular Champagne because it consistently wins the most medals at wine competitions or because it offers the best quality-to-price ratio. They probably don’t even love a Champagne because it’s the best they’ve ever tasted.

Like all matters of love, the rationale will be emotional. It’ll be the one they had at their best friend’s wedding, or the one in Reims that they visited with their parents. The one they drank to celebrate passing important exams or the one they have every Christmas morning.

Similarly, when selling Champagne, saying it was served at a royal banquet or is the region’s oldest family-owned producer is much more engaging than saying it’s a Pinot-dominated blend or that the dosage is made from the tears of special fairies.

This is hardly stop-press news, of course – we all know that good stories sell wine. But therein lies the danger.

Good stories are routinely embellished and exaggerated for effect – which is only OK so long as the truth remains apparent. For example, that thing about the dosage? Nonsense, of course – everybody knows fairies don’t cry.

This applies to all wine, not just Champagne. I visited Washington state last month and tasted some fantastic wines made from dozens of different varieties and in all sorts of styles. We discussed how their greatest strength is their greatest weakness – making all manner of wine well is a much harder story to tell than specialising in something, such as Oregon with Pinot Noir or Marlborough with Sauvignon Blanc.

Washington state is therefore faced with needing to find a compelling story that connects with people emotionally, giving us something to remember and become attached to.

This returns me to my point. Wine stories must be genuine and we should be vigilant about interrogating that. It’s the same as scrutinising the differences between spoofy wine and authentic wine, to borrow Jamie Goode’s phraseology. Phoney wine stories do a disservice to us all.

That’s not simply grandstanding – there are important principles at stake. Firstly, wine has thousands upon thousands of real stories to tell, and finding the most interesting and engaging ones is what makes wine so rewarding and compelling.

Secondly, it is often the biggest companies that peddle the most phoney stories. Certain Champagne brands are particular offenders at this, conducting such an elaborate performance around their brand that it looks suspiciously like they’re trying to divert people’s attention away from the product itself.

Finally, phoney stories can infiltrate and supplant the original emotional connections we make – and those are the ones that really matter.

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