Stop the Wine Story Becoming more than a Cliché

The five-letter word has only really been thrown about the wine industry for a year or some, and I for one am already truly jaded to death by it. One can’t open a press-release, a attend a gathering of wine marketers or report on an information session without the word “story” being expressed in hushed tones of reverence for this basic tenet of communication.

“We need to sell our customers stories and dreams,” a sommelier whispers to an audience. “Collective story-telling will open doors for wine consumers” an industry spokesperson enthuses.

And that specific wank started by an American at a Vinpro Information Day last year, “without a story, wine is just fermented grape-juice”.

Great quotes and tweeting material these are, but what does it really mean?

Is the influence of old vineyards on Chenin Blanc complexity a story? What about the merits of older wood compared to new? Latest impressions from a geologist on limestone content in the Western Cape?

Or are the calls for story-telling more in-line with what the mere mortal, a.k.a. wine consumer, thinks is a good story: The night the farm worker fell into the open fermenter of red wine and returned the next day to retrieve his gum-boot that had been left under the Pinotage’s cap? Or the time a prominent wine maker was hosing water into his wooden cask of wine when a SAWIS inspector arrived catching him red-handed. “Bloody flies,” explained the blushing wine maker. “Once they sit on the surface only water will chase them off.”

Brink's "Heildronk".
Brink’s “Heildronk”.

No, I really don’t know what these obviously far more cerebrally endowed marketers mean when they urge the industry to tell its “stories”. For as far as I can see, more is written and said about the need for wine industry story-telling than stories currently being told.

This has not always been so.

Thirty years or so ago, also known as The Old South African Wine Industry, stories were all over the place. Books were published on the characters, places and noteworthy events in the wine industry, as well as quirky stories of wine making by Catholic brothers in Windhoek, the old Van der Merwe family from Rawsonville and their brandy-consuming prowess and the secrets behind Muratie patriarch Ronne Melck’s extraordinary tasting abilities. Smuggling flor yeasts from Spain to South Africa in a handkerchief. To name but a few.

These books had names like Gees van die Wingerd (1968), Rooiwyn in Suid-Afrika (1971), Wine of Constantia (1979), Heildronk (1981), by André P Brink, who also wrote Essence of the Grape (1992). There was also Graham Knox’s authoritative Estate Wines of South Africa and The Complete Book of South African Wine (1998), by Dave Hughes, Phyllis Hands and Stephan Phillips.

Looking at the stratospheric growth of the industry over the past 20 years on all fronts, it is noticeable that wine books have all but dried up. Who, thus, is documenting these stories which we in the wine industry are so feverishly encouraged to tell and which can inspire us to tell ours?

This becomes especially relevant now that wine publications are toppling and newsprint space is at a premium, no more 1000 word profiles on wine makers or wine personalities with good stories to tell.

Part of the industry’s new drive to generically market and promote wine will have to entail telling these stories, and hopefully the platforms will include on or two much-needed books. Okay, Kindle-versions welcome.

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2 thoughts on “Stop the Wine Story Becoming more than a Cliché

  1. Very well put. I (think) I understand what they’re trying to do with the “story” rhetoric, but as with many marketing tools/methods/brainfarts the very thing they’re using dominates what they’re trying to achieve, perhaps.

    I found a copy of The Complete Book of South African Wine in the library at Stilbaai one summer holiday and I was obsessed, paging through the entries on each estate and producer – I’m still trying to find a copy I can buy/keep. Even as a very factual book, it has an irresistible charm and made me wish I was born some 50 years earlier.

    Sincerely hope young wine writers take note – so easy to be saturated with the style of information we’re inundated with every day that you start reproducing it without even noticing.

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