The Noble Writ: Tell Me a Story

We live in a time when well-made wine is readily available to just about everyone. You can walk into most grocery stores -- not to mention wine shops -- and find dozens of wines that are cleanly and soundly made starting at or below $5 a bottle.

But I need a wine to be more than "good." A "good," technically sound wine isn't what feeds my passion. I need a wine to draw me in -- to capture my attention with something distinctive. Sure, there's a base level of quality that needs to be met, but the story is what really makes the experience.

The most fascinating story a wine can tell is the tale of what the French call terroir. This simple word requires paragraphs, if not pages, to articulate decently in English -- and quickly becomes a muddle of uncertainty, myth, tradition and science. (Some would add religion.) My shorthand explanation: A wine that expresses its terroir is able to tell the drinker where it is from through its tastes and aromas.

Burgundy is highlighted. - User "Rinaldum," Wikimedia Commons
User "Rinaldum," Wikimedia Commons
Burgundy is highlighted.
One region that does an exceptional job of conveying its terroir is Burgundy, the home of pinot noir. (Chardonnay, too, but white Burgundy isn't my beat.) I love tasting wines from the same Burgundian producer, made in the same vintage, whose only difference is that they were made from grapes grown in adjacent vineyards. These vineyards might be separated only by a road or by a couple of hundred feet in elevation on the same hill, yet the wines made from them taste obviously different. This blew me away the first time it happened, and it still does today.

As you zoom out in Burgundy, you pick up on the common flavors and aromas that wines produced in the same village share, even when they come from different vineyards within the village and from different producers. Yes, there are differences, but the family resemblance can be startling. The whys and hows of this phenomenon aren't well understood, and I don't know that the world will be a better place when they are. Sometimes it's nice to let the mystery be.

The other story I really love is the underdog. Denied, wrongfully in your opinion, the right to label your wine because you're a motivated producer trying to make something really special in a region known for its high-volume mediocrity? That's something I want to taste. (Yeah, I would have bought that one anyway.) Making wine from an almost extinct grape variety you think is worth saving? I'm buying. Convinced a California farmer to plant gamay grapes at 3500 feet in the Sierra Foothills? I'm all over it.

I'm not particularly moved by the story of the über-successful whomever who falls in love with wine and spares no expense to build an uncompromising winery dedicated to the uncompromising pursuit of uncompromising quality. Nor do I expect that anyone gets too excited about a wine "brand" created by a large diversified multinational corporation to fill a perceived gap in the 30- to 40-year-old urban professional male wine market. While I'm flattered by the attention, it's not a good story.

Wine without a story to tell is just a beverage. It might be good, but it's nowhere near as satisfying to me as a bottle that brings a compelling tale to the table with it. When you drink a bottle with a story, you get to write the final chapter (more of an epilogue, really) and that means that the story becomes just the tiniest bit about you too, which is a very special thing indeed.

Dave Nelson is the author of the blog Beer, Wine and Whisky. He writes about wine for Gut Check every Tuesday.
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