Recently Matt Kramer of Wine Spectator wrote an article titled “The Most Important Word in Wine Today.” In his article Kramer goes on to suggest that while terroir has now been embedded within our wine and cultural conscience, the new word/idea in need of propagation is “narrative.” For Kramer, narrative is not simply a story – it cannot be just fluff – but it must be a story that sticks. It’s not enough to have a story, though; every place must also reflect a culture and have the capacity to make people “both dream and reach for their wallets.” That is, every place must evoke our imagination and make us move – in this case, we literally move for our wallets.
The idea of narrative as the new gospel for the wine industry today is very compelling. There is something provocative in moving beyond a sense of place and examining something more. But after reading Kramer’s article I felt as though this something more was still just outside of my understanding. Narrative has certain connotations that don’t do Kramer’s point justice. What exactly is this “narrative” that Kramer is promoting? Is narrative, as many of the comments on Kramer’s article suggest, just the non-marketing term for branding? While I love a good branding story, there has to be much more at play than telling the wine industry to build better, stronger and more comprehensive brands. While new branding strategies and narratives might be good for business in the short term, there is more to Kramer’s point than heightened sales. There is more to it than getting us to reach for our wallets in order to complete a one time sale, we must have narratives that commit us in the long term.
I think we can pull from this notion of terroir some interesting elements to enliven our understanding of Kramer’s narrative. Terroir, the most specific kind of place, does not exist in a vacuum. Places are not merely physical landscapes with unique and expressive soil(s), micro-, meso-, and macro-climates, precise aspects, somewhat predictable amounts of rainfall and an approximate number of growing days. Instead, terroir exists within a scheme of other components, i.e. time, culture, people, history, etc. Imagination and motivation have the capacity to extend beyond a sense of place. This is what I see Terry Theise articulating in his most recent book Reading Between the Vines. Theise, a devout terroirist, expands off our conservative notions of terroir, developing it beyond place to include people and their history. This is the understanding of terroir that makes Theise weep when he tastes a wine. The wine doesn’t just have pronounced minerality nor does it simply express the terroir to a tee, but it reflects a family, a history, a culture as well as the passion producers put into their craft. The wine is the reflection of so much more than the land, it is the reflection of a greater social and cultural landscape. It is when wines cease to reflect this über-terroir that they cease to have the value they once had (ex. Kramer’s reference to Bordeaux).
I believe Kramer is using narrative as an expanded sense of terroir, maybe we should call this a cultural terroir? Cultural terroir connotes more than land, but takes the political, social, familial, temporal landscape into consideration as a motivating phenomenon. Culture expressed through a product (in this case wine) has the capacity to move us in unique ways, whether we are crying like Theise or reaching for our wallets. Cultural terroir does not just work through magic. Instead, there must be something about this expanded sense of terroir that connects within our own lives and our own histories. We must identify with a particular cultural terroir. Just as terroir has micro-, meso-, and macro-climates, is it possible for culture to have micro-, meso-, and macro-climates? I think so. The task of wineries and those in the wine industry is to utilize different scales (micro-, meso-, and macro) of cultural terroir and to weave them into or through one another. The artisanal cultural terroir of Oregon, if we use Kramer’s example, connects us with our own cultural history of tilling the land, cultural connotations of quality, and more recently the associations between something artisanal and health (i.e. smaller more localized production is perceived as healthier). Oregon is using a smaller, crafted meso-cultural terroir (that is, a regionally based cultural terroir) in order to tap into a larger cultural conscience (maybe a macro-cultural terroir) that we all share and find value in.
My point is simply that “narrative” seems to fall short of what I see Kramer pointing toward. Narrative falls too easily into the field of branding and marketing. What I believe is taking place is that people are not only creating new cultures to describe themselves, their histories, places, times, legacies, families, etc., they are also attempting to tap these creations into a larger cultural framework that we all share. The questions we then need to ask ourselves is: what cultural terroir is being reflected by a given wine, and what about this cultural terroir moves me? It is only when we can find the answers to these two questions that we can begin to learn something about the wines we drink, ourselves and our culture.