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Telling a story? Some are better than others



There’s long been this meme out there that “story telling” is the key to wine marketing and P.R. The theory goes that we humans are social critters who like hearing about each other. So wineries have been urged to “tell their stories.” This is why their newsletters and websites talk about the family dog, or the owners’ new grandchild, or the Mexican vineyard director who’s been with the winery for 23 years.

Stories are nice things, and I’m not saying that wineries shouldn’t tell them. But there’s always been something suspect about the theory that stories boost sales. The first fallacy is this: Since everybody has a story, if they’re all telling them, then they all cancel each out, resulting in a net effect of zero.

Are some stories inherently more interesting than others? I suppose so. I mean, human interest gravitates toward tales about redemption and struggle; the story of a blind winemaker is more touching than that of yet another multi-millionaire who decides to buy a lifestyle and then tells everybody about it in agonizingly pretentious detail. (“Bob and Mary tired of life in their Beverly Hills mansion, so they bought 120 acres on Pritchard Hill and…” Well, we’ve all heard versions of that one a little too often, haven’t we?)

Still, they story-telling myth persists. Yesterday, I got a blast email from a marketing company that contained this link to an article entitled “The Art and Power of Digital Storytelling.” It held some undeniable truths: “One of the most valuable skills any writer and content producer may have is the ability to tell a story. Good stories draw the audience in. Great stories make them care. And when people care, they share those stories—and keep coming back for more.”

Now, it’s hard to deny any of this. Humans sat around fires in caves tens of thousands of years ago listening to stories. Maybe the men folk described how one of them died while hunting this woolly Mammoth they were all eating now. Maybe a shaman told how the sun god jumped up onto the back of a turtle every morning, thereby assuring the continuity of life. Even today, a good story told ‘round the dinner table will get everyone laughing. And every Saturday or Sunday morning, in church or synagogue, a priest, minister or rabbi tells stories to enlighten and inspire.

It’s hard for me to put my finger on exactly what I find so cynical or off-putting about using stories to sell products. It’s even more than that: it’s when consultants, who earn their living at this sort of stuff, tell their clients to use stories to sell products, and then hire them to do it. I like and respect P.R. and marketing, but when I see this sort of thing, it creeps me out. For example, in the above-cited article, one piece of advice the author gives is for story tellers to “Find the humanity at the center of a situation.” Now, speaking as a journalist, I can tell you that if you’re writing a story about someone, if there’s something intensely human at its core, that will make the story better. Indeed, it’s hardly worth writing otherwise. The other day, I was reading a story in the San Francisco Chronicle about inner-city teens who are managing to create lives for themselves despite the grinding poverty and fearsome crime rates of some of our cities. (I live in Oakland and this is of particular resonance to me.) There are some truly inspirational stories about kids, and the brave, committed mentors who are trying to help them.

But it’s a lot different telling a story about winery owners who, let’s face it, are usually affluent, haven’t particularly suffered, don’t have much inspiration to offer, and who, after all is said and done, are telling their stories in order to sell their wines! In fact, in the article, it says the author should ask himself or herself “What is the point of telling this story?” Good question. Is the point to sell wine? That’s not a very good reason to tell a story. Well, maybe it is, from the proprietor’s point of view, but it’s not a very good reason for anyone to read it, much less to “keep coming back for more.”

Incidentally, have you noticed a very important issue that’s been absent from this discussion? Quality. You can have the best story in the world, and if you’re making mediocre wine, nobody cares anyway, unless all they care about is a “story.”

  1. Interesting article. That’s why I don’t put wine descriptions or any other winery story on my labels. I typically don’t put a lot of information on my tech-sheets either except for just the basics.
    I guess critics want that stuff because they get some type of intellectual equity out of it but in reality it shouldn’t matter one way or the other. The product is what it is.

    In terms of telling stories to sell wine, what bothers me most is winemakers (or owners) that come up with a story and then that story dictates the winemaking. It should be that your winemaking is determined by the fruit you have and stylistically what would be best based on that. The story, if you wish to share it, comes later.


  2. Sao Anash says:

    “But it’s a lot different telling a story about winery owners who, let’s face it, are usually affluent, haven’t particularly suffered, don’t have much inspiration to offer, and who, after all is said and done, are telling their stories in order to sell their wines!”

    I was going to comment about this privately in an email to you, but I felt strongly enough about your quote above to make my reply public.

    While I understand that it’s sometimes important for the authors of daily content to stir controversy in order to drive traffic, even I, a publicist and marketing person, found your above quote cynical and surprising.

    Surely, as an intelligent person, you realize the faulty thinking behind sweeping generalizations like winery owners not having “particularly suffered” or not having “much inspiration to offer…”

    You are equating suffering and inspiration with lack of material resources. In point of fact, as humans, we all suffer and we all long to be inspired.

    I know wealthy winery owners who have tragically lost loved ones too soon or have loved ones who suffer with mental illness; who themselves have health issues, or struggle with insecurities often beyond our understanding. And, for many winery owners, they find inspiration in Mother Nature and in wanting to tell her story in a bottle of wine. And, in turn, their stories become compelling because they are trying to marry nature with art in their own way, in their own time, which is never an easy journey, no matter how much money you have.

    There is no shame in telling one’s story in the hopes that like-minded individuals will want to explore what one has to offer; be it buying a CD by an singer who has a story to tell; buying a painting by an artist who has a story to tell; buying a dress by a designer who has a story to tell, or buying a wine by a winery owner who has a story to tell.

    Should you want to come back with the argument that winery owners are more like record companies, gallery owners and atelier owners, bear in mind that many of them are frustrated artists themselves (in its own way, a burden that often causes quiet suffering) and want to facilitate creativity in others.

    Yes, there are winery owners who are affluent, just as their are publishers who are affluent. Would you be comfortable saying that most publishers are not inspired or have never suffered much?

    Steve, you’re a compassionate person who loves to hear winemakers and winery owners’ stories. The need for daily content is perhaps overriding your heart in this instance?

  3. Christian Ahlmann says:

    Good post Steve.

    Is a story relevant? I think yes. Your post reminds me of Simon Sinek’s commentary on “the power of WHY.” (In summary, people don’t care what you do or how you do it, unless they care WHY you do it.)

    People need your story to know if they agree with your WHY. If they agree, they will pay you, join you and refer you. If they don’t, they will walk.

    “I’m filthy rich and I want to show off” is not a good WHY. It only attracts others that want to be “filthy rich.” Those make bad wine club parties. “I want to make money” is no good either. Money is never a good WHY, and it shows ignorance because the wine business is not the best place to make it.

    But “I love the vines, the smell of the soil and the dew on the leaves” is pretty good. People can buy into that. Or, “we believe every kid should have a pair of shoes” (Toms) is good too. Or “I love wine, and I blog to share it with others so they can love it too.”

    So, to answer your question, I do think a story matters, and some stores are better than others.

    Thank you for the post!

  4. I don’t think anyone is suggesting that wineries focus more on story than on making quality wine, though I think that the power of a quality story might do more for selling the wine, if the wine is at least mediocre.

    I agree, however, that the story meme is beginning to sound hollow; its becoming a cliche, but that doesn’t change the truth of it. Another truth is that delivering a compelling story may be more difficult than making a quality wine.

    There are examples out there wineries succeeding in bonding with their customers through their story, because the reason that stories work for marketing is that stories increase the value of the wine experience.

    When pouring a wine, most people would rather say, “this wine is from vineyards planted by the first settlers of x 200 years ago,” than, “I got this at the Bevmo 5 cent sale.”

  5. Good article! And some thoughtful and insightful replies too.

    My thoughts are storytelling is great when focused on the product and linking what is in the glass back to nature and the resources which produced it. I want to know about my wine, I want to know where it came from and how it came to be…

    I don’t find stories about the owners all that compelling. I don’t really care if they are disaffected rich folks looking to escape the “rigors of business” or if they are artists who’ve slept in cardboard boxes to pursue their dreams. Those don’t matter to me all that much. I don’t care about the winery dog, or the new grandchild (unless I personally know the people). Those are not stories I care about and they feel overplayed worn out and becoming a false thing.

    So, storytelling matters. But I think it is the topic and the subject of the storytelling that matters most. And how well this story really reflects the reality of the product and experience.

    But that is just my perspective and I am a sample size of one.

    keep up the good work!

  6. Dear Chris, thanks for the comment!

  7. Wine Australia held their first big wine conference (combo of the tasting and business workshops) for a long time last month in Adelaide. By Day 3 of the conference I thought I would be sick if someone made another off-the-cuff shallow comment about “telling your story”. And then someone tweeted they would be sick,
    “Anthony Madigan ‏@anthonyjmadigan 17 Sep
    Tell stories tell stories tell stories tell stories tell stories. If I hear that one more time I’ll vomit. Actually… #savouroz #bignight”

    “Story” has become a wine industry buzz word never fully explained (he business world actually has another phrase, “added value”, that is used similarly often and poorly).

    Like some of the commenters above, saying you “need a story” has to be explained, not just used as a thoughtless phrase cast about like a poor doctor prescribing antibiotics. For instance, this reply to Anthony’s tweet,
    “Angie Bradbury ‏angiekbradbury 17 Sep
    @anthonyjmadigan how about verbally communicate your uniquely differentiating consumer proposition instead?!! ”

    If, as Matt Kramer has put it, most premium wines are already 4 star wines, and if very few are finding that fifth star, you need to find another way to differentiate your wine against 1000s of other great wines. It’s called brand management. So, what’s your story, I mean, your uniquely differentiating consumer proposition?

  8. Thanks Bruce. Lots to think about in what you wrote.

  9. Sao,

    Steve is not going to reply to your reasoned argument because he prefers not to look at or discuss actual facts. The fact that “rich” people might have come from nothing, and through hard work and/or great ideas end up wealthy seems to be foreign to him.

    Better to dismiss them and figure out how to tax them so he can enjoy some advantage of their success without having to sweat it himself.

  10. Sao, you make some good points, and perhaps I did paint winery owners with a broad brush. But keep in mind that my remarks were based on many years of experience. The point is that these stories have a monotonous sameness, as some of the other comments here point out. And I do not delberately try to stir up contoversy on my blog. What I write about on any given day is what I’m thinking and feeling.

  11. Bob Henry says:


    Your statement . . .

    “But there’s always been something suspect about the theory that stories boost sales. The first fallacy is this: Since everybody has a story, if they’re all telling them, then they all cancel each out, resulting in a net effect of zero.”

    . . . mistakenly assumes that all winery stories are being told at all, being told well, and with the same level of financial resources.

    Marketplace evidence tells us otherwise.

    All marketing is “storytelling.” It honors the first rule of marketing: differentiation. Answering the prospective buyer’s hard-nosed question: “Why should I buy from YOU instead of from your competition?”

    [ Backgrounder: ]

    Only the largest wineries can afford national or regional multimillion dollar paid media advertising campaigns.

    Your favorite “boutique” winery has no budget “line item” for advertising.

    Their single largest (many times sole) marketing expenditure targets “gatekeeper” distributors and retailers and restaurateurs in persuading them to carry their brand.

    And that starts with a “boots on the ground” sales force knocking on doors to secure retail store shelf and restaurant wine list placements.

    (Making appearances at consumer-oriented charity winetasting events is an infrequent and tertiary expenditure.)

    Because the myopic Field of Dreams-like “If you build it, he will come” orientation historically has been invalidated by the marketplace.

    Products simply don’t sell themselves . . .

    ~~ Bob

  12. Bob Henry, there’s a magical quality to why some brands succeed and some don’t. Also, why some brands last and some don’t. I think it’s very complicated and I personally resist reducing it to a simple formula like “tell your story” or “do social media.”

  13. Bob Henry says:


    A postscript.

    “Products simply don’t sell themselves . . .”

    The poster child for this fallacy: the debacle at Treasury Wine Estates.

    For the benefit of your readers:

    “Treasury Wine Slumps After A$160 Million Writedown”

    Summary: Treasury Wine Estates Ltd., the world’s second-largest listed wine company, fell the most since a 2011 listing after saying it would write off A$160 million ($145 million) to get rid of old and out-of-date bottles.

    [ Link: ]

    “Treasury Wine Estates CEO ousted after $33 million wine dump”

    Summary: Treasury Wine Estates CEO David Dearie was ousted Monday following his decision to destroy about $33 million in unsold wine that was past its prime.

    [ Link: ]

    ~~ Bob

  14. Christian Ahlmann says:

    A magical success formula? How about: Revenue > Expenses !

  15. Bob Henry says:


    I agree: there is no “magic bullet” to effectively marketing one’s wine brand.

    Not exclusively personal selling. (“Boots on the ground.”)

    Not exclusively impersonal selling. (Paid media ad campaigns.)

    Not exclusively sponsorships at charity events.

    Not exclusively mailing list patrons.

    Not exclusively social media.

    A winery owner needs to “leverage” all of the sales tools available.

    ~~ Bob

  16. Bob Henry says:


    Your formula . . .

    “Revenue > Expenses !”

    . . . fails to include a sufficient return on one’s investment, if revenue barely exceeds expenses. That’s operating at the break-even point.

    Businesses don’t aspire to break-even. They aspire to earn a profit.

    That’s the incentive for taking on the multi-year (sometimes multidecade) long risk.

    Dennis Groth, a CPA and Napa Valley winery founder, publicized his operating revenue and expense numbers for any to see in a 25-year-old newspaper profile.

    From Los Angeles Times “Business” Section
    (June 15, 1988, Page C3ff):

    “Profit a Key Ingredient of Fine Wines”

    [ Link: ]

    By Bruce Keppel
    Times Staff Writer

    Dennis Groth prices his Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon to sell for $13 retail. That price, he said, will net his family’s young winery here just 34 cents a bottle in profit.

    . . .

    ~~ Bob

  17. Christian: ” Revenue > Expenses !” Now why didn’t I think of that?

  18. Bob Henry says:

    Steve and your readers,

    One such “gatekeeper” that has to be persuaded:

    “The Man Behind Whole Foods’ Wine Department”

    Summary: Doug Bell chats about current trends in eco-friendly wine-and what America needs to catch up on

    [ Link: ]

    ~~ Bob

  19. Christian Ahlmann says:

    Bob, you’re ahead of the pack. For many wineries, break-even sounds pretty good! ROI? Isn’t that what happens if and when you sell? =) Interesting article though. Thank you for sharing. Christian.

  20. Bob Henry says:


    You’re welcome.

    It is the Field of Dreams myopia that gives credence to that timeless saying:

    “How do you make a small fortune in the wine industry? Start with a big fortune.”

    If your business model doesn’t allow you to generate a ROI, then the only other reasons to get into the wine industry as a grower-producer is (1) lifestyle and (2) vanity/ego.

    Just because you were a successful [fill-in-the-blank vocation], a veritable titan in your former industry . . . and you like wine . . . doesn’t mean you can translate that prior success and knowledge into owning a vineyard and winery.

    Wineries are personal wealth-destroying ventures in the hands of the dilettantes and arrivistes. (So, too, restaurants.)

    Such ill-considered endeavors ignores one’s “core competencies.”

    ~~ Bob

  21. george kaplan says:

    I found that Clive Coates’s approach to Burgundy by owner and winemaker and what they were trying to do was far more valuable in learning about the region than, say, Wine Advocate’s approach.

  22. Bob Henry says:


    When reading Clive Coates, M.W., understand that his scores are “relative.”

    A “19 point” wine in an “off” vintage in Burgundy is not qualitatively “equal” to a “19 point” wine in a “great” vintage.

    Coates ranks wines within the vintage — not across them.

    A close-reading nuance that gets lost on many consumers who aren’t aware of this orientation, and are less conversant with the reputations of vintages.

    Robert Parker, by contrast, scores wines on an “absolute” scale across vintages.

    A “90 point” wine is a “90 point” wine in both an “off” vintage and a “great” vinhtage.”

    As he explained in a 1989 interview with Wine Times magazine (citing Burgundy as an example):

    PARKER: It’s a fairly methodical [scoring] system. The wine gets up to 5 points on color, up to 15 on bouquet and aroma, and up to 20 points on flavor, harmony and length. And that gets you 40 points right there. And then the [balance of] 10 points are . . . simply awarded to wines that have the ability to improve in the bottle. This is sort of arbitrary and gets me into trouble.

    WINE TIMES: You mean when you are in the cellars of Burgundy, you look at a wine and say this is a 4 for color, a 14 for bouquet, and so on [ ? ]

    PARKER: Yes, most of the times. What happens is that I’ve done so many wines by now that I know virtually right away that it’s, say, upper 80s, and you sort of start working backwards. And color now is sort of an academic issue. The technology of color is refined and most color is fine. My system applies best to young wines because older wines, once they’ve passed their prime, end up getting lower scores.

    . . .

    WINE TIMES: How do you determine merit versus value in a wine? Are there wines that will never get an 85? How do you compare the Chenin Blancs of the world with the . . . [ question interrupted ]

    PARKER: I had the two best Chenin Blancs I ever tasted out of California last year, and one [1987 vintage Preston] got 87, I think, and the other [1987 vintage Pine Ridge] 86, and they were both $6 bottles of wine. . . .

    WINE TIMES: You are arguing price versus quality. Take a $30 bottle [of] wine. To get an 87 does it have to show much better than a $7 bottle?

    PARKER: No. It’s one man’s opinion, but I think that 87-point [1987 vintage Preston] Chenin Blanc can go right on the table next to a Leflaive white Burgundy rated 87. THEY WILL GIVE YOU DIFFERENT SETS OF FLAVOR, BUT THEY ARE EVERY BIT AS GOOD AS EACH OTHER. That’s the way the system was meant to work. [CAPITALIZATION added for emphasis. – Bob]

    . . .

    ~~ Bob

  23. Dude, this is kind of backward.

    Quality is pretty much the price of entry. The juice has to at least be reasonably good, because there is just too much competition now.

    After that, story is what distinguishes a product and makes it unique, easier to explain and sell, and resonates with people.

    Of course, some stories aren’t really stories, they’re marketing spiel. But others are really interesting, touching, great stories. I think it’s getting easier and easier for consumers to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to that.

  24. george kaplan says:

    Bob, thanks for that, though I knew it. My point was that,at least 20 or so years ago when I went Burg, it was for its variety and the different expressions of pinot in the region. Coates used terms like very good plus and excellent , which turned out to be pretty close to what I ended up concluding myself. He put me onto some great deals on 1991 and later 2001 Grand Crus that I’ve gotten great value for money out of. Parker not so much: many wines he’s praised, laden with bacon and chocolate( two wonderful things that don’t go together) have aged badly to my taste.

  25. Bob Henry says:


    Regarding this sentence:

    “Parker . . . praised [wines], laden with bacon and chocolate (two wonderful things that don’t go together) have aged badly to my taste.”

    Many of the red Burgundies dating back to the 1991 vintage when you first started buying were afflicted with brett, giving them the “bacon” aroma and flavor you noted. (Likewise Rhones.)

    If as a collector you wanted to play in that sandbox, accepting brett was the proverbial price of admission for vintages of that period.

    For a third opinion on the 1991 vintage, you can turn to Decanter magazine.

    1962 to 2008 vintages:

    1991 vintage specifically:

    2001 vintage specifically:

    (Aside: I was blessed in having a Burgundy mentor who was personal friends with Henri Jayer, and who munificently shared his knowledge and wine cellar with me. And tying this thought to another Steve wine blog posting, “Millennials” won’t have that luxury in seeking “wine sherpas.”)

    ~~ Bob

  26. Bob Henry says:


    In a comment above I wrote: “Wineries are personal wealth-destroying ventures in the hands of the dilettantes and arrivistes.”

    Mother Nature is also a personal wealth-destroyer.

    (Paraphrasing a quote from the late, great wine professor-turned-vintner Joe Heitz: “Mother Nature is a mean old bitch who, if left to her devices, would turn wine into vinegar.”)

    This is why, more than ever, your business model HAS to engineer in profitability to survive the setbacks. To do otherwise is foolishness.

    “Ripped from the headlines” this week . . .

    “Freak Grape-Razing Hail Crushes Burgundy Winemakers’ Dreams”

    Summary: As grape harvests get under way this week, the damage caused by a single hailstorm that pummeled the area around 4 p.m. on July 23 has ruined the likes of Rouxel and hit sections of France’s 8 billion-euro ($10.9 billion) wine industry hard.


    “Emergency declared in Chile after worst frosts in 84 years”

    Summary: Chile has declared a state of emergency after its worst frosts in 84 years have caused an estimated US$1 billion worth of damage to grapes and fruit crops.


    “When a new technology saved the French wine industry”

    Summary: Amy Harmon’s excellent article in the New York Times describes how the Florida orange juice industry may soon be wiped out because of a new bacterial disease spread by an introduced insect. There could be a technology fix for the problem using genetic engineering, but the question is whether the growers will get to apply that solution.


    “Vineyards take action as climate change threatens wines and livelihoods”

    Summary: As growing conditions are altered, grape production is beginning to shift to new areas long associated with regions further south.


    And to the above litany of woes the earlier reports of hail and rain damage in Bordeaux and Alsace.

    ~~ Bob

  27. Bob Henry says:


    If you had purchased the very best of 1991 red Burgundies, what might your drinking experience have been like?

    One man’s anecdote:

    “Dirk Niepoort & 1991 La Tache” on Wine Searcher


    ~~ Bob

  28. Bob Henry says:

    Postscript to “Products simply don’t sell themselves . . .”

    “Hit the road, Jack!”

    Summmary: Wine doesn’t sell itself — especially Bordeaux right now — so it’s time to see some customers.



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