The Wine Storytellers have Abandoned their Posts.

Holy? Or hamburger?

Holy? Or hamburger?

In The Culture Code, psychiatrist cum brand consultant, Clotaire Rapaillle, explains how identical products can be seen in vastly different ways, depending upon the culture in which the product is being consumed.

One example he uses is cheese. In his native country, France, cheese is connected to life. It is seen as a living food, enjoyed at room temperature and consumed raw. However, in the U.S., cheese has a connection closer to death, in terms of metaphor. It is served cold and dead, retrieved like a cadaver from a sterile, refrigerated container.

The Europeans view cheese differently than the shrink-wrapped Kraft single crowd.

The Europeans view cheese differently than the shrink-wrapped Kraft single crowd.

In Rapel’s example, we see how the cultural practices of the people who consume cheese affect its preparation, storage and consumption. Another more-commonly known example of a cultural narrative in action surrounds beef. In traditional Hindi cultures, the cow is a sacred animal. In the U.S., cows have to carry signs encouraging people to eat more chicken.

Same object. Different storytelling. Different view of the product.

This, of course, brings us to some questions that very few wine brands seem to be addressing: what is the cultural narrative surrounding wine consumption? Do we, as an industry, endorse these stories? And (more importantly), if we don’t, what the hell are we doing about it?


Cannon used Jamie Lee Curtis to spin a new narrative around yogurt brand Activa.

Dannon used Jamie Lee Curtis to spin a new narrative around yogurt brand Activa.

Few people would have considered ingesting a blob of bacterial slurry every morning. But change the narrative and you can change behavior.

Old narrative = yogurt is something health nuts eat.

New narrative = good bacteria helps you go boom boom.

Dannon was able to sell a lot of yogurt by repositioning it through Jamie Lee Curtis’ storytelling. When people realized that they wanted to emulate an aspect of that story (active lifestyle via good digestive health), they responded.

Legal woes aside (it seems Dannon may have overstated some of their claims), this is a perfect example of how shaping a cultural narrative can be a means to selling a product as an end.


The point here is that, if a winemaker, retailer or marketer is having a tough time selling wine X, don’t blame the wine. Blame the storytelling.

imagesThe wine director of Costco, Annette Alverez-Peters, once infamously said that, at the end of the day, wine is just a drink. That’s a terrible quote for the general public to hear. That’s like saying to an American that apple pie is just a dessert. Her statement reveals a lack of understanding about the power of narrative surrounding the wine brands for which she is responsible.

Unfortunately, the only people who are affecting the cultural narrative surrounding wine these days are the television writers. In this interesting piece by the Times’ Eric Asimov, he explores how red wine has become a standard prop for women characters on television. Asimnov is a wine expert, not a brand guy, so he doesn’t explore the archetypal narratives or symbolism at play in the storytelling. But his article should raise a red flag among wine marketers.

Asimnov’s thesis is that red wine has become synonymous with power women who knock back wine like lemonade in July. The narrative being written, therefore, is:

  • wine is a drug for stressed-out power brokers
  • red wine is for women
  • white wine is for no one
  • wine should be inhaled, not savored

valium_2559867bIs this really how the wine industry wants the American culture to view wine? Are we going to abandon the more positive narratives that include a slower-paced life, time with family, and thoughtful consumption? (Narratives that winemakers like Wes Hagen work hard to push.)

If we want wine to occupy a loftier position than where it is now (with the general public), we’re going to need the wine industry to employ better storytelling than what we currently see on network television. We need wine brands to push for appropriate product placement. We need more celebrity spokespeople (like the Coppolas and Jolie/Pitt). We need cobranding efforts with food manufacturers. We need ads running during Anthony Bourdain is Upset about Something on CNN.

Wine is not simply a drink. It has, and will continue to be, an important symbol that can feature prominently into the cultures that enjoy it. Its place within that culture, however, will be determined by the storytellers who create the narratives surrounding it.

Wine storytellers, where are you when we need you?

The SWIRLosopher is Sean Trapani, a professor emeritus of advertising who - despite a degree in philosophy - has abandoned all reason and is trying to make a living in the wine business.

Ape Artwork (c) 2014 Walter Moore, used with permission.