The Oral Traditions of Wine

Orality – That which characterizes speech; a culture characterized by the primacy of speech over other forms of signification. Usually opposed to literacy, orality refers to those aspects of a culture’s way of life that are attributable to its investment in the resources of spoken language. These may include formal ways of organizing thought (myth) or knowledge (magic); or they may be associated with rhetorical and other systems for fixing and transmitting sense.”

– from Key Concepts in Communications and Culture Studies by Tim O’Sullivan et al, 1994.

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Rhys Pender, MW, at Clos du Soleil’s first vertical tasting.

Working in wine sales, I have noticed that much of what I do revolves around talking. Lots of talking. When I leave work after going “Blah blah blah blah” all day, I relish the time on the motorcycle heading home, where talking out loud is utterly useless and I can take pleasure from just shutting up. All the wineries and stores where I’ve worked have lots of things to read (back labels, magazines, books, rack cards) but I’ve noticed that people don’t seem to pay attention to those as much. Even those eager customers who carry notebooks around for their tasting notes are few and far between. People seem to make purchasing decisions based on the experience of tasting the wines and on the stories and descriptions told to them by their friends or wine shop person behind the bar.

I’ve included stories from friends as an influence here because I don’t want to put too much emphasis on the influence of the wine shop person, who has a vested financial interest in making sure that the wine is appealing. That’s their (my) job. While it is unlikely that a person selling wine can ever make someone purchase a wine that has a taste that repulses them, it is possible that that person can enhance the tasting experience itself enough to make it more pleasurable than it might be otherwise. Ever get home from wine trip and and find that the wine doesn’t really taste like you remember in the wine shop? There could be a few factors at work there (bottle variance, travel shock, etc) but the presentation (the stories of the wines / sales pitch) are a part of that experience and therefore somewhat influential on the perception of the wine at that moment.

This has been my experience especially when asking people to try two wine styles about which they have huge preconceived notions and would otherwise refuse to taste – oaked chardonnays and rosés. These are two different styles of wine that have had huge backlash over the recent decades and there are still people who prejudge the modern examples based on past experiences. Oaked chards will always be “vanilla wine with some grapes added” and rosés will always be sweet “Mateus” or “White Zin” (depending on the person’s age). I’ve noticed that how I introduce these particular styles of wine has everything to with how they will be perceived. I happen to enjoy both of those types of wines and perhaps my enthusiasm for them is somehow infectious. Who knows how effective I would be at selling those wines were I not to be as fond of those styles?

Andrea Robinson, Master Sommelier, wine writer, and Andreawine.com

Andrea Robinson, Master Sommelier, wine writer, at the Wine Bloggers Conference 2010

Preferences and tastes are individual. Everyone behind the wine bar has had different experiences with wine and with the wines that they are talking about. Most of them at least like wine and a lot of them (in BC at least) are selling wine for a casual summer job because they are retired or are students. Others enjoy learning about everything that wine has to offer and are focused entirely on every aspect of it from start to finish. Regardless of where the person behind the bar is coming from, everyone has a unique perspective that they use to tell the “story” of the wine at the bar. Because these kinds of interactions are essentially verbal only, I believe that wine sales is an intensely oral tradition rather than a written tradition. I think a big part of wine culture itself is also oral in nature and that most people have experienced wine this way. How many books on wine do most people read? Terry Theise’s Reading Between the Wines has never made the Times best seller list at any point but I think every wine lover should read it. Most people will have more experience talking about wine than reading it. Just like the fish that was THAT BIG, the stories can get a little convoluted.

There’s a game that I used to play at summer camps called Telephone. We would all sit in a line or circle and the leader would whisper a phrase to the person at the head of the line, who would then turn around and whisper that to the next person. The message would get whispered from person to person all the way through the line until the last person who would say out loud what they heard. Without fail the original message of “Swimming in the lake is fun!” would mutate into “Weasels like to bake pies!” and everyone would laugh hysterically.

Just like that camp game, the message that people hear can sometimes get muddled. Oral communication is tricky that way, especially coming out of an age where oral communication has been relatively rare. Sure, we’ve all been talking the whole time but can we all listen with the attentiveness before technology (recordings) allowed us to hear things repeated back verbatim? But that’s an article for a whole other kind of blog…

Technology and social media is bringing back a kind of oral tradition (called Secondary orality by Walter Ong) which perhaps explains some of the appeal of platforms like Twitter and Facebook. On these platforms, ‘facts’ are debatably not the same as ‘facts’ that we would read in a newspaper article or peer-reviewed published work. (Of course, what constitutes a ‘fact’ is another argument altogether.)

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Roie Manoff behind the bar at Silkscarf Winery in Summerland.

People remember stories that they hear (such as from wine shop sales people) and think that they are ‘facts’. I saw a tweet the other day from someone who had had the ‘facts’ somewhat turned-around from the ‘facts’ as I think I know it. It was a photo of a bottle of Merlot and the tweet mentioned something about the Merlot coming from the oldest vines in the Okanagan. As it happens, I used to work at the winery where that particular Merlot came from and that particular bottle was definitely not from the oldest vines in the Okanagan. That winery made two Merlots and the tweet featured the lesser priced version of the two (which was blended from across unknown number of vineyards of any possible age).

The problem isn’t with the customer getting their facts straight. Perhaps they heard them talking about the other, more expensive Merlot and got them confused. But the less than truthful information could have mutated well before that, confused in the mind of the person who happened to be telling them the story – i.e. the wine shop person who sold them the wine. Wine shop people are told to tell “the story” of the wine, which comes from the viticulturist / wine maker to the wine shop sales personnel (through any number of communications or marketing managers). Just like in that camp game of telephone, ‘the story’ can be easily and inadvertently altered at the beginning with more changes happening over the course of the summer as the same story gets told over and over again by the same person.

There is also the issue of where that ‘story’ comes from. Was it from the wine maker? Winery owner? The communications manager? PR person? Director of Sales? Wine shop manager? They all have a reason to include or exclude certain facts for various reasons. Some wine makers are secretive while others are openly candid. Who’s version of the story will be ‘the story’? Will it really impact how the customer appreciates the wine?

From my experience, it absolutely will. Anyone who has had a bad experience in a wine shop or with a particular wine will not only have trouble trying that winery’s wines again but will also have their own story to tell. I explored that recently in a post about expectations in the wine shop wherein that oral storytelling tradition has been integrated into the megaphone of social media platforms. In that case, do the ‘facts’ really even matter all that much?

Perhaps all sales, not just in the wine shop, are part of a tradition of orality. I find it fascinating how this aspect of our human nature (humans have been an oral species far longer than a literate one) is present in a culture based around an age-old beverage like wine.

Cheers from wine country!
~Luke

3 thoughts on “The Oral Traditions of Wine

  1. Pingback: Correct Wine Pronunciations | Wine Country BC

  2. I’ve always believed that every wine tells a story…but not the story of how it was made, what vines it came from, what it was blended with, or what kind of oak it was aged in, blah, blah, blah…it has to be about what we are getting in THAT glass of wine at that exact moment, and if you’re passionate about THAT glass of wine, you’ll impress the customer, they’ll believe it because they now WANT to believe it and that bottle will ultimately sell itself…great points Luke and well written. It’s all so true!

    • Thanks Marcia! Great points! Wine is sometimes moment to moment (some wines more than others). That’s actually part of another article that I’m writing now. Are you psychic or something? 😉

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