One of the most popular programmes on BBC Radio 4 is Desert Island Discs, which is presented by Kirsty Young. It has been running forever (since 1942), and the idea behind it is that a notable person undergoes a biographical interview punctuated by eight pieces of music that they’d choose to take with them if they were to be sent to a desert island (these are the ‘discs’: this only really works with vinyl). I recently caught the episode with Ali Smith, the writer. As usual, it was interesting to listen to: this format works well for an extended interview. But one interchange in particular struck me:
Smith: Stories are incredibly powerful. We think we live; that we are just going along from day to day. Actually, we live by telling ourselves stories about the lives we are living. We take in, like sponges, the stories that come at us on all the waves – the TV, radio, internet – everything is a kind of story, which all adds to the story which is supposed to be the story of each individual’s life. So it is not surprising that if the stories are good, and they come at us and we are the sponges that take the stories in, then we will feel better about it. And those stories are coming at us, and us being so porous, if we aren’t careful with our stories then we will probably block our pores.
Young: If there are right stories, then by definition there are wrong stories that can do harm. That seems quite a curious thing for a writer to say.
Smith: We have to know that our lives are narrated to us, and also the way that we narrate lives around us. It is all construct. As soon as we become aware of that, we can do whatever we like with the construct: we can change it if we need to, we can stay with it if we like it, we can change bits of it. In other words, it empowers us. So if we are not careful, stories will take the shirts off our back, but if we are careful, the stories will see us through like boats on whatever surface the sea is doing.
The idea here is one I’ve been interested in for a while. It is stories that mould us, and if we want to change, then we need to retell these stories – or absorb and integrate fresh ones. You can’t change people’s minds by presenting them with facts. You have to use stories.
There is very little that is neutral in our culture, and in the media. Most information we are exposed to comes with narrative attached. As Smith points out, we are like story sponges. We soak up narrative and it becomes part of us.
Our culture is full of these stories and, inevitably, we pick them up. At the moment, the world is focused on what has just happened in the US political arena. For many of us it is hard to see how anyone could have found Trump a plausible candidate for any public office, yet we forget that the average Trump supporter has been soaking up very different stories, and their belief in the man – which is astonishing to us – is a result of sponging up what many readers will regard as ‘bad’ narratives.
I’m interested in stories and how they apply to wine. I think there are similar narratives in wine that influence how we feel about certain regions and styles of wine. A great example of wine storytelling is Kermit Lynch’s excellent Adventures on the Wine Route. This narrative has, I think, had a strong impact on the world of wine, particularly for those Americans who know of Lynch and have read the book. The quest for real, authentic and natural wine is, remember, a relatively recent one.
I like to think we are moving away from the points system. The idea that a wine can be summed up usefully in a points score is absurd, although a score of some sort is useful in that it helps readers know how much you liked the wine. Wine is so diverse, and the story of wine that has at its centre the notion that a wine can be of a place, is a powerful narrative. I buy a Chablis and celebrate its Chablis-like essence. A good Chablis is one that is a sensible, skilled interpretation of that place.
To suggest that the merit of a wine is how much you ‘enjoy’ the flavour, and how much hedonic appeal it has, is nonsense. If you view the destination as 100 points, a wine that is perfect, then it reduces place to merely a means of helping create this perfect wine, and not as something important in its own right.
Do wine journalists matter? I think so, and it’s not just because of the way their recommendations affect the sale of specific wines. It’s because good journalists tell stories, and this narrative then shapes how people feel about regions, varieties, producers and vintages. Just as Smith points out, there are good narratives and bad ones. As journalists, and as a wine trade, we need to be careful that we are telling the right sorts of stories.