John Lambie, who was the manager of Scottish football club Partick Thistle, is credited with one of the most well known sporting quotes. On being informed by his medical team that the Thistle striker was concussed to the extent he couldn’t remember his own name, Lambie replied, ‘Tell him he’s Pele and get him back on.’ [For the benefit of readers who know nothing about football, Pele is the most famous player of all time.] It raises an interesting point: to what degree does our sense of identity, and how we see ourselves in relation to the world, affect our thinking, behaviour and performance?
Significantly, I think, because we understand the world around us in terms of stories.
We have an internal narrative – a set of stories about how the world around us works – and it is through the lens of this narrative that we interpret reality. This filtering of experience, and the process of fitting it into our own internal story framework, gives each of us a unique perspective on the world. To some degree we share our worldview with our friends and family, but many aspects of it are personal to us.
Of course, most of the time we don’t realize this. We consider our perspective to be indistinguishable from reality, and we are surprised when others see things quite differently. This is frequently the source of conflict in relationships. We interpret the motivation and actions of others through our own narrative. We also use confirmation bias to back up our own perspective. Very few people are good at stepping back from a situation and trying to see it from a perspective other than their own. And few realise quite how distorted their thinking is by their own narrative theme.
This is shown clearly when it comes to political discourse. In the UK, we’ll soon be in the run up to a general election, and the various parties will be outlining their policies and telling potential voters how badly wrong the other parties have got it. To those who have strong political allegiances, the discourse of their own party will usually make complete sense, and they will wonder how on earth anyone could fail to see that this is the way forward. There’s a self-consistent narrative that supporters of a party have bought into and have grown up with, and from that perspective it is very hard to understand the perspective of other parties. Each new fact and each new event is understood in terms of this narrative, and is slotted into place according to the underlying story of how the world works. Confirmation bias solidifies this worldview. This is why it is so hard to have a political discussion: all you get is a clash of narratives.
Religion is, of course, all about narratives. Interestingly, the notion of religious conversion illustrates the importance of stories. It’s possible to explain conversion as the change in perspective that comes from the retelling of stories. Someone who changes their way decides that their existing narrative isn’t working, or is unhelpful, and they swap it for another. Interestingly, the teachings of Jesus were often in the form of stories. It we are presented with facts, they present no danger to our internal narratives, because we are quite used to taking in facts after having fitted them into our own perspective. Stories, however, are more dangerous: as we listen to them, we are drawn in and we begin to see things from the perspective of others. Good stories have the power to change our narrative. It is through the taking in of stories that we are able to retell our own story from a fresh perspective, and suddenly change is possible. This is why the arts are so important. Information and facts don’t change people. Stories, and the arts more generally, do.
How does this relate to wine? We interpret and understand wine in light of our own narratives. The appreciation of wine isn’t just about what tastes good. What does it take to make a wine a ‘great’ wine or a ‘fine’ wine? The judgement of wine quality can only exist within the framework of an aesthetic system – a narrative that has built up recognizing certain features of the wine as desirable, and which also has things to say about where the wine came from and how it was produced.
So we find different narratives in the world of wine, which overlap to some extent, but which also differ significantly. And when these narratives clash, we have controversies. There’s the classic fine wine narrative, where great wines are produced in Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. Then we have the Robert Parker narrative: the English fine wine establishment were complacent and British writers were in bed with the trade, so along comes the consumer advocate with his easy to understand points system and fierce independence. He develops a strong following and with his taste for ripe, generous, big wines that resonates with his readers, suddenly we have a new fine wine narrative that clashes to a degree with the existing one. Then we have the constellation of biodynamic/authentic/natural wine narratives, where power is eschewed in favour of elegance, and where a strong part of the story surrounds how the wine is grown and made, with an emphasis on vineyard health and non-manipulation in the winery. In particular, the natural/authentic wine narrative has clashed significantly with the Robert Parker/US new fine wine narrative.
What all this reinforces is that we come to wine from our own perspective, and so the notion of rating or judging wine has to be seen with this taken into account. A rating cannot be a global, universal score that is a property of that wine. If you follow a critic, you need to chose one whose own narrative of wine is largely overlapping with yours. If we are to interpret wines, it is helpful for us to be aware that we are doing so in light of our own wine narrative. This is why stories are so important for the appreciation of wine. Wine needs words, said Hugh Johnson, and he was right. But even more than that, wine needs stories. It is these narratives that help us to understand wine, help us to fall in love with it, and help us progress in our journey through this most engaging and life-enhancing grape-derived alcoholic beverage.