What does it take for a wine to be recognized as great? Wines of excellent quality are easily found in the global market. What makes certain wines rise above the others and become iconic? Acknowledgment of outstanding quality by both consumers and industry professionals is undoubtedly a baseline requirement. Without sufficiently high quality to generate and maintain significant demand in the global market, whether by volume or by value, a wine cannot rise to enduring prominence. To be recognized as iconic, however, a wine must have an element of uniqueness, a distinction that captures attention such that it stands out from the plethora of quality wines available worldwide. A truly great wine commands an attraction that in turn brings significant demand, and it is of high enough quality to justify and sustain continued market success.
Great wines seem to achieve their ineffable allure through compelling stories. Studies show that stories are central to humans establishing connections and emotional associations, whether with other people or with objects or concepts (Brown 1991, Boyd 2018). The emotions we experience when engaged by a story are recognized in psychology as the foundation of empathy, through which we can form connections on a personal level. Brands spend significant resources on crafting the right narrative for their products: if an emotional connection can be established with the consumer, the brand has the potential to elicit association, recall, and eventually loyalty. Neurological research provides evidence for this: oxytocin, the neurochemical responsible for empathy, is produced in the brain when a story is perceived as compelling. The presence of oxytocin has been shown to make us feel more trusting, compassionate, and open to suggestion (Zak 2017). In this way, a story that evokes connection creates the possibility for a quality wine to be perceived as something more, something greater.
The power of a captivating story can be further highlighted by the concept of priming, which has profound effects in shaping our experiences. Priming is a psychological phenomenon in which exposure to one stimulus influences how we respond to a subsequent, related stimulus—consider the high-decibel music that is often played during a sports game to energize the crowd and athletes. Studies show that if a wine is presented with a formidable reputation or is highly priced, people tend to rate that wine as higher quality. But quality alone does not guarantee greatness. A compelling story can imbue a wine with the crucial components of memorability and uniqueness, giving it an advantage over others even before the first taste. If the wine is indeed perceived as excellent in quality, the wine’s desirable characteristics are likely to be heightened by the positive associations already established by the story.
An iconic wine is further defined here as a wine with a strong international brand presence, with the demand and cachet worthy of global market placement whether by volume or by value. Such a wine commands a premium market price (US$15 or more): many, though not all, are superpremium wines in the luxury category of US$100 or more. Most importantly, these wines inspire a perception of uniqueness such that another wine of the same region, or one of comparable quality made in a similar way, would not diminish their appeal. Take the many excellent quality wines in the Côte d’Or, in Burgundy, for example. It could be argued that these wines deserve the cachet and market price that their most iconic counterparts command, or that those highly recognized wines should be considered on a more level playing field with the others. Yet there is something about these renowned wines that continues to captivate consumers and industry professionals. This elusive quality is captured and highlighted by a powerful story, a story that conveys a strong sense of identity and establishes the wine’s distinction.
In the wine industry, the stories that are most successful seem to fall into several categories: legacy, innovative origins, scarcity, embodiment of a certain aura or lifestyle, or a combination of these. Wine in the glass is, technically, simply wine. It is the full experience with the wine that allows it to transcend this plain fact. As stories have the potential to elicit emotional connections and can influence our overall experience with a wine, a compelling narrative has the power to set the stage for a quality wine to become a great wine.
A history of longevity and quality forms the basis of the legacy story of an iconic wine. Studies have shown that a company’s history has a significant effect on consumer trust levels. The global communications firm Edelman found in its annual Trust Barometer surveys that a company’s heritage provides important cultural and communicative value and can make its messaging appear more authentic. For example, the story of Cristal, a vintage Champagne produced by Louis Roederer, “The Tsar’s Wine,” is shaped by its illustrious origins and historical association with Tsar Alexander II. That Cristal was the choice of royalty since the 1800s instills the wine with a sense of greatness. Cristal remains one of the most sought-after fine wines globally: Liv-ex and other fine wine indices have shown Cristal leading sustained demand for Champagne as a category. This is a testament to the wine’s enduring reputation of greatness, bolstered by a story of impressive legacy. It is worth noting that celebrity has continued to play an important role in furthering this narrative in modern times, even if Louis Roederer has not actively incorporated this into the official story: famous musicians, from A$AP Rocky to Lana Del Rey, have mentioned Cristal in their songs, and the celebrated late rapper Tupac created a cocktail called Thug Passion, using Cristal and Alizé Gold Passion liqueur. This is a fascinating example of how a strong legacy story can engender new stories that increase its potency.
In Tuscany, Biondi-Santi’s Brunello di Montalcino is arguably the symbol of an entire appellation’s greatness. Now in its seventh generation, the legacy of the Biondi-Santi family and the bold steps taken to create a high-quality, ageworthy expression of Sangiovese are part of the genesis lore of the Brunello di Montalcino DOC. Biondi-Santi’s narrative of commitment to its legacy as “defenders of a rich enological heritage”—even as the producer seeks to innovate in the vineyard and winery to maintain its distinct house style through climate change—contributes to its continuing status as one of the great wines of the world.
The creation of new traditions and an emphasis on the pioneering origins of a wine can also be powerful drivers of greatness. The story of Australia’s Penfolds Grange, according to Penfolds, is one of “invention, passion, risk and determination,” thanks to the efforts of Max Schubert in his quest to create a wine that was “different and lasting.” Despite the initial failure of the Grange experiment to gain traction, Schubert persisted, and “Australia’s most revered wine” took its place as a great wine on the global market. Grange’s performance on Liv-ex corroborates this status, with the wine gaining consistently high returns as it matures. The significant influence of the Penfolds Grange style in Australia and throughout the wine world is a mark of the successful pioneer, whose story is inextricably linked to the wine’s greatness.
Stanko Radikon is recognized worldwide as one of the leading trailblazers of orange and natural wines. He is described by importer Louis/Dressner Selections as a “maverick in a land of mavericks,” and Radikon’s goal to “make a natural, organic wine with the least human intervention possible and with the maximum respect for the soils and nature,” combined with his desire to bring forth an ideal expression of Ribolla Gialla, drove his now-famous winemaking practices. Even though this style of wine now has many competitors, Radikon wines have significant global recognition and are seen as iconic. The story of the original winemaker’s pioneering spirit and his role in bringing a distinct style of wine to the modern age continue to differentiate these wines.
In the remote reaches of the Himalayan mountains, the luxury goods conglomerate LVMH saw potential for fine wine. Though the winery was built only in 2012, the Bordeaux-styled Ao Yun rose to global fame as the first and only wine from China to be traded on the secondary market. In 2022, Ao Yun reached another level of distinction through the release of its 2018 vintage via the Place de Bordeaux. The story of pioneering innovation in a land and cultural environment that had never seen fine winemaking captured the imaginations of the industry and consumers: the monsoon weather patterns, staggering 7,000-foot elevation, the creative solutions used to compensate for the lack of running water and electricity, the painstaking process of learning how to work with Tibetan farmers. Certainly this story—how these challenges were overcome to bring a critically acclaimed superpremium fine wine produced in China to the world stage—contributed to Ao Yun’s swift ascent to becoming a wine of global distinction.
The concept of superior quality combined with scarcity can be a powerful driver for greatness. Napa Valley’s Screaming Eagle may not have the history or legacy of the great wines of Bordeaux, yet its Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc wines are highly sought after and command some of wine’s top prices globally. Through the careful creation of the wine itself via the recruitment of renowned winemaker Heidi Peterson Barrett and the resounding validation of the prominent wine critic Robert Parker in 1992, the story of an extremely limited wine of unparalleled quality from Napa captivated fine wine collectors around the world. Demand swiftly outstripped supply, and that imbalance persists today: with an annual production of approximately 500 cases from only about 57 acres (23 hectares), the wine has continued to increase in appeal. Reclusiveness and secrecy also contribute to Screaming Eagle’s status as a cult wine: the winery is inconspicuous save for a signpost with its address number, and astonishingly few have been granted a visit or even an interview. Screaming Eagle has refused entry to prominent celebrities and several of the world’s leading wine publications. Liv-ex reported that as of February 2022, Screaming Eagle continues to lead its California 50 index, showing an increase of 41.7% and bringing the index up 31.9% in the past year. The carefully crafted narrative of quality and scarcity, combined with the cachet of mystery, has undoubtedly helped the product of a previously unknown site in eastern Oakville earn its status as one of the world’s most prominent cult wines.
An iconic wine can have an aura of luxury, cachet, and even mystery, thanks to the power of a compelling story. Liber Pater is a relative newcomer to the Bordeaux scene, yet it has already achieved cult status since its first vintage, in 2006, and is watched closely by the secondary fine wine market. Its proprietor, Loïc Pasquet, is integral to this story, which contains elements of the maverick: he uses rare, ungrafted historic varieties to produce wine in the 19th-century claret style. Luxury and mystery, however, appear to be at the heart of Liber Pater’s story. At £30,000 (US$33,130) a bottle in bond as of 2022, Liber Pater 2018 is one of the world’s most expensive wines. The narrative of scarcity (720 bottles), the proprietor’s adamant stance on his winemaking ethos, and a stratospheric price have shrouded the wine in mystery and prestige.
A contrasting and glamour-infused example of the luxury narrative is the “Vintage Champagne Only” statement and Technicolor extravaganza that greets the visitor to Dom Pérignon’s website. The celebrated musician Lady Gaga, known for her individuality and flamboyant style, is currently featured in a campaign that gives the wine an otherworldly and fantastical aura. The narrative of individuality and daring within a context of opulence creates the perception that to own a bottle of Dom Pérignon would be to own a piece of ineffable magic. Dom Pérignon’s consistent price premium in the vintage Champagne market per research by Liv-ex and its continued top-three ranking on the list of top trending brands in the Brands Report 2022: Champagne, from Drinks International, are testaments to the wine’s global cachet. Past collaborations have involved the art of Andy Warhol, Lenny Kravitz, and other celebrities; this latest incarnation is a continuation of the powerful story of Dom Pérignon as a wine of fame and splendor.
Many wine brands embody a certain way of life, conveying the idea that the possession and enjoyment of the wine might manifest the attractive lifestyle portrayed. Premium category wines under US$100 per bottle can benefit significantly from this narrative, particularly as they are far more economically accessible to a greater demographic range. Sparkling wines, the symbol of celebration and indulgence, provide lively examples of this story. Veuve Clicquot, a brand that consistently sells and trends in the top three globally per The Drinks Business and Drinks International, projects the “Solaire Culture” lifestyle, with attractive products in its distinctively sunny hue. Customizable, limited-edition packaging such as the “Retro, Chic!” mix tape, the Smeg fridge, and a contemporary exhibition of the 250-year legacy of Veuve Clicquot in Los Angeles create a cultured, stylishly hip identity.
The aspirational lifestyle projected by La Marca Prosecco offers the tantalizing possibility to transfigure the everyday with the pleasures of chic whimsy. An extensive library of cocktail recipes on its website, with brunch and poolside ideas, enables anyone who can afford a US$16.99 bottle of wine to “Make Everyday Sparkle.” This story of accessible yet elevated pleasures has catapulted La Marca into the position of best-selling Prosecco in the United States by volume, increasing during the Covid-19 pandemic by 25% to surpass two million cases. Accordingly, the price of a bottle of La Marca’s entry-level expression has risen about 33% in the past decade, a testament to the power of its story in the highly competitive sparkling wine market.
Still wines can also benefit from the aspirational lifestyle narrative. In an article for The Drinks Business, MW Patrick Schmitt noted that one of the most successful wine brand stories of this century is that of Whispering Angel, by Château d’Esclans. Whispering Angel’s volumes have more than doubled in the past five years, to 565,500 cases in the US, and the producer is largely credited with making rosé one of the most sought-after categories in the global wine market. Its effective use of the lifestyle narrative has helped rosé wine become not only heightened in consumers’ consciousness but a lifestyle itself. Whispering Angel’s story places it in direct association with “the first sip of summer,” soirées, outings on the beach, and poolside relaxation. The nearly 100,000 subscribers to Whispering Angel’s Instagram account and the plethora of posts depicting consumers embodying this beautiful life are a testament to how powerfully this story has been internalized. Whispering Angel has become a lifestyle icon of such significance that it reached new heights as the official wine of the Platinum Jubilee Pageant celebrating the late Queen Elizabeth II in the United Kingdom. This accolade will undoubtedly add to Whispering Angel’s story of greatness while maintaining its coveted position within a relatively accessible price category.
Considering these major narrative themes and the wines they serve, the question may arise: Does great wine need a great story? That is, do wines that are truly outstanding in their quality and organoleptic properties need a strong story for them to be seen as such? To even begin tackling this question, it is worth noting that it is extremely difficult to establish on a global scale what is considered a great wine based only on its sensory characteristics. There are consumers for whom a 1982 Petrus would be roundly put aside in favor of a juicy supermarket California red blend with indistinct origins, solely on smell and taste. While the California red blend could very well be of excellent quality for its price category, this scenario highlights the challenge of establishing among consumers what constitutes a great wine. This also applies to wine professionals, who often have lively debates about the perceived merits (or lack thereof) of these and countless other wines. Wine critics have historically attempted to set expectations for great wines based on their expertise and personal palates. Arguably this very act constitutes the setting of a narrative: the tasting note carries the story of someone’s experience with the wine. Likewise, if a person asks a friend deemed knowledgeable in wine for a recommendation, a story is told, often with personal touches that may arouse an emotional response.
Academic studies posit that humans seek reason and meaning to justify their creations. According to psychologists, identity is constructed through stories (McAdams et al. 2006). It follows that producers and brands would craft and share unique stories that reflect the ethos with which the wine was created. A person’s emotional response to an engaging story and the priming effect of positive associations as the wine is experienced can form a powerful connection, instilling the wine with a strong sense of identity.
That said, every wine has some kind of origin story or reason for its creation—remarkable or not—and elements of the story can be harnessed to create a sense of greatness. Does our desire to find and create meaning lead also to the creation of mediocre wines with seemingly exceptional stories? It is possible that a memorable or extraordinary story can propel a wine that is merely good (sound, yet lacking in distinctive sensory characteristics), or even one of lower quality, into the limelight. But the lack of quality, distinctiveness, or sustained critical acclaim will inevitably be revealed as time passes. The wines that show consistent and even growing consumer demand and industry recognition are the ones that have the possibility for greatness. A riveting story alone cannot sustain a pedestrian or lower-quality wine to the point where it can find its way into the hearts and minds of both consumers and wine professionals.
Captivating wine stories, whether they emphasize legacy, innovation, scarcity, luxury, or an aspirational lifestyle, create a potent narrative. A persuasive and defining story can evolve to shape a wine’s identity. The human impetus to find meaning in our creations by establishing identity gives rise to stories, through which others can find emotional associations, and the phenomenon of priming makes it possible for a story to influence the subsequent experience with a wine.
In identifying and harnessing elements that bring out the unique and desired associations with a wine, a carefully crafted story—a great story—can elicit strong consumer resonance, recall, and even a sense of kinship. The global marketplace presents a highly competitive playing field for quality wines. Without the robust identity and connection forged by a compelling story, a wine may be delicious and of high quality, but perhaps not a truly great wine.
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Thank you Susan for this great piece. Great read.
There are few wineries in world history that emulate "the power of the story" greater than Napa Valley's Inglenook. For those unfamiliar, right here on this very website you can read Matt Stamp's glorious 2017 article about the property. It is unrivaled passion, quality, and undoubtably the greatest come-back story in the history of the wine world.
I found all this depressing, honestly. And I was unaware that the PRC's "top" wine comes from Tibet.