What can you learn about strategy by drinking too much in the South of France?

1. The idea of wine

In 2009, I left a good job as a full-time newspaper columnist and moved to France to change my life. I suspected I would drink too much wine in France. And I did: far too much wine, especially when the end of our sabbatical year loomed in the near-distance and I feared all I would have to show for it was a $100,000 hole in my bank account, a better vocabulary, and no prospects.

But it was fine and fascinating wine, from small producers — families. My favourite red, I discovered, was from the Southern Rhône valley where we lived: from villages like Gigondas, Séguret, Beaumes de Venise, Vacqueyras, Rasteau and, of course, Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

At first, I couldn’t say why I liked it so much. I am not and I have never pretended to be a wine connoisseur. The swirling glass, the spitting, the announcement by a large man with reading glasses that he detects notes of vanilla, blackberry, walnuts, and cooked spinach in a glass of fermented grape juice: it’s all a bit precious.

Before I lived in France, I almost never bought French wine. I didn’t understand it: the austere images of chateaux, the names of villages, the confusing appellations. French bottles of wine almost never told me what grape was inside. Or more likely grapes, multiple ones, mixed together.

A friend who pretended to know about wine had told me that blended wines were like blended scotches: a blend was a compromise, not as good as single-grape varieties. I didn’t know any better so I had believed him. Bordeaux wasn’t a grape: it was a city and a sort of wine. What grapes were in it? Or in Burgundy, Côtes du Rhône, Beaujolais? I didn’t know. And neither did my friends, many of them with money to spend on good wine. So we walked right past the French section, quietly intimidated and confused, and into the simple comforts of California and Australia.

It wasn’t always this way. While my grandfather didn’t necessarily understand French wine, he knew it was the best. “A bottle of French wine” carried meaning and mystique, a feeling, even if he couldn’t say what was in the actual bottle.

In France, as I visited wineries and met the owners, shook their juice-stained hands, I learned more about wine than I ever thought I would want to know. And I did want to know: about the regions, the grapes, the history and, most compellingly, the people who grew and bottled it. The winemakers whose operations were large enough to export into America turned melancholy when I asked if I could buy their wine in stores back home. Many had tried. Most had failed. I heard the same phrase, over and over again, as the winemakers spoke of their declining market share overseas.

“We’re not telling the story of French wine.”

It wasn’t until I had heard the phrase or something like it ten times that it came to life. I was at one of the largest estates in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Christian Voeux, who makes some of my favourite wine, had been telling me about the Roman pottery they still dig up when they’re planting new vines at his domaine — Château La Nerthe. He had been telling me about the families who had owned La Nerthe, the decisions they had made since the renaissance, and about phylloxera, the tiny beige devils that had nearly destroyed the estate and all French wine in the nineteenth century.

On the front of the bottle there was a quotation from Frédéric Mistral, the father of Provençal literature, a sketch of the castle, the year, and the words Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I imagined my friends back home walking past the bottle and the entire French section, as I had so many times. The organic red wine was delicious. The domaine itself was gorgeous. So was the history, peculiar and unforgettable.

I realized as Voeux said, “We’re not telling the story of French wine” that it was like the owner of a modern office tower deciding not to find tenants. There is a story of French wine, a compelling and memorable and beautiful one. But it was a neglected asset, full of dust and garbage, overtaken by rats. Winemakers, regional cooperatives, and the federal government spent millions of euros on marketing but it hadn’t worked — at least not on me or on anyone I knew.

But a story.

What is a story, anyway? I wrote them for a living. What did Monsieur Voeux and the others mean by story? Perhaps he could start with the story of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, or even of La Nerthe as an example of the story of French wine. Why is it called Châteauneuf-du-Pape? Why hadn’t I heard of Grenache, or many of the other 18 grapes allowed in a bottle? Is there something grand, a larger story, a master story that bound all the mini-stories about French wine? Some way to invite the North Americans into it?

On my way back to Vaison-la-Romaine I was a bit drunk. I had rented a bicycle for the trip up and down the hills, and I talked to myself — into the wind. When I had asked Voeux what he thought he could do about this story problem, he suggested le branding. Most business owners solve a fundamental marketing problem, a reputation problem, even a strategy problem with a rebrand. I had worked in traditional marketing, and in the creative services department of a television station where we sold the promise of a rebrand. The miserable truth is it almost never worked, not the way we had ever pitched it and executed it.

Why not?

2. How did the Californians attack old world wine?


In May 1976, a British merchant launched an obscure competition to mark the 200th anniversary of American independence. He did it in Paris, which made lovely sense. Many of the ideas at the heart of America, then and now, began as French ideas.

It was a simple wine tasting at the Intercontinental Hotel, which almost no one noticed at the time. While it sounds a bit comical, this wasn’t an empty or a cynical idea. Thomas Jefferson was not only a founding father of the United States of America. He was also a wine drinker and wine maker; he was one of the first to plant vines in Virginia and toured the vineyards of Bordeaux when he took over from Benjamin Franklin as Washington’s man in France.

           The competition on pretty Rue Castiglione was a blind taste test, with bottles of the best of Bordeaux and Burgundy competing with scrappy newcomers from California growing the same grapes. There were two categories, red and white. Steve Spurrier, the British wine merchant, had not planned for a surprising outcome. Most of the judges were French. His plan was simply to introduce the idea, to Europeans, that new world wine wasn’t all hopeless plonk.

It didn’t start out promisingly, as a public relations exercise. No one in French media thought enough of the competition to show up. The only reporter at the Intercontinental Hotel that day was an American named George Taber, writing for Time magazine, and even he didn’t expect much.

           “Although my story was scheduled, I knew that the odds of getting it into the magazine were long. If, as expected, the French wines won, there would be no story. But you never know, and a wine-tasting — where maybe I’d get a chance to try a few of the wines myself — seemed, at the very least, like a perfectly wonderful way to spend an otherwise slow afternoon.”[i]

           It turned out there was a story.

A Napa Valley wine won in each category, a Stag’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon and a Chateau Montelena Chardonnay. Taber borrowed a line from Greek mythology, The Judgment of Paris, as the title of his article. It was a sensation, a scandal. “The best wine in the world” wasn’t the best anymore. Taber expanded his article into a book and Alan Rickman played Spurrier in a not-terribly-good film about the wine competition called Bottle Shock.

           In Bottle Shock the competition is the climax of the story. It was also the inciting incident of another story. The French had been “the best” for so long their instincts were to find flaws in the competition, to aggressively ignore it, to hope that people weren’t paying attention. But the Californians were paying attention. So were the Australians. Confidence spread through the new world of wine.

           Instead of trying to market California wine as “the new best,” clever marketers did something else. While bottles with the labels Bordeaux and Champagne would always carry a certain power, most North Americans didn’t — and still don’t — know what they are buying when they buy French wine. So why not simplify it? We buy wine because it’s fun, either to drink or collect. Why not package the grape? The single grape? Some people will be Cabernet Sauvignon people, others Chardonnay, still others Merlot and Pinot Gris.

Thirty years later, these grapes have lost their Frenchness.

           The French didn’t tell their story so someone told it for them: French wine was once great, yes, we learned a lot from them. But they have become lazy. More than lazy. French wine is stuffy, complex, impenetrable, snobbish. It thinks it’s better than me. Why pay a premium for French wine when the stuff here at home is just as good — even better? And look: it’s called Stag’s Leap and there is a goddamn picture of a stag on it.

           Today, when buyers in America want a bottle of Malbec they don’t look in the French section, where they will find it in a bottle of Cahors. This was the birthplace of Pope Jean XXII, one of the Avignon Popes, who in a fit of nostalgia had sent his men out to find wine as strong and as delicious as the wine he had grown up with in the city of his youth. This is why Châteauneuf-du-Pape — Jean XXII’s new castle — is where it is: Jean and other Avignon popes were looking for a source of decent wine.

           While there may be bottles of Cahors in the wine store, few North Americans know what is in it. Malbec, to everyone I know, is Argentinian.


3. What can the French do?

The California, Australia and Argentina sections of the wine store are riots of colourful and often cute labels. The name of the grape is always on the front, in large letters. Giant companies sell the same products in a number of different bottles, some with a photo of an adorable animal, others with a play on words, an invented person, maybe an association with something else we like in the non-wine world: dessert, night-time, nature, sex.

           Almost none of the bottles have what so many French wineries have: history, drama and conflict, memorable personalities, adventures and discoveries. A few months into my year in France, I began telling all of my friends back home what to look for in the wine store. I spent many euros on the telephone telling everyone about Château La Nerthe and Ferme Saint-Martin, above a beautiful village called Suzette, where I had befriended the young wine-maker Thomas Jullien, who had trained by travelling in a camping-car and working in every region in France before returning home. His fingers were stained permanently black.

           Two months before our visas were set to run out, I was preparing to buy wine on credit and send it home. I was still acting as a French wine evangelist, to the point where my wife was pulling the phone out of my hand. It was so true, what the winemakers and domain owners had been saying: We are not telling the story of French wine. But I couldn’t stop. I was converting the masses. It was working! I knew the story and I knew how to tell it.

           Yet I wanted to go back to Château La Nerthe and say, “Why not?” Why aren’t you telling the story of French wine? If you tell us a story, when we arrive in the wine store, we won’t feel confused and intimidated. We won’t walk nervously into the easy comforts of the Australian section, with its birds and pretty labels and only-English-ever. It’s easier than ever! This story could be the core of everything you say and do. And we’ll understand it. Some of us, your people, will love it. We’ll be so devoted to you we’ll be your customers forever and we’ll repeat the story, in our own words. You'll know what to do and say, how to market, how to hire, how to reinforce your best self in every decision you make.

           But I didn’t say it because I knew the answer. It’s hard to do. As much as we might want a story, what most marketers and advertising agencies build for us aren’t stories at all. They’re decorations. But they speak so authoritatively, of market research and touch points and brand keys and message maps, and the logos are so prettily designed, that we’re not prepared to complain. It all sounds so complex! We don’t have the vocabulary for anything else because this is how it’s done, everywhere. This is how we package and sell things.

Yet all of our strongest associations, with cities and with companies and with charities and with leaders, have one thing in common: a good story. Not a key message or a brand key or a pretty logo. An actual story, simple and captivating, that we understand. It's an invitation, not a declaration.

Wine was the most delicious of the inspirations that led Shawn Ohler and me to start Story Engine, but I’ve never spoken to the French about how they helped me — and how we might help them. Now, to book our tickets to Paris. Anyone know the number for the Ministère de l’agriculture, de l’agroalimentaire et de la forêt?

[i] Taber, George M. “The Judgment of Paris.” Scribner, 2006. New York.