How do you choose a wine? Whether it tastes good and how much it costs, are the basic criteria of any wine purchase. Beyond that, how do you whittle down the choices to decide which wine to pluck from the shelf and place in your cart?
How about a wine made by a refugee dreaming of restoring his country’s wine traditions? You might help promote Middle East peace, or ease poverty in one of the world’s poorest countries.
More likely, you filter by where the wine is from—France, Italy, California? That could be wine preference, political preference or a reflection of what’s for dinner tonight. Do you favor heavy bottles, believing the wine inside must be high quality? A lot of people do, judging by the number of wineries using heavy glass. Perhaps a pretty label, a map, a critter or even some fanciful artwork of a mythical beast will catch your eye. Some wines use a sort of virtual reality to draw you in to an interactive experience, in which you download an app and point your phone at the label, which then comes to life. (Meanwhile, your dinner is getting cold.)
There is a saying in the wine industry: The label sells the first bottle, the wine sells the second. Quality means nothing if people won’t buy it, but marketing is ultimately superfluous if the wine is no good. And marketing today is increasingly about the story behind the wine.
And it’s not just wine. We may pay a little more for organic produce at the supermarket, believing it’s better for the environment, or at a farmers market to support a local farmer. Folger’s might give us a buzz, but fair-trade coffee is better for the environment and the farmers who grow the beans. Solar panels on our roofs, rain barrels on our patios, and electric vehicles in our driveways are not just ways to save money on electricity, water or gas. They are statements about how we want to live our lives and the kind of world we want to leave to our children.
So why not buy a wine made by Abdullah Richi, a Syrian refugee who trucks indigenous Syrian grapes grown in conflict-ridden areas of his homeland across the border to his Dar Richi winery in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, and dreams of someday reviving Syria’s wine traditions? Or Cremisan wines, made in an ancient monastery near Jerusalem with grapes trucked across security checkpoints from vineyards in Palestinian territory? Or a Bolivian tannat, grown in some of the highest vineyards of the world, whose profits will help lift some of South America’s poorest farmers out of poverty? You won’t find those wines in the traditional lists of the world’s top vino.
Those pointed questions are posed by Peter Weltman, a journalist turned evangelist wine importer, with his company called Borderless Wine. Weltman preaches a gospel of sorts, in which wine belongs to everyone and is not confined by national borders or political disputes. Sporting a T-shirt proclaiming himself an “activist wine drinker,” Weltman brought his altruistic message to Washington in April for an event sponsored by Rose Previte, proprietor of Compass Rose and Maydan restaurants.
Wine has been telling the world’s story at least since the invention of the bottle, Weltman argues.
“The wine bottle was invented to travel, so it is one of the best ambassadors for the place where the wine originates,” Weltman said during a panel discussion and tasting that spilled across the borders of Maydan into Compass Rose, a few blocks away.
Previte noted that younger customers are more interested in the narrative behind the wine than its rating from critics. “Generation Z wants to know where a wine came from, what its story is,” she said, contrasting that openness to a nationally known politician who balked at her unconventional wine list because he had, as she said, “lots of borders in his mind.”
Maria Bastasch, beverage director for Compass Rose and Maydan, directly connected our wine choices with the world’s most intractable conflict.
“If you have a chance to buy a wine made in Syria using indigenous Syrian grapes made by actual Syrians, you make a connection with Syria and its people that goes beyond war and the images on the news,” she said.
And that connection may take us beyond the simple calculation of price and taste that initiates our purchasing decisions. A story can be delicious, after all, and it can liberate us as wine drinkers and help those who make the wine.
“These wines break down the normative barriers that tell us what is good and what we should drink,” she said.
So choose a wine with a story and a cause. And take a stand while you pull a cork.