In Orkney, and across the wine trade, we’re a community of storytellers.

I write this on March 20, which is World Storytelling Day, “a worldwide celebration of oral narratives”. The jollification dates back to 1991, when our Scandinavian neighbours in Sweden launched Alla Berättares Dag. The idea swiftly spread around the globe, wherever stories are told and treasured. Which is, of course, everywhere.

It’s certainly true here in Orkney. We were a poor and under-educated region for 400 years, between our severance from the Norse kingdoms in 1472, and our connection to the British Empire via steam ships and railways in the mid-19th century. At that point, Britain’s appetite for good Orkney beef brought money our way, and with it literacy, a middle class, and our family’s wine shop. But until that late point oral storytelling flourished, because very few folk had the ability to read or write. 

The passing down of complex stories through purely oral routes died out as Orkney entered modernity. But modernity – in the shape of autodidact folklorists like Walter Traill Dennison and Ernest Marwick – also rescued dozens of stories from oblivion. Now new generations of storytellers learn from those written records as well as from fragments of memory from family and friends, and elaborate their own versions of these gripping, millennia-old narratives.

The tale of the Nuckelavee, for instance, a monstrous creature, half-man, half-horse, and wholly malevolent. The Nuckelavee was motivated by nothing less than pure hatred towards humankind, and was remorseless in his pursuit of solitary islanders wending their way home after a night at the inn. There was only one substance that could thwart his attacks: like rough whisky, the Nuckelavee could be tamed by a splash of fresh water.

Then there were the Finfolk, strange and threatening creatures who during the winter lived in a glittering undersea city called Finfolkaheem, and in a lush but invisible Orkney island called Hildaland during the summer. At first glance they looked human, but then you realised their flowing garments were actually flapping fins.

Another story was of an enormous ghost sailing ship. If you boarded the stern as a youngster, by the time you walked to the bow you would be an old grey-haired man. My version of that would be of a sprightly 30-something fellow walking in the door of a wine shop, who, by the time he makes it behind the counter, finds himself bald and bone-sore. 

Which reminds me, what has all this got to do with 21st century wine merchanting? It’s obvious: we’re all in the storytelling business. We don’t hand-sell wine by saying, “this lovely bottle was harvested at 25 degrees Brix, and – you’re going to love this – the pH is 3.2!” Rather we talk about the winemaker’s family and their long love affair with the land. We spin yarns about the land itself – its minerality, its microbiome, its rough wooing by the sun and wind. We love a hero: a lowly cowherd or investment banker, who quits the safety of their career to battle with pruning shears and amphorae before emerging triumphant, clutching a 90-point wine from a previously non-existent terroir. 

Ah, terroir. That’s a good story in itself.

I don’t mean any of us does this cynically. It’s part of the toolkit we have for trying to communicate in words the nature of an elusive sensory experience. Some wield those tools more skilfully than others. I remember one visiting winemaker hosting a dinner for us. “The grapes were picked at 6.15am,” he said, “then loaded into plastic crates. Some crates carried eight kilos of grapes but others carried six kilos. The field technologist used a digital refractometer to …”

And the diners rose as one: “Sit down and shut up! Just let us drink the wine!”

They didn’t really, but they all wanted to. So when I sell that domaine’s wines now I tell the same story but in a different way. Something like: “The grape pickers rise before dawn. Picture them, marching through the rows of vines, their breath in clouds in the cold morning air. But the grapes are chilly too in the morning, which means the flavours in your glass will be crisp and fresh and fruity. Perfect with a piece of grilled fish or – what’s that? You’re having mussels? Amazing! The vineyard was once part of an ancient ocean, and decomposing shells give the wine its distinct … minerality. It’s a perfect match!”

And they all live happily ever after.

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