by Oliver Styles

Fail Again, Fail Better?

It began with a conversation about Instagram. I was talking to a photographer friend during a photoshoot and we fell onto the subject of social media. As so often happens, we were talking on two levels: I was bemoaning the lack of realism, the relentless stream of well-lit, considerately angled dross – no double chins, one leg cocked forwards, shoulders back – and the cumulative boredom it inspires, while she was on the plane of art. I raged at the relentless procession of pictures, shots, reels that all seemed to ape a predecessor: the same shot, just different people, different place.

“Yes,” she nodded. “There are no failures any more.”

It’s a line I think of whenever I end up in natural wine discussions. These days, such hackneyed debates often end with the kind of diffusion often encountered after a testy argument in a pub: it’s fine, they’re just winemakers after all, trying to do their best with what’s available with different approaches that some people like and other people don’t. Which is true, but for one point: natural winemaking is open to failure.

That’s not a blanket statement. Conventional wines can fail too, just as natural winemakers themselves can try to avoid, through cleanliness, diligence, etc. incurring faults in their wines. But it remains the case that if your dogma is not to add the sulphur that could bind some aldehydes or prevent mouse taint; not to fine the overly prominent tannins in a skin-fermented white; not to counterbalance the searing acidity with sugar or other additions; and not to stablise the wine by sterile filtering it or protein stablising it, you are courting failure.

We could debate what failure means (if it’s Brettanomyces, for instance, Grands Crus and Premiers Crus and so on fail all the time). Additionally, I’m not trying to elevate natural wine to the status of art versus the mundane and predictable craft of a Château Lafite or a Salon. Or am I? I’m not saying that failure makes natural wine great – or that we should necessarily praise failure. Looking at the natural wine scene in Australia in which (it appears from the outside) too many parvenu natural winemakers have made too many failures and consumer preference has swung against the movement, it seems failure can gather a critical mass.

But the possibility of failure and the ramifications of that failure are points which are not much touched upon when we discuss what makes wine great. It’s taken as a given that a great wine cannot be a failure but I’d argue otherwise. Like my photographer friend pointed out: if you want art, you have to be open to failure. Most wines are made today in ways that are unable to fail. They are endless identikit processions of craftsmanship and grandeur, and they are grand – but can they ever be great? Think about how we demand grand wines be aged: cool, undisturbed, etc. If everyone aged wines in this way, there would be no bottle variation and there would be no great bottles because you can’t have two identical pieces of art and have them called art. Two identical pieces of art becomes a craft.

That’s not to say that this piece of writing is a hagiography of natural wine because natural wine is open to the possibility of being shit. It’s to ask if we shouldn’t be more comfortable and accepting of failure – just as some of us used to be with red Burgundy not too long ago.

It’s in wine writing too. We have moved away, almost completely, from publishing bad reviews. It’s true that winemaking has come on leaps and bounds over the last few decades, but technical proficiency has given reviewers an out. I tasted an awful Chardonnay last night – I can’t even remember the brand name but I do remember reading the letters GCF (Grands Chais de France – a massive wine producer) on the back label – but at the same time, it was technically very well made. This is a regular occurrence: personal dislike is often tempered (by the “serious” reviewer) by the recognisance that the wine is technically sound. In reviews this is often detected by the phrase “well made” or “sound winemaking”.

Beyond this, though, much wine reviewing steers completely clear of the bad eggs. Most wines under 80 points or under a bronze medal aren’t featured in some publications (or if they are, they are not accompanied by a tasting note). Other publications see it as their job to “support” the industry, publishing only good reviews.

But perhaps we’re missing a trick here. Perhaps we’re only doing the wine industry a disservice by ignoring the stuff we don’t like. Perhaps a dearth of critical reviews (personally, I really enjoy reading reviews of bad restaurant experiences) is partly why many people are turning away from wine. Perhaps it’s – controversially – a dearth of any failures on the supermarket shelves that is turning people to hazy IPAs or the sometimes testy hard seltzers?

There is one other aspect of critical “failure” that I should touch on here too – and it bears repeating: the potential failure (present in any blind tasting) of not spotting the great wines, or at least not giving them the score they deserve. I’ve seen this with my own eyes: the late, great Steven Spurrier stating that a tasting panel had “failed” (his actual words: “we’ve failed”) because it hadn’t awarded top marks to the First Growths in a panel tasting of Bordeaux Grand Cru Classés.

That was 15 years ago, but I’m sure the same pressure applies. Although it doesn’t, does it, because the fear of critics “failing” is now so great that almost none of them taste blind any more – and certainly not when it comes to the likes of Bordeaux, where people (generally other critics or more pompous members of the wine industry) can berate critics for not giving a First Growth the appropriate, stellar, score. No failures, please, we’re wine critics.

We should embrace failure more. Because there’s nothing brave or courageous about fearing it to the point of avoiding it. Sure, winemakers shouldn’t deliberately head towards calamity, but courage comes from accepting that you might screw up but doing your level best nonetheless. The same should be true of winemaking (some natural winemakers could certainly do with doing their level best with a bit more regularity) and it should be for wine critics. In fact, it is true for putting together a wine list, adding a producer to the portfolio, serving wine in a different glass, and so on.

The terror of not spotting the top wines in a lineup should not turn us into cowards. Interestingly, my notes from the tasting in which Spurrier said the panel had “failed” I now use when I host regional tastings at our local winemaking polytechnic. I use it to point out to the students that giving one’s opinion about a wine is not an exercise in being judged by others, but of presenting one’s own judgement to the best of one’s ability, irrespective of others. If the great names of the English wine trade can get it wrong (if you can ever be wrong in judgements of taste), we’ll all be fine. Lo and behold, the students open up. Spurrier’s so-called failure has, unbeknown to him and his panel, begat dozens of small successes in a corner of the world and in a manner he couldn’t have dreamed of (although given the “failure” of the Judgement of Paris and its fallout, I do wonder whether Spurrier might have forgiven himself a little more).

Fail again, fail better? Perhaps it’s simply that, in our need to sell our products (be they tasting notes or wines) we have become too wary or failing – too risk averse – when, instead, we should talk more about failure.

Photo by Kind and Curious and Unsplash

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