Richard Hemming: own up to your mistakes

on 07 November, 2014

Being wrong about a subject as massive as wine is as inevitable as  selling more claret at Christmas. Even the trade’s most well-worn clichés celebrate wrongness. You know the ones: I haven’t confused Bordeaux for Burgundy since lunch; I hate Chardonnay but I love Chablis. Oh how we laughed.

Making mistakes in wine is so routine that admitting to them should be no big deal, yet there seems to be a decided lack of culpability within the trade.

We’ve all done it, so there’s no need to feel guilty or embarrassed. I’ve got shockers aplenty. In an MW exam I misidentified Wolf Blass Yellow Label Chardonnay as £30 Meursault and Château Quinault L'Enclos as bulk vin de pays. In my early days as a cocksure Majestic trainee I once smugly told a customer that red Burgundy doesn’t age well.

But perhaps the most excruciating example was in Bordeaux earlier this year, when I confidently asked the winemaker at Petrus if they had changed the blend of their 2013. “Since we only grow Merlot,” he witheringly replied, “no.”

It’s important to admit when you get wine wrong, for several reasons. Firstly, it’s a great way to learn. Secondly, it eases the collective paranoia the trade has about needing to be seen as infallible. Thirdly, it actually increases your credibility. Well, within reason.

If you go around peddling blatant falsehoods (bottles with deep punts indicate high quality, that sort of guff) then you probably won’t last long. It is far better to confess your ignorance instead of dredging up some half-remembered titbit and passing it off as fact.

Admitting that you are wrong (or that you don’t know something in the first place) displays an honesty that can increase your trustworthiness rather than diminishing it, because it is far too easy – and therefore commonplace – to blame your errors on some vaguely defined excuse, especially when tasting. Bad storage conditions. Biodynamics. Bottle shock. Too young. Too old. Order of tasting. Dirty glassware. Lack of breathing (the wine, not the taster). Or that failsafe and most insidious of catch-alls, “bottle variation”. All of these “reasons” can be voiced with little fear of reprisal or contradiction. The thing is, they can be genuine phenomena – I don’t deny that. Bottle variation can indeed account for quality variation between different bottles of the same wine, especially older vintages. But because it is undefined and immeasurable, it all too often becomes a convenient scapegoat for explaining contrary opinions among wine professionals.

Strictly speaking, nobody can call someone else’s personal opinion of a wine wrong, unless perhaps – cough – you’re an MW examiner. But whether you are sommelier, journalist, educator, buyer, retailer or any other kind of wine pro, you can call yourself wrong. Making that call instead of hiding behind subjective excuses does people credit. Trying to look clever is human nature, but that’s not the same as actually being clever – and that applies as much to wine as it does to anything.

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