Robert Joseph recounts his failures

Yesterday, Robert Joseph was awarded the Innovations Award by Vinventions, part of the Born Digital Wine Awards, for his contribution to the wine industry over many years. Here, he recalls what he's learned from failure.

Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash
Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash


Failure. It's something I've been thinking about over the last few hours after learning that the judges of the Born Digital Wine Awards had decided to give me a prize for my efforts as an innovator. 

To learn more about how they came to this decision, and about the brilliant people who won the other categories or who made the shortlists, please visit the Vinventions website, where you’ll also find a list of some of my failed attempts at innovation. These include the launch of a consumer wine magazine for non-wine geeks; the creation of an online wine school when the internet was in its infancy; the creation of a non-vintage branded Bordeaux and a sustainable wine brand called Greener Planet in lightweight, unbreakable, recyclable bottles. The Bordeaux ended up in the too-hard basket because I failed to convince producers and, more importantly, gatekeepers, of my belief that, given the irregularities of that region’s climate, there should be an equivalent of the reliable kind of beverage that has been such a success in Champagne. Greener Planet is now sold in lightweight glass because almost everyone – reasonably enough - focuses on the plastic that ends up in the ocean rather than finding ways to ensure that it all gets recycled (which would be the best possible outcome for the environment.

What have I learned from all of these failures?

Sometimes, the idea was just wrong – or wrong for its time. Or it was carried out or presented in the wrong way. Or with insufficient funding. Or not enough perseverance.

But I don’t regret any of them. I love Jeff Bezos’s comment in a 2016 letter to Amazon investors: “To invent you have to experiment, and if you know in advance that it’s going to work, it’s not an experiment. Most large organizations embrace the idea of invention, but are not willing to suffer the string of failed experiments necessary to get there.”

When it comes to wine, the industry far too often treats the past as though it were a path decided by fate, as though the vinous gods had somehow decided, for example, that the main default for great red wine would be a particular blend of grape varieties from a particular corner of France. Or that the only recipe for great sparkling wine has to have Chardonnay and that the only acceptable marriage of black and white grapes for still wine is between Syrah and Viognier.

Whenever I see yet another English winery release its first Chardonnay-Pinot Noir-Pinot Meunier fizz, or a multi-million dollar estate in California present its Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot-Cabernet-Franc-Malbec-Petit Verdot blend, I think of the George Bernard Shaw  line that was often quoted by Robert F Kennedy: “I dream of things that never were, and say, Why not?”.

What other grape varieties and blends did either of these producers even think of trying? 

The great British writer, Ian McEwan has just written a novel called Machines Like Me in which he imagines a slightly alternative version of the 1980s. What, he asks, if the computer scientist Alan Turing had not swallowed cyanide in 1954 to escape from the shame of his homosexuality? Might he have helped to create the intelligent robots we are beginning to see today? What if Britain had lost the Falklands war? If Margaret Thatcher had only served one term as prime minister, she would have been replaced by the left wing Tony Benn who might plausibly have taken the UK out of the EU three decades ago. If that had happened, where would we all be now?

We could just as reasonably tweak the history of wine. What if the Romans had adopted the grape varieties that were being used by the Greeks? What if their empire had not collapsed in the way it did, and if they had focused more of their winemaking efforts in Languedoc? Or if the drainage ditches they installed around their vineyards in the Maremma had not been allowed to fall into disrepair? Would we have had to wait 2,000 years for that region to be rediscovered?

What if Muhammad had taken a different route home, or been in a different mood, and not been moved by the sight of a group drunken men to issue his ban on the Moslem consumption of alcohol?

If Eleanor of Aquitaine’s marriage to Louis Vll of France had not been annulled in 1152, she could not have married the English king, Henry II, two years later, and we might never have seen the relationship between the south west of France and Britain that launched the trade in wine that, in its turn, helped Bordeaux to become such an important port. 

If the English of that time hadn’t imposed what would now be called ‘trade barriers’ on wines to the east of Bordeaux, who can say how much more attention might have been paid to regions like Bergerac and Cahors?

It is easy to say that looking back at these kinds of ‘what if?’s is pointless; we are where we are. But if we accept that chance had a part to play in the tracks on which the train got us here, we can say that we have the opportunity to imagine a few more changes of direction. 
And – and this is important – we need to accept the validity of changes we might not personally like. People who applaud the notion of introducing the ancient Georgian tradition of fermenting white wine in amphora to other regions need to be just as accommodating when producers like Penfolds add Chinese Baijiu spirit to a wine, or when others age red wine in bourbon barrels – as many are now doing successfully in the US. After all, the Romans added lead and honey and grape syrup to sweeten their wine.

Nobody raises an eyebrow at Vega Sicilia producing a brilliant non-vintage red wine in Spain called Unico Reserva Especial and selling it for several hundreds of dollars per bottle. Why shouldn’t a producer in Bordeaux or Napa follow its example? The Marques de Riscal started to grow Cabernet Sauvignon alongside its Tempranllo in 1958. A dozen or so years later, Antinori’s Tignanello demonstrated the compatibility of Bordeaux red varieties with Sangiovese. Arguably, there are far closer resemblances between, say Napa and Sonoma, and Rioja and Tuscany than between those parts of California with the Medoc. And the same might be said of the cross-regional, Rhône Syrah-Bordeaux Cabernet Blends that have been revived by Châteaux la Lagune and Palmer. But we still treat Cabernet and Merlot as though their marriage was written in the stars.

But who’s to say which other blends might not be even more exciting? After all, I remember the late great Australian winemaker, Peter Lehmann, telling an audience at the Viogner Symposium in South Australia that he’d once been delighted with the result of co-fermenting Shiraz with Muscadelle.

Innovation can involve doing something entirely new, reviving or adapting a tradition that’s been forgotten or set aside – or simply applying a different perspective.

So, while I, naturally, applaud the latest delicious wannabe-Champagne from the English South Downs, to be frank, I’m a lot more excited by the bottle-fermented, frizzante Barbera, my friend and kindred spirit Roberto Bava has just started to produce in Piedmont. I’ve no idea whether the market will embrace it any more enthusiastically than my non-vintage Bordeaux. But I loved it. And so, apparently does Roberto’s 80+-year old father. So, I guess that’s what you could call a success.
Robert Joseph

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