Richard Hemming MW: Discovering the world’s next great wine

J K Rowling was rejected 12 times before her debut novel was published. Today, the Harry Potter franchise has grossed more than $25 billion, and 12 people have presumably never stopped kicking themselves.

Aspiring writers often cite Rowling’s rejections to prove that you should never give up, but that is to misunderstand the moral of the story. In reality, most writers who get rejected 12 times don’t end up getting a deal. Top literary agents receive thousands of submissions a year, but only take on a handful of new clients. Rowling is an outlier of Hagrid-sized proportions. 

Furthermore, her good fortune doesn’t mean that quality will always prevail. Nor will dross always fail: the 50 Shades of Grey franchise was critically panned but bewilderingly successful. And many are the worthy books with huge critical acclaim that rapidly disappear into obscurity.

Rowling’s Rule can apply to everything from footballers to films to wine. It has three important principles: first, that the majority of things are, almost by definition, average quality; second, success sometimes comes despite (ostensible) quality; and third, quality by itself doesn’t guarantee success.

Many wine professionals are familiar with the experience of tasting dozens of wines within a category that are more or less the same in terms of style and quality. It’s the same reason most wines in competitions get bronze medals. Despite winemakers insisting that their wines “truly reflect their unique terroir”, most wine is average. That’s the first principle.

Simultaneously, we often bewail the commoditised, confected style of Barefoot, much to the indifference of millions of consumers who appreciate its unpretentious marketing and lap up its easy-drinking, fruity style. That’s the second principle, and we should never be snobbish about categories and brands that bring pleasure to so many – after all, bringing pleasure is a fundamental purpose for wine.

Whereas the third principle, that quality doesn’t guarantee success, implies one of the most enduring attractions of wine: that the world’s next great wines are still out there, just waiting to be discovered. Has the next DRC or Lafite or Grange already been rejected 12 times? It’s an intriguing thought. With every new vintage, there are new cuvées, new producers, new regions and even new grape varieties being released. It is inevitable that there are discoveries waiting to happen.

This doesn’t happen overnight. The world’s greatest wines earn their reputation over many decades, and there is widespread consensus regarding their excellence – although value for money might be another matter. Producers generally need to build up a long track record before they can establish their quality credentials. But this can be part of the attraction with wine – waiting for the next vintage and watching how style and quality evolve over the years. Retailers have a brilliant opportunity – perhaps even a duty – to unearth the great wines of the future. Most of what you taste won’t be, but one in a thousand just might. Miss it, and you could well end up kicking yourself for eternity.

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