Toque takes on Anorak – part I

I’ve been bombarded with requests for digital copies of my story Head on a Platter in the Ferbruary edition of Wine Tourism News. The original story was in two parts and was expertly trimmed and merged in a reverse conjoined-twin operation by editor Donald Paul. Here is part I. Part II on the weekend.
m1 Toque takes on Anorak   part I
The annual Platter’s wine guide, this year of choleric red complexion and pronounced middle-aged spread, has been taken on by young whippersnapper Crush!, unleashing a torrent of vitriol from Mount Anorak.

Subject and recommended retail price are about the only things these two guides agree on. Crush! is a personal selection of a top 100 SA cuvées by Michael Olivier, chef, bon-vivant and memoirist – an English-speaking Louis Leipoldt, if you like. Platter is the collective effort of 15 tasters – winemakers, highly paid industry consultants, retailers and sommeliers, none of whom claim any foodie skills, alas.

The prince of Pinotage, Beyers Truter, penned Platter’s foreword while I performed the same service for Crush! and our themes, independently arrived at, are the same – how to get more people to drink (responsibly). My target was the snobbish pedestal on which wine is placed in a crystal decanter, the biggest barrier to increased domestic consumption according to Johann Krige, owner of Stellenbosch First Growth Kanonkop, speaking at the Soweto Wine Festival last year.

“Price, availability and the honest beauty of the fermented fruit of the vine disappear in a blizzard of capsicum, cassia and esoteric debates about acceptable levels of Brettanomyces contamination and the joys of linearity” is how I put it. Beyers was blunter: “when we talk about our wines, the pH, TA and VA should be on your fact sheet, not in your speech.”

That Platter’s asked, and Beyers wrote, confirms the distance SA wine has travelled in the last decade. A generation ago the eponymous Platters were being reported to the Stellenbosch security police as “communists.” But while varietals, styles and quality have moved to another country, the tell-tale bitterness of the old SA is still present – but thankfully in the writing rather than the bottle.

Platter’s associate editor Tim James, who lists his tasting qualifications as “a PhD in English literature but ‘no proper ambitions’ or a full-time job”, posted a less-than-complimentary review of Crush! on his Grape website at the end of last year with the verdict: “charming, if inconsequential.” Inappropriate adjectives and undisclosed conflicts of interest are more serious accusations raised but of course by neglecting to declare his own position on the competing Platter’s guide, pointing out the mote of MO’s wine consultancy at Pick ‘n Pay without seeing the stick in his own tunica fibrosa oculi, is a confirmation of clichés of Biblical proportion.

The conflicts of interest in wine reportage story is an old and an on-going one. In Tom Stevenson’s pricey Wine Report 2007 (Dorling Kindersley) SA correspondents Dr. James and fellow Platter’s associate editor Cathy van Zyl note sternly: “too many journalists are also consultants to wineries, or own wine shows, or provide public-relations services to parts of the industry” with the point well made by the mini-bios of tasters of their own organ.

As to the charge of inappropriate adjectival phrases like “brilliantly fruited” and “a long tail of fabulous and lingering sweetness” – which some mind find poetic – that Dr. James inhabits a fragile glass house of Crystal Place proportions is confirmed by his own adjectival excesses in Platter’s.

The Sagila Chenin Blanc of fellow Platter pundit and commercial winemaker Mzokhona Mvemve exhibits “pleasing bounciness” (they taste the wines sighted) while the first Vergelegen red flagship is possessed of/by “immaculate fruit, alluring texture, suave tannin” and is declared “beguiling, incipiently complex” which requires the new M-Net PVR decoder for translation. Dr. James avers that “fabulous” is MO’s favourite descriptor while his own is “immaculate” which is unlikely to do much to enhance the cause of Beyers’ crusade to bring wine back to the people.

Yet when you consider the intersection and compare two wines they both pronounce on, you wonder what Dr. James is getting so steamed up about. Take the Oak Valley Pinot Noir 2006 as a randomly chosen example. MO’s note: “when Anthony and Madeleine Rawbone Viljoen produced their first Oak Valley Sauvignon Blanc, the local wine world was muttering ‘is this the finest Cape Sauvignon yet?’ It’s a great wine. But what endeared me most to their Pinot Noir was that I drank it with some fabulous ceps freshly gathered from under the oaks at Oak Valley. What a combo! The forest floor freshly picked mushroom smells combined with classical Burgundy cherries and strawberries and new French oak gently humming in the background – clever use of classy oak by winemaker Pieter Visser.”

Dr. James’ opinion: “Like 05, soft red berries & earth on finer, lovelier 06. Clean, pure fruit held lightly in fresh & charming, rather than forceful structure; subtly wooded (50% new), well balanced.” Telegram style notwithstanding, essentially the same information is being imparted, albeit in a more folksy, accessible manner in Crush!

Hyperbole and arcane adjectives aside, perhaps the biggest difference between the two is a change of emphasis away from ratings to price in Crush! Although MO does quote Platter’s stars when they exist (a trickle of producers have withdrawn from Platter’s with a flood forecast) wines are arranged by price in four categories. Price, after all, is the most important feature for most consumers and the lack thereof in Platter’s detracts from its use as a consumer guide.

At the end of the day, its horses for courses and personal preferences. If you enjoy the anecdotal approach of a Louis Leipoldt or the faux-scientific precision of Platter’s, calibrated to half a star and an opinion on the most obscure of brands, then Platter’s is your pick.