Good wine needs no label


The Pendock/Platter wine war was picked up on Saturday by By, lifestyle supplement in several Afrikaans language newspapers. With Afrikaans the lingua franca of the wine producing industry, this is a serious escalation in the war of words. My translation of Emile Joubert’s story:

winewars Good wine needs no label

Watwo jakkalse. Dié wingerd is vol katte.

Watch out jackals. This vineyard is full of cats.

Enigiemand wat gedink het die binnegevegte in die Afrikaanse literêre wêreld is kwaai – soos dit die laaste paar weke weer in By na vore gekom het – moet ‘n slag kyk hoe sommige wynskrywers te kere gaan. Dit is nie ‘n plek vir sensitiewe siele nie, en hul bitsige uitsprake, in suur gedoopte geskrifte, aantygings en persoonlike beledigings het my laat wonder waarom ‘n lid of twee van hierdie spesie nog nie in dooie vorm in ‘n vat vol pinotage geëindig het nie. Trouens, as dit eendag wel gebeur, sal ‘n paar van die wynskrywers hul moordenaar-kollega uittrap omdat hy pinotage bo merlot verkies het. Hoewel ek nou al jare hierdie spektakel aanskou, is gemoedere in die wyngemeenskap tans op sy hoogste. En voordat die jaar sy einde bereik en die nuwe pars­jaar ingelui word, gaan dit nog in felheid toeneem. Alles oor twee boeke.

Anyone who thinks the internal fights in Afrikaans literature are vicious – like those that flared up in By over the past few weeks – should take a look at how some wine hacks carry on. It is not a place for sensitive souls and the bitchy comments, accusations and personal insults dipped in acid make me wonder how come a member or two of this species has not been found dead in a vat of Pinotage. If this does indeed happen one day, there will surely be a few who will complain that their murdering colleague chose Pinotage instead of Merlot. Although I’ve been following this spectacle for years, passions are at their highest at the moment. And before the year ends and a new vintage dawns, it will increase further in intensity. All because of two books.

Aan die een kant is daar Platter’s South African Wine Guide, die bekendste wynboek in Suid-Afrika wat ook internasionaal hoog aangeskryf is – sodanig dat dit verlede jaar bekroon is met die Louis Roederer Internasionale Toekenning vir die beste wyngids.?Platter, soos almal hom ken, verskyn jaarliks sedert die wynskrywer John Platter die eerste verbruikersgids vir Suid-Afrikaanse wyne in 1980 saamgestel het. Platter is lankal nie meer betrokke nie, maar die publikasie is ‘n instelling onder die 60 000 of wat mense wat elke jaar die boek opraap wanneer dit voor die Kerstyd verskyn. Hierdie gewildheid is ook in kommersiële sukses omgeskakel – veral aangesien die Platter-gids mildelik deur advertensies gesubsidieer word. Die boekie, die 2009-weergawe wat middel-November bekend gestel word, laat die geld instroom.

On the one hand is Platter’s SA Wine Guide, the best known SA wine book that is also internationally respected – so much so that last year it won the Louis Roederer International Award for best wine guide. Platter, as eveyone calls it, has appeared annually since wine writer John Platter compiled the first consumer guide in 1980. Platter is no longer involved but the publication remains an institution for around 60 000 or so people when it appears before Christmas. This popularity translates to commercial success – especially since the Platter guide is subsidised by advertisements. The 2009 edition will be released mid-November and the money will start rolling in.

Aan die ander kant van vanjaar se GWG (Groot Wyngeveg) is ‘n nuwe wynboek geskryf deur Neil Pendock, wynskrywer van onder meer die Sunday Times, die tydskrif Wine en die Financial Mai l. Dié boek, Sour Grapes (Tafelberg), is – anders as Platter – geen gids nie. Trouens, Sour Grapes kan gelees word as ‘n gids tot die probleemgebiede in die Suid-Afrikaanse wynbedryf; en dit is hier waar die twee pole byeenkom. Want volgens Pendock is een van die wynbedryf se probleemgebiede die einste Platter-gids. Ek meen, op die voorblad van Sour Grapes staan dit in swart-en-wit: “Neil has written the book I told him not to write – John Platter.”

On the other side of this year’s Big Wine Fight is a new wine book writen by Neil Pendock, wine writer for the Sunday Times, WINE magazine and the Financial Mail, amongst others. This book, Sour Grapes (Tafelberg), is – unlike Platter – not a guide. In fact Sour Grapes can be read as a guide to the problem areas of SA wine and it is here the two poles collide. Because, according to Pendock, one of the wine industry’s biggest problems is the Platter guide. On the cover of Sour Grapes, in black and white, appears “Neil has written the book I told him not to write – John Platter.”

Waaroor die suur druiwe gaan, is iets waarvan baie van die Platter-gids se lesers dalk nie bewus is nie, want wie lees nou al die fynskrif aan die begin? En dit is dat die wyne wat in die Platter-gids gelys en beskryf word, en met een tot vyf sterre bekroon is, nie “blind” geproe word nie.?Wat dit beteken, is dat die gids se 15 of wat proeërs die presiese identiteit van die wyne weet vóórdat hulle hul blomryke adjektiewe inspan om die wyn aan die lesers van Platter te beskryf en hul sterre toe te ken.

The reason for the grapes being sour is something many of Platter readers are perhaps not aware of, for who reads the small print at the beginning? And that is that wines listed and described by the guide and crowned with between one and five stars, are not tasted blind. Which means that the guide’s 15 or so tasters know exactly the identity of the wines before they use flowerly language to describe the wines to readers and award stars.

Pendock het hiermee ‘n probleem. Hy voel ‘n gids soos dié, wat die grootste mate van insig in die Suid-Afrikaanse wynbedryf bied, moet vereis dat die proepanele die wyne “blind” proe. Met ander woorde, haal die etiket van die bottel af en laat die proeër die wyne beoordeel sonder enige kans dat vooraf-persepsies van ‘n betrokke produsent of ‘n wyn se reputasie die oordeelsvermoë van die proeër dalk sal belemmer.

Pendock has a problem with this. He thinks such a guide, the most influential in the SA industry, should require that tasting panels assess wines blind. In other words, remove the label and assess the wine without any preconceptions of the producer’s reputation or a wine’s reputation which may influence the taster.

Philip van Zyl, die redakteur van die Platter-gids, meen daar is geen “regte” of “verkeerde” manier om wyn te beoordeel nie. “Daar is slegs die menings van mense met wisselende grade van kennis, ervaring en insig wat een of meer stukke evalueringsgereedskappe inspan,” sê Van Zyl. “Hierdie twee stukke gereedskap is ‘blinde proeë’ of die proe van wyne waar die identiteit van die wyn vooraf bekend is. Albei het voordele en nadele, en geeneen is perfek nie.” Pendock verkies ‘n meer reguit benadering. “Om die wyne vir die gids blind te proe, is die enigste manier om die speelveld gelyk te maak vir die meer as 6 000 wyne wat in die gids figureer.”?Hy gaan verder: “Waarom bly die Platter-gids wyne se identiteit aan die beoordelaar bekend maak voordat die oordeel gevel word? Want as die wyne blind geproe is, sou ‘n hele spul van die bedryf se heilige koeie – wynname soos Meerlust en Vergelegen, onder meer – in die gids afgeslag word.”

Philip van Zyl, editor of Platter, holds there is no “correct” or “incorrect” method of judging wine. “There is only opinions of people with varying degrees of knowledge, experience and insight who use one or more evaluation methodologies” says Van Zyl. “These two methods are ‘blind tastings’, or the tasting of wines with the identities known before hand. Both have advantages and disadvantages and neither is perfect.” Pendock prefers a more direct approach. “The only way to ensure a level playing field for rating the more than 6000 wines which appear in the guide is through blind tasting.” He continues “why are the identities of wines known to judges before they make assessments? Because if wines were tasted blind a whole herd of sacred cows – including brands like Meerlust and Vergelegen – might get slaughtered.”

Pendock is gekwalifiseerd om hieroor te praat, aangesien hy vyf jaar lank vir die gids geproe het. (Die gerug dat Pendock deur die gidsspan afgedank is, is deur Van Zyl en Pendock ontken. Albei partye het die verhouding op vriendskaplike voet beëindig.) Van Zyl meen weer Platter se oop-en-bloot-manier van wynbeoordeling help sy span proeërs om “?’n vollediger ervaring sowel as begrip” van ‘n wyn te ontwikkel. “Dit loop uit op ‘n kundiger en meer genuanseerde beoordeling van elke wyn, wat hopelik tot ‘n meer leesbare en insiggewende boek lei,” meen Van Zyl.

Pendock is qualified to comment in this respect as he tasted for the guide for five years. (The rumour that Pendock was fired by the guide is rejected by Van Zyl and Pendock. Both parties ended the relationship on a friendly note.) Van Zyl holds that sighted tastings give his team of tasters “a more complete experience and understanding” of a wine. “The result is a more knowledgable and nuanced assessment of each wine which hopefully leads to a more readable and insightful book.”

“Nadat die proeër die jongste oesjaar van ‘n betrokke wyn geproe het, kan hy of sy die wyn se onlangse geskiedenis nagaan om te bepaal of gehalte verbeter of verswak het, en of die wyn se persoonlikheid enigsins verander het.”

“After the taster has tasted the latest vintage of a particular wine he or she can compare it to recent history to determine whether quality is improving or declining and whether the wine’s personality has changed in anyway.”

Dit is juis waar “persoonlikheid” ter sprake kom dat Pendock se hoofbesware aangeteken word. “Die mense wat gekies word om wyne vir die Platter-gids te beoordeel, sluit in wynhandelaars, kommersiële wynmakers en hoogs betaalde konsultante wat vir wynplase en kleinhandelaars werk. Hoe op aarde kan mens dan verwag dat menings onafhanklik en werklik objektief kan wees?” vra Pendock.

“Personality” is exactly why Pendock raises his main objection. “The Platter tasters include wine retailers, commercial winemakers and highly paid consultants to wine farms and retailers. How on earth can people expect independent opionions and true objectivity?” asks Pendock.

“Al hierdie kwessies en verdenkings sal eensklaps verdwyn as die wyne vir die gids blind geproe word. Onthou, dit is nie net die verbruiker wat ly onder die gebrek aan ‘n ware objektiewe mening nie – die Platter-gids hou groot finansiële implikasies vir die produsent in. Supermarkte en restaurante maak op die Platter-beoordelings staat om wyne te skuif, en sodoende kan ‘n produsent gemaak of gebreek word. Ware objektiewe beoordelings is dus seker nie te veel om te vra nie.”

“All these issues and suspicions will disappear immediately if blind tastings are adopted. Remember, it is not only the consumer who suffers from a lack of objectivity – the Platter guide has huge financial implications for producers. Supermarkets and restaurants rely on Platter to shift wine and can make or break a producer. True objectivity is surely not too much to ask for.”

Dit is kennelik nie net Pendock wat so dink nie. Verskeie produsente het begin om hul wyne aan die Platter-gids te onttrek omdat die wyne nie almal gelyk – blind – beoordeel word nie.?”Ons is ‘n grootskaalse aankoper en verspreider van wyne wat ons onder ons eie etiket versprei,” sê Ray Edwards, hoof van die supermarkgroep Spar se drankafdeling.?”Vanweë ons aard as groot en kommersieel sal ons nie die erkenning kry wat ons wyne verdien nie. Daarom het ons wynreekse uit Platter onttrek.”

Pendock is not the only one to think so. Several producers have started withdrawing their wines from the Platter guide as wines are not all judged the same. “We are large scale buyers and distributors of wine which we distribute under our own label” says Ray Edwards, head of the liquor division of the Spar supermarket group. “Because we are a large commercial operation our wines will not achieve the recognition they deserve. Therefore, we have withdrawn our brands from Platter.”

In die ego- en persoonlikheidsgedrewe wynwêreld bly die argument en debat egter nie logies nie. ‘n Goeie voorbeeld is die geskrifte van Tim James, een van die Platter-gids se mede-redakteurs wat in die bedryf as Toxic Tim bekend staan. In die Oktober-uitgawe van Noseweek beskerm hy die Platter-domein deur te wonder of Pendock se geskrifte en kruistogte teen onder meer die gids nie ‘n teken is dat Pendock – letterlik – van sy kop af raak nie. En op James se amateur-wynwebwerf, www.grape.co.za, word logika weer oorboord gegooi wanneer hy Pendock se Sour Grapes op grond van hoorsê afskiet sonder dat hy die boek gesien het. Daar kan dus suur druiwe oor Platter wees, maar die gevoelens is kennelik wedersyds. Mag daar egter nog veritas in die vino wees. Laasgenoemde is immers al wat tel.

In the ego and personality-driven world of wine, the argument and debate does not remain logical. A good example are the writings of Tim James, a Platter associate editor, known as Toxic Tim in the industry. In the October edition of Noseweek, he defends Platter turf by wondering whether Pendock’s writing and campaign against (amongst others) the guide is not a symptom that Pendock is litterally going mad. And on the James amateur wine website www.grape.org.za logic is again jettisoned when he shoots down Pendock’s Sour Grapes on the basis of rumour, without having seen the book. There are sour grapes about Platter and the feeling is mutual. Let’s hope we’ll eventually get truth in wine as that’s all that matters.

Emile Joubert is ‘n wynskrywer en wynbedryfkonsultant.

Emile Joubert is a wine writer and wine industry consultant.