A worm in the garden of bad dreams


Johannesburg born novelist, fellow CBC old boy and Witsie, now domiciled “in a remote village in rural France”, Christopher Hope, published a collection of short stories last year called The Garden of Bad Dreams (Atlantic, 2008). A collection about which I was all set to interview him for a review in the Sunday Times if judging the Concours Mondial in Bordeaux had not clashed.

In his capacity as director of the Franschhoekfranschhoekcellarwines A worm in the garden of bad dreams
by franschhoekwines
Literary Festival
, Christopher invited me to “submit the best piece of writing you published in 2008 on any wine-related topic, for the Franschhoek Literary Festival’s SA Wine Writers Award” last week. An award that may turn into a nightmare suitable for inclusion in a sequel.

worm A worm in the garden of bad dreams

My eyebrows flew off the Richter scale when I ogled the prize – R25,000 – nearly two year’s pay writing columns for WINE magazine or a year at the Financial Mail in those salad days when I had a semi-regular slot.

As someone who’s been fairly vocal on the subject of blind versus sighted assessment of wine, I was dismayed to see the panel of judges: “Jancis Robinson MW (Financial Times wine writer, Oxford Companion To Wine Editor), Stephen Tanzer (International Wine Cellar editor, Food & Wine Magazine senior editor) and Duncan Minshull (BBC commissioning editor).” A curious choice indeed when the judging criterion is “literary merit.”

But then including two winespeak heavyweights (no personal insult intended) the laser beam of international attention is shone on SA wine, even if through a glass darkly in the case of some turgid prose that passes as winespeak. But with one judge having commercial connections with several high profile SA wine writers through a recently defunct column at WINE magazine and twice judging at the Trophy Wine Show, a whole shoal of red herrings and partial torpedos will be launched at an industry recently described on one communal blog as “a tragi-comical construct that lingers between consumer-capitalism, ego, muddle, squabbles and wishful-thinking.”

Blind assessment is a non-starter if you have any kind of distinctive style while given the requirement that submissions should have been published last year, if you leave off your name, a well-placed Google query would add it. Not to accuse the judges of a priori unprofessional behaviour, but as with most things vinous, perception counts way more than facts.

Not that the FLF organizers aren’t bending over backwards to accommodate conscientious objectors. When Emile Joubert pointed out that Afrikaans, the lingua franca of the industry, had been overlooked, the organizers quickly agreed to accept translations – which they would even do themselves if required.

Of course if the panel had included Christopher himself or André Brink (a bilingual bibulist who’s even written books on the stuff) the issue would never have raised its ugly xenophobic head.

My own take away order of Nando’s chicken with extra chili seems to have come home to roost. As Christopher himself noted “writing has always seemed to me to be a rather mischievous occupation. I write not to change the world but to undermine it, since the models on offer seem pretty dull most of the time.” Which is how I would describe Sour Grapes (Tafelberg, 2008) and many of my columns in the Sunday Times or on www.winenews.co.za. I can offer multiple irate letters to the editor from foreign wine identities whose modesty I had outraged and even a threatened lawsuit from Decanter in evidence.

To quote the master again: “much of life is odd and disorganized. Many people who pretend to be sure about things are either ingenuous or wicked. They are also often charlatans. One wants to record their utterances as a warning to others.” Hardly a point of view to endear you to your colleagues in the wonderful, whacky world of winespeak.