Judges seldom enjoy being judged. My immediate reaction on getting notification about the “Franschhoek Literary Festival SA Wine Writers Award, 2009”, suggesting I should enter “the best piece of writing you published in 2008 on any wine-related topic”, was to wriggle out of it and say that this was not my best vintage. But it’s not so easy – just as it’s not so easy for wine-producers deciding whether or not to enter a competiton. At least the organisers are not asking us to pay an entry fee and thereby enrich them. (Which reminds me to say that I will shortly be publishing the results of my little investigation into what competitions do with the bottles not used in the judging process: watch this space.)
If one is going to make the analogy, at least I have a track record of radically doubting the value of wine competitions, helping with an excuse if I want to stay aloof. But I’m in a bit of a problem as someone who sees value in sighted tastings as a basis for judgement. This competition doesn’t declare whether the judges will be given the names of the writers (some of whom they will know, some of whom they even have professional relationships with – this especially applies to Jancis Robinson who has paid and acknowledged at least me and Michael Fridjhon for our contributions to her works in the past), but writing styles are probably much more obvious than winemaking ones anyway, and there won’t be as many writers. Neil Pendock has disparaged (some) competitions and (all, bar his own) sighted tastings, so that he has the strongest position here, should he decide to keep away.
I suppose if this winewriting competition was going to be judged, though, in the same way that most wine competitions are judged, the judges would spend about 20 seconds looking at just a few sentences wrenched quite out of context, from each of a hundred or so competitors (sadly, there are likely to be many fewer than that). Sniff the sentences, swirl them round the brain, spit them out and write down the score, leaving it to the accountant to work out the average…. I trust it won’t be like that – though judging on the basis of a single piece of work is a bit problematical, I’d say.
Michael Fridjhon, I rather think, has the weakest grounds for choosing not to submit something, while, as the country’s best known winewriter he has most to lose by not winning a competition he enters. He is a supporter (as indeed I am, to a lesser extent), of both sighted and blind tastings. But remember Michael’s sneers at those who chose not to enter his Trophy Wine Show a few years back? It was all cowardice, he implied, on the part of those whose established reputations might not stand up to scrutiny. “They can run, but they cannot hide” was, I recall, his triumphant formula as he submitted non-participating wines like Boekenhoutskloof Syrah to a supplementary judgement. The organisers of the Wine Writers Award have not yet threatened to include one of Michael’s columns should he decline to honour them with an entry, but who knows?
In fact there are quite a few vaguenesses around. Not even a mention of non-English -language writers, which seems foolish and a bit insulting. The invitation to participate came from a PR company but was signed by eminent novelist Christopher Hope, Director of the Franschhoek Literary Festival. Was it he who wrote that the submitted wine-writing “will be judged on its literary merits”? Only literary merits? In which case why have two international winewriters (Jancis Robinson and Stephen Tanzer) amongst the three judges? Let’s hope there should also be some feeling that the writer should convey something useful and accurate about wine. If not, certainly the chances of one or two winewriters I can think of will be substantially enhanced.
Incidentally, Grape (in its printed form, I think, many years ago) once tried sounding out what wine-producers thought of winewriters, in the form of a poll of the producers that had been rated as the country’s top 20. My desultory search can’t produce the results, unfortunately; I’m almost certain of my recollection that Michael Fridjhon came top and that Neil Pendock and I companionably shared a place, because of a tied vote, further down the list. But inbetween? I can’t remember. Perhaps Angela Lloyd was one.
In this competition, I have a gut feeling that it will be won by an outsider – some professional wordsmith writing a story for a “lifestyle” publication. And I have more than a gut feeling that just about all the established winewriters are not relishing the prospect of the whole business.
A diligent reader and researcher informs me that Grape 12 carried a report of the producers’ vote on their top SA winewriters. Who were, in order: Michael Fridjhon, Angela Lloyd, Tony Mossop, Dave Hughes, Tim James & Neil Pendock.The choice of the top SA wine judges was: Dave Hughes, Michael Fridjhon, Tony Mossop, Gyles Webb, Angela Lloyd.