The first of this year’s wine competitions announced its results recently and there have been the usual responses from the wine-chattering class of interest, indifference and scepticism. I felt all of those – the interest component better characterised as vague curiosity, perhaps, hugely outweighed by the scepticism.
Basically, these competitions consist of “experts” confronting multiple line-ups of 100 or more identically presented wines. They give each a deep judicial sniff, swirl it thoughtfully around the mouth, spit it out, accord a score and move on down the line. I respect the judges’ integrity and seriousness, and undoubtedly some are better at this task than others (appalled by it all, I have not even tried for many years). To my knowledge, however, any objective testing of judges’ consistency and accuracy gives grounds for no conclusion other than that, for various reasons, the task is essentially impossible.
Last week’s results were from the so-called Top 100 SA Wines awards. It is a deeply problematic name that caused ire last year at its first outing, especially because the “top 100” were chosen from a mere 390 entries, which omitted much of the generally accepted elite of Cape wines. Of course, it is the ostensible purpose of such competitions to challenge received wisdom by tasting the wines without knowing their identity, but a grandiose name like this demands, at the least, a rather more substantial entry.
This year, the number judged was even more pitiful – just 366. To put that in context, the Veritas competiton normally approaches 2 000; the Trophy Wine Show gets about 1 000. True, many important wineries did enter, but just seven out of the of the country’s top 20 wineries, as voted for by industry professionals and announced not long ago in the Mail & Guardian, were represented in the winning list.
Jordan was the best performer with six wines included, whereas other top 20 wineries Klein Constantia, Tokara and Hamilton Russell had two each. Meanwhile, at least a few of those presented as among the “Top 100 SA Wines” were pretty dubious inclusions.
Fortunately, South African wine has improved sufficiently enough in past years that most lists of winners are vaguely plausible overall, even if one sees the judging process as fundamentally a lottery. But just how useful is it to winnow down a list of 366 wines to 100?
It is surely doubtful that this particular competition will survive long without attracting more producer commitment. Wine competitions are profitable businesses, but only if they can get many hefty entrance fees and, crucially, enough prestige to attract a lucrative sponsor.
Actually, since writing that, I’ve come to wonder. The way the Top 100 is structured maybe means that it is guaranteed to make quite a pile anyway – a lot of the expenses “in-house” because the competition owner hosts the event at his upmarket guest-house; just as pertinent is that the entrance fees are high, and then the winning wines have to fork out a great deal more, ostensibly to cover costs of appearing in the book. (Very costly for Jordan!) Nonetheless, the inability so far to attract a major sponsor must be as disappointing to the organisers as is the rather pathetic list of entries. And the available evidence also suggests that there is a great deal of ego at stake.
It will be interesting to see whether other competitions this year also show a decline in participation. I had earlier predicted that Top 100 was going to improve its entry this year, because it had a lot going for it. But that was before the organiser of this competition, Robin von Holdt, got some bad publicity when he sued a wine blogger over some robust negative comments in connection with a related competition about wine lists. The suit was hastily withdrawn, but damage was surely done. More was done when the disgruntled publisher of the Top 100 book last year went public complaining about the way it was jilted this year.
Was the bad publicity the only cause? Times are tough, entrance fees considerable and competition results often bizarre. And how valuable, actually, is that shiny sticker on the bottle?
This is an extended version of an article which appeared in the Mail & Guardian, 26 April-4 May 2012. The wine recommendation that accompanied it will appear later.