Competition time

Oh dear – the wine competition season is looming. And if it is possible for something to loom with vigour and even aggression, the “Top 100” is doing so. The elegant word for it all is “egregious”. The press release announcing a call for entries to this competition is an impressive thing – even allowing for exaggerations, it shows the enormous effort made by the organiser to establish the “brand” over the past year.

Plenty of business-type jargon, beyond the “brand” reference. A bit ungrammatical and meaningless, but who cares: “Resource was focused and dedicated exclusively on promotion and market facing activity” more or less means something. And why not business? That is what competitions are all about – and what wineries are about too (though it’s nice when there’s an admixture of love and passion in the latter at least!).

And I’d wager something substantial that this competition is going to attract a much increased entry this year. Partly because it’s an immensely clever model, and partly (for now at least while it’s struggling to establish itself) it is hungry – I reckon that it’s working harder to get exposure for the wines that succeed than any other local competition does.

Organiser/investor Robin von Holdt is also, of course, more than anything, trying desperately to attract a big sponsorship, without which his venture is probably doomed.

The basic cleverness of the model, I think, has nothing to do with things like wine-judging protocols (which are more-or-less as good as possible, but the same is true of the Trophy Wine Show at least). My grudging admiration for this competition has to do with its abandonment of the old three- or four-tier medal system and its glorification of a single bench of unranked winners. (The fact that the name untruthfully implies that they’re the top wines of the country rather than merely the top ones entered, is another matter entirely.)

The advantage is clear. As an example, imagine that Kanonkop Paul Sauer, one of the most consistently highly regarded Cape wines, is entered in the two styles of competition and scores only moderately well in both (remarkably possible, believe me). In the one competition it gets a bronze model, which essentially means it has lost the gamble of entering. A mediocre result like this for such a wine is bad for its image – and for the image of the competition itself. In the other competition, it is one of the Top 100: it has won – OK, with 99 others, but still it has unassailably won.

Meanwhile, some perky, trashy little commercial wine, of the type that bedevils the results of all competitions, is also there in the top 100 – but no-one in this case is going to laugh too loudly, because no-one knows that it actually scored higher than the serious wines.

And all the producers are therefore happy, which is really the point of these competitions, because if they’re unhappy they won’t continue handing over lots of money to the competition owners. The main proof that the competitions are designed to please producers rather than primarily serve winelovers is proved by the fact that all of them, locally and internationally, decline to tell consumers which wines have failed to come into the winning enclosure at all – surely something which we are entitled to know.

Anyway, my bet is that this competition is destined to establish itself as a permanent fixture on the local wine scene. As a competition it is basically no better or worse than the best of the others, and is marketing itself better than all of them. That will not ensure its survival, however. There can be little doubt that so far the Top 100 “brand” is running deeply in the red, despite hefty entrance fees – the costs of bringing in fancy foreign judges are enormous, apart from anything else. It will be unprofitable until it attracts big sponsorship, and that is not a certainty in the current economic situation.

Myself, I confess I don’t much care one way or another. My main specific problem with this competition remains the lie which is embedded in its name. (I’m sorry to see that, a year on, journalist Cathy Marston has apparently forgotten this little problem in her newfound enthusiasm for the whole business.)

Myself, I remain convinced that competitions only add to the nonsense which prevents a decent wine culture from being established in the world. Partly because they present insuperable challenges to judges. A genuine wine culture has nothing to do with how wines are interpreted in huge line-ups – sniffed, swirled and spat out in a few moment by people whose more leisurely considered opinions I might value.

On the positive side, Cathy Marston tells us (the press release and the website do not, however), there will be some independent auditors involved in this year’s Top 100. The lack of them made last year’s results suspect in all ways, so I hope she’s right.

Also, as a side issue, I see that the much trumpeted “Wine Industry Executive” of competition organiser Robin von Holdt has been quietly downgraded to a “Fine Wine Forum”. This helps (not that the group of people has done anything that anyone has noticed over the past year). The arrogance of von Holdt was, last year, apart from the lie inherent in his competition name, the basis of my specific objection to his little venture (and the origin of the playful association in the pic alongside).

Perhaps there is even room to hope that Mr von Holdt will show a little bit of maturity and class, and cease his vitriolic utterances against those he sees as competitors thwarting his ambitions (the Platter Guide, for example), doubting journalists in general and some in particular (his vulgar personal attack on Angela Lloyd following her remarks about problems in the associated Top 100 winelist awards was surely embarrassing for his colleagues).

Last year’s Top 100 was marked by some controversy, of which the competition probably only  benefited. The British judges involved, Tim Atkin and Jamie Goode, became rather more publicly involved and partisan than was really seemly. Let’s hope all of this will be toned down a bit this year. It’s just another bloody moneymaking lottery, after all, even if a particularly cleverly designed one.

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