Progress? A wine magazine and a wine guide

It looks like positive developments should grow from the Platter discussion forum held last week. Certainly publisher Andrew McDowall seems confident that he and editor Philip van Zyl have learnt useful lessons, and also that more people in the wine industry have a better appreciation and understanding of Platter’s principles and prodedures. Some real improvements to Platter could come out of the meeting. I wish I felt as sanguine about developments at Wine magazine.

If “mastheads” – the picture and title package at the top of the electronic page in this case – tell a story, then the story is not a happy one for those who hope there’s a niche in South Africa for a focused magazine about wine. Last week the masthead on Wine mag’s weekly newsletter showed a bride – well, the lower quarter of one, anyway. (And weddings are the focus of this apology for a newsletter – a sad comedown from the days when we could look forward each week to receiving Christian Eedes’s always wine-interesting  Gulp!) Presumably the magazine’s desperate enthusiasm for weddings is more about tapping a new source of advertising revenue than getting a hosts of brides interested in the results of a blind tasting of riesling or whatever.

Meanwhile the masthead on the magazine’s website shows a plate of blue cheese and succulent figs. At least the current magazine cover, which foregrounds the same tasty plateful, does have a bottle and glass in the background, suggesting a modicum of interest in the subject. I realise that I am scarcely the person to give lofty advice about how to succeed in making a wine-focused magazine popularly successful, but I would, sadly, not bet a great deal on Wine magazine surviving if it proceeds much further down its current path of pushing wine into the background and thereby risking further alienating its core readers. I doubt if Christian and Wine can do lifestyle froth better than other magazines and attract new readers (brides, pizza-lovers, etc), to compensate for those more serious winelovers driven away by all the tedious trivia.

As to Platter: Andrew McDowall tells me that something like 230 people turned up at the forum, mostly producers. That extraordinary turnout is significant in itself, in showing the enduringly important role that Platter is seen to play in the industry. But McDowall had been anxiously worried that only the disaffected and disappointed would turn up, while those who feel broadly satisfied with the guide would not. But clearly that didn’t happen – there was some criticism, of course, but there was no general adversarial tone, and it sounds as if it was all very constructive.

And useful to all concerned. The Platter team learnt, for example, just how little comprehension there is of the basic distinction in the book between the “margin rating” of a wine – which, in effect, shows a track record over a few years, and the rating for the current vintage. Such matters are explained, of course, in the introduction to the guide – but how many people read it? Clearly not all the producers, and presumably very far from all the general readers.

If that was one of a few salutory lesson for McDowall and van Zyl, it seems that the producers were generally pretty surprised to hear details of just how much care and attention to their interests is given by tasters and editor. I, as someone involved in both those activities, believe strongly in this concern – but then again, I do have an axe to grind in the whole matter I’m relating. I do know, for example, just how often a wine is sent to another taster for a second opinion.  I’m relieved that the audience at the forum didn’t seem to have much problem with the current judges (though individuals weren’t discussed), or the basic methodology.

One point from a producer which was apparently enthusiastically taken up by others was the suggestion that, while the sighted tasting system is OK, it would be strengthened by more than one person tasting and judging each wine. Last year, in fact, Platter adopted a system whereby all producers having their wines judged for the first time were rated by a team (of three, I think) rather than an individual. I have before suggested that a possible model for all ratings would be the way we did tastings at Grape – sighted, with a consensus score reached, but with room for any significant dissenting opinion to be recorded.

The trouble with this is that it would be expensive for the publisher, as it would involve double or trebling the “taster-hours” involved in getting Platter done ­– and already the book is extremely expensive to produce (no entrance fee is demanded, a large number of people are involved, and the book only moves into profitability from the bit of advertising it carries, including the semi-advertorial stuff about restaurants and accommodation). Andrew tells me that the suggestion came from the floor that most wineries would be happy to pay a submission fee if it would involve perceived improvements.

So, things are changing – and I’ve only mentioned some of the stuff that was apparently talked about and that gave publisher and editor food for thought. I’m pretty sure that Platter is going to continue evolving; dialogue with the producers has been a useful informing process. Fortunately the signs are that it is evolving in a healthier direction than that pushed by the accountants dictating what should happen at poor old Wine mag. Or is it already WIne, Weddings and Waffle mag?

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