Late night thoughts: oh no, another competition!

Of course, if wine competitions were impeccably reliable guides to quality, we’d need only one of them. Wouldn’t that be nice! The fact that there are so many, with mostly mutually exclusive results, says it all.

Now we have another entrepreneur trying to persuade the wineries to part with their money in a pricey game of wine roulette. Top 100 SA Wines (which looks like a very clever, well-thought through concept – see the comprehensive website) is pricier than most – not only in its primary entry fee, but if your wine makes it through to that top 100 list the bill is R12 500 plus VAT, which covers inclusion in a book. You also stump up lots of wine at half price for “festivals”. It comes to a nice, guaranteed revenue stream, as I believe its called, for the organiser. (Of course it’s all being done for the good of the country!)

Do we really need another competition – even one that isn’t going for medals and rankings and promises winners more publicity than usually comes with these shows? Will enough hard-pressed wineries think it’s worth it? It’ll be interesting to see; they’ll need at least 500 entries to be vaguely plausible, surely.

No we don’t need another competition, was the heartfelt opinion of a top-end Stellenbosch winemaker I was chatting to about it, and he doesn’t intend entering. But, he added, interestingly, its nice for producers seeing the competitions getting in a tizz and competing with each other for customers, in the way that they have to do!

Because, be in no doubt the other competition organisers are fully aware that most wineries have limited budgets for gambling, and if they decide to try their luck here, the chances are they’ll pull out of Michelangelo, or Trophy Wine Show, or whatever. Here’s one prediction from me (though I can’t begin to guess at the overall response to the competition from producers): Distell will go in for it in a big way; they have lots of money, and quite a number of plausible wines in the Nederburg and Fleur du Cap ranges – enough to be statistically likely to win a few places.

But, it occurs to me – it could be something more than a minor problem for the competition’s credibility if, as could easily happen, Distell got ten or so slots in the Top 100. And perhaps Kleine Zalze, with their clever, good, showy wines, could strike it lucky and get another five? It wouldn’t be the same as Nederburg getting five five-stars in Platter or five gold medals in a competition – because there you have a whole lot of other wines getting silver medals or other high rankings, and the highest level is not exposed in such a lonely fashion.

The other problem for credibility, of course, in a competition arrogant (or cynical) enough to call itself what this one does, is if few of the acknowledged leading wineries take part. Will it be easy to market a book purportedly listing the Top 100 SA wines if there’s no Vergelegen, Boekenhoutskloof, Sadie, Tokara, Thelema, etc, etc – and it’s almost guaranteed that most of the tiny prestigious wineries will not be entering this (or any other) competition.

I’d guess that an undoubted leading winery, Cape Point Vineyards, will enter, as might well Mulderbosch or Kanu – because their winemakers are judges. Are things in place to ensure no conflicts of interest here? And there are other winemakers on the grandiloquently, not to say pretentiously, named “Industry Executive” which is somehow associated with the whole enterprise. Cederberg, Klein Constantia, Steenberg and Raats are represented there – so presumably their wines will also be entered, adding to the conflicts of interest floating around.

All these winemakers are there, incidentally, presumably because they happen to be members of the tasting group to which Robin von Holdt, the leader of the whole thing, belongs. It’s a nice homely touch to all the slickness!

There’s more than a little inspiration for this competition from the Trophy Wine Show – tripartite panels each including one eminent foreign judge, the show-book-roadshow formula, etc. And one particularly interesting thing. It was reported by the late lamented Widow in the October-December issue of the print Grape (and it went unchallenged at the time) that the first issue of Icons (the book of the show) was to be called ‘SA’s 100 best wines’. But, said the Widow, “the publishers backed down at the last minute … realising that this would have been somewhat hubristic, considering some of the wineries and wines missing.”

Icons continues to boast about “South Africa’s best wines reviewed” – but that’s slightly less claimful than saying directly that you are presenting the “top 100 South African wines” which is  what this new competition looks likely to do. The book will be, announces the website hopefully and somewhat prematurely, “the global reference point for those who enjoy or wish to enjoy SA’s finest wines”.

I’m not sure what a “global reference point” could be, but still. To call the competition, and the resultant book, the Top 100 SA Wines is surely fraudulent, given that not all the plausible candidates for such a title will be entering (of that you can be certain). I wonder idly if the book title would therefore be legally challengeable by some leading winery not appearing in it, either because the judges ignored them or because they hadn’t ventured their wines to the palates of people pretending they can usefully appraise 100 or so wines in a day?

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