A sideways, possibly squiffy, glance at medals and stars

It’s that time of year. My email in-tray is awash with PR blandishments in which the word “gold” features prominently. Mostly about Veritas, but also the international Wine and Spirits Competition right now. Plus mention of Platter stars. Are producers desperate, or what? It’s rather sad, and I feel a bit guilty when I delete these emails unread – which I resolutely do, as I’m sure most of the recipients do. If I’m right about that (and what are we meant to do with the news that so and so has received a few medals at Veritas? Maybe the bloggers reproduce it all faithfully, with doubtful effect  – which just means that in addition to their other financial woes the wineries end up with big bills from the PR companies (who don’t come cheap) to little purpose.

I mean, how impressive is it to get a Veritas gold? Not even a double gold. But that’s where Veritas is very clever in their extra tier of medals above gold – it sounds impressive to get a gold medal, but in fact it’s only a second-best, the equivalent of a silver from most other competitions (except Michelangelo, which also clever realised this trick of inflating their medal status).

Mind, I’m not diminishing the usefulness of the medal itself, just the PR puffing of it. The other advantage that Veritas has is that they have the best stickers, perfect little shiny circles, where the bronze looks almost as impressive as the gold, and the double gold looks amazingly like proof of excellence to the innocent! And the Veritas list is pretty near as impressive as anyone’s. For a while, it started looking like Veritas was going to end up without a good representation of the top wineries, but that’s certainly not the case this year – there are more than enough big names to give it credibility.

And Platter, which tends to be thought of as an alternative to all these big competitions? Frankly, the five star awards are (nearly) as vulnerable to criticism as those gold medals – precisely because, in the final analysis they are awarded in the same way: by a blind tasting.

A fellow Platter taster recently commented to me a trifle bitterly about this and pointed out the anomaly. He’d been struck by the fact that he had spent many hours pondering over the qualities of certain wines, tasting and re-tasting over a few days, before offering them to the panel of blind tasters to decide on their fate on the basis of a pretty quick sniff and swirl around the tastebuds before spitting.

Why doesn’t Platter have the courage of its convictions: if it thinks that a sighted tasting is a valid way of assessing wines, then why suddenly get all bashful and backtrack when it comes to the five stars, and insist that they must be tasted blind?

Of course, I’m pretty relieved that some 5-star nominations don’t get onto the final list (see the debate inaugurated by Melvyn Minnaar’s provocative opinions about the lack of Pinotage 5-stars). But I’m also pretty miffed at some of the failures – not only my nominations that failed. For example, I put forward the Anwilka 2009, which seems to me a very fine wine, by far the best of the Anwilkas produced thus far, with more structure and seriousness than this producer has hitherto ventured. Certainly worthy of five stars to me.

But it didn’t make it. While a few to my mind rather iffy wines did get through. I’ve become a bore about my lack of respect for big blind tastings and their ability to really well sort out the good from the bad, and the Platter five-star tasting is not immune to such criticism. Even with two teams tasting, and the variety of wines involved that they’re tasting, 75-odd is too many wines, in too rushed conditions (a short morning, with no discussion about the wines), to deliver unexceptionable results, in my opinion.

On the other hand, it’s not as bad as tasting 150 wines in a day as regularly happens in the big competitions. And there is often a degree of consistency, which it’s difficult to argue against. For three years – for example – the tasting teams have awarded Newton Johnson Domaine Pinot Noir five stars, and for three years they have denied them to Paul Cluver Seven Flags Pinot Noir.

The trouble is the alternative to the existing system. What would be a good one? I don’t know. I do think a review of wines for the highest honour is vital. I’d prefer discussion to be involved, and more time. Certainly I don’t like the idea of accepting all 150 nominations for 5 stars (given that I don’t trust all the tasters’ opinions, just as they wouldn’t all trust mine).  I think there must be a good alternative, somewhere. But whether it would be economically or logistically feasible, is another matter entirely.

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