Top 100 SA Wines - an update

The most talked-about competition in SA gets a second look from Cathy.

by: Cathy Marston | 07 Apr 2011

So the week is over, the international judges have gone back home, 15 Riedel glasses have been broken – and the Top 100 SA Wines have been chosen and the book is at the printers as I write. No wine competition is without its detractors, but this one seems to have garnered far more than its fair share. Following a spirited twitter exchange with Chairman, Tim Atkin MW, I was invited to lunch last week to meet the judges and organiser Robin von Holdt and then returned this week in order to find out more about the competition – something which (as Robin forcefully pointed out) no journalist in SA had so far bothered to do, myself included – mea culpa. If you want to see the concerns I had originally, then click here, but these are some of the things I discovered during my two meetings.

One of the first things I learnt is Robin’s definition of, and emphasis on ‘Fine Wine.’ To his mind, the competition is only operating within this particular niche market (“I’m not trying to be all things to all men.”), and these are wines which he describes – perhaps somewhat shortly – as those having ‘balance’. He doesn’t see it as a definitive competition in terms of the results, but he does feel that it deserves credit for the methods they have employed and the lengths to which he has gone, trying to make this the most legitimate and stringent competition around. To read more of those methods, click here. Robin further assures me that none of the judges who may possibly have conflicts of interest, ie winemakers, judged on panels containing their own wines. Certainly all the judges were cheerfully ignorant of anything they had tasted so far during the week, whilst at the same time being incredibly complimentary of the standard of wines entered.

So South Africa definitely has fine wines, but Robin feels that we haven’t marketed them internationally as well as, say, Australia, for example. “Other countries have pulled together better than us – in South Africa, we tend to want to do things differently from each other.” But what about WOSA, I asked? Isn’t it their job to market SA wines overseas? “Absolutely” agrees Robin, “I hope that they can see this competition as an additional tool for them to use.” His idea is that Top 100 SA Wines has a host of different applications and implications – he plans to utilise it in terms of year-round, global marketing for the wines involved (something which he says is not offered by any other competition) and also believes there will be benefits for the high-end tourism industry (a sector of the market which he obviously knows well) servicing the cash-rich/time-poor elite.

In fact, he has actually gone one step further in suggesting that an off-shoot of the competition should be the creation of an Industry Executive to assist in the global positioning of South African wines. Once again treading on WOSA’s toes? Well, I asked him about that too, and his response was that WOSA president Su Birch has been invited to attend and will happily do so if she is available. The first meeting is planned for late April/early May – I await its thoughts with interest.

Setting up your own industry forums? Naming your competition ‘Top 100 SA Wines’? Suggesting (by implication admittedly) that other competitions lack integrity and good governance? Questioning whether the scoring system as used worldwide is good enough (a little point slipped in at the end of the judging rules)? Whiffs of arrogance perhaps? Maybe so, but equally you could argue a real, and potentially widespread, frustration with systems and situations which don’t conform to his ideas of good business practice and which don’t further the cause of fine South African wine, something which I honestly believe is very dear to his heart.

What I did suggest to him – and which he admitted he could have been done better – was that his communication of the competition, its aims and intentions and the entire process was not that great. “If time had allowed, we would have like to have had a press launch, but we simply didn’t have time.” The website is almost too comprehensive and Robin’s obsessive attention to detail has led to a lot of information being included, not always as accessibly as he might have wished. Personally, I think it would have been better to have left the industry executive and the points system discussion out of the reckoning for the time being, or at least to have separated them in some way from the competition as I feel it has slightly confused the aims of all three issues.

But as the saying goes – ‘there are no perfect men, only perfect intentions.’ I strongly suspect that if Robin had had time to launch this competition to the press, explain his reasoning for setting up this project and got everyone excited about what he hoped it would achieve, then not only would journalists have been less quick to criticise, but also his message might have been better disseminated to both winemakers and members of the public alike. However, nothing is to be gained by raking over ‘what ifs’ and, as Robin says, his is a ‘learning company’ so I am sure we shall see changes next year.

In the meantime, I think it is worth considering the following – to my mind - indisputable points about the competition:

•    There are now 5 MWs – holders of the most rigorous and respected wine qualification on the planet - who are going out and spreading the word internationally, amongst people with buying power and influence, about the high quality of South African wines. I chatted at length with 2 of the 4 overseas MWs and believe me, they were impressed with what they had tasted.

•    Although I still have reservations about the title of the competition, I understand that it was chosen because this is a language which consumers can relate to. It’s not ‘A. N. other’ wine competition with a clever vinous name and no context. Sure, I hope that it will always be made clear that ‘of the wines which entered’ is the caveat employed, but there is no denying that being in the ‘Top 100’ is more easily understandable than a silver medal from Prix du Monde du Medaille du Gastronomie du la-di da-di fishpaste.

•    We have to raise the profile of South African wines overseas. Selling wine locally is great, but there are not enough people in SA to drink all the wine we can produce. American MW Jennifer Simonetti-Bryan had never heard of the Platter Guide before coming to South Africa – something worth bearing in mind for all sorts of reasons – and she is adamant that lists such as these are helpful to American consumers at any rate. And remember - they buy more wine than anyone else, so this is an opinion worth listening to.

•    Every competition has flaws. All of them. Wine is always a matter of opinion and, although, Robin believes his competition is ‘purer’ than most, he is the first person to say it isn’t perfect and never can be. “It is what it is” was the phrase he used more than once, and I for one am now more inclined to believe that we need to accentuate the positive, rather than latch on to the negative aspects of this competition.

Clearly the question on everyone’s lips now is ‘Will the wines on the list be deemed worthy of being included in a Top 100?’  Robin has already said that many of the wines offer amazing value, with several being less than R100 a bottle and, as it still seems that some of the bigger names are holding a watching brief in this first year, I imagine we can expect some interesting inclusions. I don’t feel the discussion is over by any means, but if Robin and the judges get this even partly right, then I am very happy to eat a small-ish slice of humble pie, and say that perhaps this competition could be an asset after all. 

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