A couple of years ago, I wrote about the Diners Club Wine List of the Year competition suggesting changes, some of which were taken on board (although I’m not sure it had anything much to do with me!).
As somebody who is a passionate believer in good wine being well-served in restaurants and in rewarding those establishments who do a great job, I am going to stick my nose in again in response to some worrying rumours which reached me recently.
A discussion on twitter recently suggested that not all restaurateurs out there are playing fair.
One wine representative was told recently by a restaurant manager that he lists wines solely to make his list look good, to win a nice award from Diners Club and then, as soon as the award is in the bag, he has no intention of actually purchasing the wine.
You can understand his point of view – the demands for the competition are quite rigorous and if you are to achieve the highest accolades, you need to hold stock of quite a few lines which can stymie the cash-flow on many smaller restaurants.
Far easier just to tell any enquiring customers 'Sorry, we ran out, can we sell you our house Sauvignon instead?' and all will be well.
To my mind, this is cheating, pure and simple.
You’re cheating the judges who can only work on the information they’re given in good faith, you’re cheating the excellent ideas and motivation of the sponsors, you’re cheating your customers and you’re cheating the wine farms whose names and brand values you’re trading on without giving anything back in return.
The wine rep I spoke to believes that this is a very common practice throughout the country, and if they are right, this is a slap in the face, not only for the organisers of the competition, but also all the excellent restaurants who are genuinely doing their best to offer a good wine list and encourage individuality and variety.
Neil Grant, owner of Burrata restaurant in Woodstock, Cape Town says he would like to see changes made in the way restaurant wine lists are rated by Diners Club.
His suggestion is that anyone in line for one of the top awards actually then gets visited by the judging panel, in order to assess whether the restaurant is telling the truth on its submission in terms of wines actually being sold, glassware, storage systems etc.
A personal visit would also then enable a restaurant-wide Wine Service Award to be properly assessed which he believes would encourage more restaurants to value all their wine stewards and waiting staff and understand the value they can add to the bottom line.
As somebody who slaved over my wine list on a monthly basis when we ran our restaurant, I know how irksome it is to see restaurants get the same award as me, based solely on a few pieces of paper that may or may not reflect the true situation.
Diners Club are sponsors of two other important and highly-credible wine initiatives (Platters Wine Guide, Winemaker of the Year) and the Wine List of the Year has similar potential to drive standards upwards and be a benchmark for restaurants.
The mark of a good competition has to be both the esteem in which it’s held within the industry, and the participants’ desire to achieve the top accolades.
When major players such as Belthazar, Le Quartier Français, Tokara, Burrata and La Mouette (to name but a few) don’t bother to enter and rumours such as that above are rife then surely, for the sake of the whole industry, it’s time for a change?