Norman Mailer once wrote that the interest in a heavyweight boxing world title fight (as opposed to any other weight division) was due to the fact that the winner might very well be the strongest man in the world. Mailer was a boxing aficionado so he was punting for his preferred sport. Had he been Japanese and the subject sumo wrestling, he would doubtless have argued accordingly.
There are few activities that bear comparison outside a very narrow range: the best cricket test team is not the same as the best one-day international side; the best grass-court tennis player is (probably) not the best on clay.
Once you widen the frame of reference, competitive assessment becomes increasingly problematic: the best bowler is not the best batsman, so how do you determine who is the best cricketer?
When the field of endeavour is essentially aesthetic, most benchmarks simply vanish: the best sculptor, the best painter, are difficult enough concepts before you open the field and seek, for example, the best artist. Impossibly difficult though all this appears, you could court even greater controversy by entering the world of performance art: the best Shakespearean actor, the best Hamlet, the best Lear. These are accolades that critics are glib to give and swift to avoid defending. Little wonder no-one seriously argues for the best wine in the world, not even the best Shiraz or Pinot Noir.
So why do we even bother with international wine competitions – those that pit one country against another? In 1995, I organised the famous (or infamous) SAA Shield wine ‘test match’ between South Africa and Australia. I hoped that the result would do something to shake our wine industry out of its post-apartheid sales boom complacency: the fact that the UK supermarkets wanted our wines after years of boycotts and commercial isolation did not mean that we were producing and selling world-class wine.
I like to believe that – despite producer outrage at the time – it served a useful purpose. A few years later, South Africa won the Cowra Chardonnay Challenge against Australia and New Zealand – producing a comparable level of acrimony in both of the Antipodean industries.
For several years, Judith Kennedy and the Association of Australian Boutique Winemakers have hosted a Tri-Nations Challenge that has seen a reasonable level of participation from Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. This year it is being transformed into a Five Nations Challenge as Argentina and Chile enter the fray. The rules require each country to enter 14 out of a possible 16 classes, with credits (by way of medals and trophies) for the individual wineries and points accumulating towards a national total – for a Five Nations winner.
Given that I have been involved in this event from the outset – and in similar competitions as an organiser and a judge since the mid-1990s – I am unlikely to describe them as a waste of time. However, if comparisons are close to impossible, if all such exercises are fraught with the problems of pitting apples against pears, is there any merit at all in hosting them and any value at all to their results?
The famous Judgment of Paris tasting of 1976 (in which California – against all expectations – defeated the might of the French appellations) is usually cited as the major reason why national wine industries should participate in these events. California was catapulted onto the world stage while the image of France (though temporarily tarnished) suffered no permanent damage.
There is no ‘strongest man in the world’ – though Mailer was correct in understanding the appeal of the idea. Wine ‘test matches’ give the Davids a chance to take on the Goliaths. The unexpected victories make news. No-one remembers the details of the defeats.