Marthélize Tredoux: Is wine industry debate too civil?

November 23, 2015
by Christian
in Opinion & Analysis
with 5 Comments

My post for this week admittedly feels a bit like a brain dump of ideas and then handing over the issue to the readers for further debate and discussion. This feels appropriate as the topic is one concerning the idea of debate so instead of rambling on with my own views, I will state my case and leave it open for interaction.

Ex Animo Address 2Last week I found myself eagerly making my way to Pinelands Town Hall for the first annual Ex Animo Address – organized by two of my favourite people, David and Jeannette Clark. Presented as “an evening of lectures given by key figures in the South African wine industry” it seemed promising as a night of digging through some of the many issues at play in industry. The theme was “What do you think is important to the future of the South African wine industry?” – deceptively simple but one that also cuts to the core.

The line-up included Chris Alheit who gave a sobering talk on grape prices, Neil Grant from the South African Sommeliers Association speaking about lessons the hospitality industry needs to learn and finally David Cope had a few ideas about consumer wine drinking behaviour. Each talk was followed by time for Q&A, with Chris’ talk undoubtedly garnering the most discussion.

The evening was very informative and a fantastic initiative from David and co. but I did leave the venue feeling slightly that the audience let the evening down. (Disclosure: I make this comment having listened to all the talks without raising my hand for a question or a comment, but I didn’t feel the issues that I specifically wanted to raise completely fit in with the direction the talks were taking, and shoe-horning my preferred topic of debate into an ill-fitting discussion felt like a waste of everyone’s time.)

Also, frankly, towards the end of the evening I felt a number of people were taking up time with simply regurgitating agreement rather than asking questions stimulating discussion.

I left wondering why debate in these forums – relating to the wine industry – are often so seemingly polite. Sure, someone will make a good point and there may be a minute or two of mild disagreement but in the end I’m often left with the impression of everyone walking away, patting each other on the back for doing such a great job and with nothing really going beyond that.

Allow me to temper my expectations clearly: 1) I don’t expect seminars, addresses, lectures, round-table discussions to magically solve all the problems overnight. 2) I find things like the Ex Animo Address and the WineLand seminars incredibly valuable – I wish there were more of them. 3) I’m not calling for raucous arguments and discussions devolving entirely into name-calling and scathing attacks– there’s enough of that going on already.

I just want to see more no-holds-barred debate: interactive, calling it like it is and getting stuck into the issue properly. Structured and informative, definitely, but with the focus on the actual discussion of the issues from all sides and not just one-sided presentation of information followed by a few off-the-cuff comments. For example, on the topic of listing fees I want to see people representing wineries, restaurants and any other party actually involved explain all sides with an audience of industry people around to engage with them. And I want to see it in a public forum.

I know wine industry people are hardly devoid of original thoughts or opinions and put any number of them around a table with a few bottles of wine and you will see these opinions flow freely (and loudly). So where are the forums facilitating more of this? Or am I missing them (in which case, please invite me. I’ll bring wine and I promise I won’t be boring!)?

The comments sections here on often spark some rather spritely discussions, which I always enjoy – whether I participate or not. So why can’t we take that spark and pull it away from a text-based format to a face-to-face one? The floor is now open for questions and comments.

  • Marthélize Tredoux is the co-owner and editor at Incogvino. By day, she helps SA wineries sell their wine in the USA. She won a wine writing award once.

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  1. Brett ChrystalNovember 28, 2015 at 12:26 pmReply

    Hi Marthelize

    I agree with you that there isn’t enough debate in the wine industry, but not necessarily from the wine makers themselves, but from interested parties outside the wine industry, including the public.

    I think we rely too much on external media to provide us with commentary and opinions on our own wines, trends and issues such as Jamie (no offense) Tim Atkins, Jancis Robinson etc. rather than cultivating our own ideas and sharing them with others.

    Its not that these opinions are not valuable to us the public and to the wine makers themselves but the fact that it isn’t locally generated – we live here and don’t provide a meaningful discourse on our own wines and the industry as a whole.

    I would be very keen on some round table debates either face to face, or a mixture of face to face and Go Meet or Skype (to encourage participation from anywhere in SA).

    Social media has to date taken precedence, but it is very inclusive in that not everyone is party to tweets, blogs etc. It would be nice to get old fashioned and actually have social gatherings (not formal tastings) where wines can be tasted and debated rather than scored.

  2. Angela LloydNovember 26, 2015 at 2:51 pmReply

    Marthelize, I think part of the problem is that those of us who attended this great initiative were converts, so the presentations were generally uncontroversial. What David & Jeanette need to do next year is to get a broader spectrum of winelovers – young people new to wine, different demographics (a shebeen owner from Kayeltisha or Mzoli?) to attend, or even present. A young person just gaining an interest in wine to speak on what sort of writing about wine would encourage their interest – and what doesn’t/wouldn’t. Random ideas; I’m sure in the meantime many more will emerge.
    Another point, South Africans are too accepting; many don’t challenge or question enough. This type of event offers a great opportunity to air views and constructively debate.

    • MarthelizeNovember 26, 2015 at 10:54 pmReply

      Good points all around, thanks Angela – I think a group of converts discussing topics most agree on is what a lot of these gatherings boil down to – still interesting and informative but skimming past the topics that need to get knuckled down with some disagreement first.

      The type of forum I’d like to see is exactly what you suggest, broader with a more diverse group of participants – whether speaker based or more of a town hall meeting idea. But even if such an evening is initially more concentrated around industry people, I have a few questions of issues I know aren’t agreed on to begin with, so just getting those out there to air out the difference would already be worth spending a few hours on.

      But it will definitely have to extend to the public side too if it’s really going to be meaningful in the long run.

  3. Jamie GoodeNovember 25, 2015 at 4:29 pmReply

    My impression is that there’s no shortage of opinionated individuals in the SA wine scene. I’ve got caught up in a few fights. But most of this discussion has been bitchy rather than constructive. I guess what you are looking for is a sort of ideas forum. You’d need to pick your people carefully, but it would be fun to have an event like this – maybe ask a few people to kick things off with 3-5 min presentations setting the scene, then have a discussion – if someone moderates it skilfully, the results could be really interesting. I agree – most events tend to be a bit boring because the question session doesn’t really work in a proper interactive way.

    • MarthelizeNovember 26, 2015 at 11:25 amReply

      Hi Jamie
      You’re right, there’s an abundance of opinion in the SA wine scene and most of it boils down to nasty comments and snide views of another’s. Not really constructive in any recognisable way.
      Yes to the ideas forum. I was thinking the format will need to be simple but with some element of control – a chair person most likely, perhaps a type of panel debate (3-5 panel members) but with a bit more audience participation.
      Also make sure the gist of the topics is clear to all ahead of time, the problem with the current formats are perhaps a topic but I’ve noticed often the presenter takes many liberties and the contents of the talk isn’t always what one expects or hopes for.

      Will put some feelers out and see if I can pull something together for 2016 :)

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