The debate happening around Obikwa Shiraz 2009, best value winner at this year’s Global Trader Shiraz Challenge convened by WINE magazine is fascinating, various sub-themes such as populism vs. elitism and even the odd conspiracy theory (was it all a well-orchestrated marketing ploy?) coming to the fore.
By far the majority of online commentary has been positive about the wine – what’s not to like about twenty bucks for vino rated 3 Stars by a panel of so-called experts? A victory for the common man. Down with over-priced wine made in minute quantities only available from snobby boutique wine stores.
Underpinning this all, however, are some more complicated issues. First up, it does seem to bear out the point made by Robert Joseph on his blog that the many people don’t have “an intrinsic interest in wine” even though they might pretend to themselves that they do.
As managing partner in worldwide winemaking consultancy Oenotec and judge at this year’s Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show Dr Tony Jordan pointed out in an earlier interview on this site, the global wine industry is not undifferentiated but divided into two broad sectors: 85% of production amounts to “commodity wine” (or less pejoratively “popular premium wine”) and the remaining 15% is “fine wine”. When it comes to commodity wine, provenance, distinctiveness and individuality is of almost no significance to the consumer. “The punter wants what’s best for his pocket. Wine will flow from the cheapest point of production to where there’s demand.”
The facts about Obikwa Shiraz are that grapes are sourced from just about the biggest catchment area imagineable including Malmesbury, Paarl, Stellenbosch and Worcester and total production is as much as 350 000 cases (as told to me by a member of the winemaking team and then subsequently removed from the WINE magazine report on request from the Distell marketing department). How big is 350 000 cases? Consider that Columella and Palladius, the “fine wines” made by Eben Sadie amount to a total of 2 800 cases altogether.
There’s a great comment on Joseph’s blog arguing that wine expert should not operate as “dictators of taste” but as “evangelists” with the aim of converting an audience with no intrinsic interest into one that is “increasingly involved in the purchase decision, understanding leading to increased pleasure and bringing the enjoyment of the product to another level altogether”.
Unfortunately, I fear that a high level of involvement in wine from the general populace is simply too great an expectation. For most people, the difference between Obikwa and Columella is too arcane, too slight to warrant the massive price differential. It’s why food and fine dining has a bigger following than wine: eating at El Bulli or The Fat Duck gives you bigger bragging rights than drinking a bottle of Hudelot-Noellat Chambolle Musigny 2006.
Which brings me to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and A.S. Byatt’s question posed in an article entitled “Harry Potter and the Childish Adult” for the New York Times: “why would grown-up men and women become obsessed by jokey latency fantasies?”
Her answer: “Ms. Rowling, I think, speaks to an adult generation that hasn’t known, and doesn’t care about, mystery. They are inhabitants of urban jungles, not of the real wild. They don’t have the skills to tell ersatz magic from the real thing, for as children they daily invested the ersatz with what imagination they had.” Obikwa Shiraz does most people just fine.