Tim James: Platter’s and the need for an organ of record

November 21, 2016
by Tim James
in Opinion & Analysis
with 6 Comments

plattersFor some people, Platter’s South African Wine Guide is mostly a useful set of addresses and maps. For others (more, I trust) it’s a useful overview of achievements – though as challengeable in its judgements as any guide to something as much a matter of taste as wine is. And for some, Platter is fatally flawed by its basic “sighted tasting” methodology.

That last category includes a number, probably increasing, of producers who decline to submit wines for assessment by the Platter tasting team. The “sighted” methodology is the reason often given, if any is cited, but it’s not hard to suspect that the history of actual assessments actually prompts most refusals: if the ratings were as high as the producers think they should be, or want them to be, would they still withhold their wines?

A tiny few would. A couple of Platter refuseniks genuinely think that scoring wines, especially more “natural” wines that diverge from traditional categories and styles, is both nonsensical and unlikely to do justice to their aims. Personally, while not being a fan of scoring, I think the latter point is untrue: the high star ratings achieved by a number of “natural” wines on Platter 2017 suggests otherwise.

More interestingly, though, we can note that many who don’t want their wines tasted “sighted” by Platter are happy to submit them to, say, Tim Atkin, for sighted tasting and scoring. This suggests that in most cases it is not a lack of guaranteed neutrality or a high-minded scoffing at scores at issue.

It is significant that other reputable guides are available these days – like Atkin’s Report, which offers a very useful appraisal, and a notably generous-scoring one, of most top-end stuff. (Not to mention it probably carries more weight internationally than does Platter.) Simply put, Platter is less important for marketing purposes than it once was. And if a producer can get better sales by, for example, punting the gold medals it wins from some (repeat: some) of the more-or-less dubious competitions it enters, then why not? And if it thinks that a Platter assessment is, for whatever reason, going to work against its marketing strategies, well, then, rather give Platter a miss.

Perfectly understandable. I’m not primarily here to complain, even wearing my hat as someone involved in Platter for many years now, and watching its erosion with regret (and even seeing the extent to which the guide itself is to blame). But wearing my hat as a commentator on Cape wines, and as their modest historian, I’m here to regret.

To its shame, the South African wine community has proved unable to sustain a consumer wine magazine. Numerous wine competitions, the internet, winery websites, bloggers and google searches are all very well – but as things stand, they cannot offer an organ of record for South African wine as a whole.

Some of us now are, and some in the future will be, interested in a historical context, wanting a wider view than a list of scores of wines which have either done a public or trade tasting or entered a competition. Where to find it? If I want to find out about South African wine in general or in some particular in, say, 1990, or 2000, I can confidently turn to the contemporary Platters. There’s a lot there: certainly just about all wines made will be listed; all wineries will be – briefly or in more detail – described.

No longer.

A simple example. If someone in 2030 wants to know how many cinsauts were being made in the Cape in 2016, unlike in 1990 or 2000, there will be no easy way to find out, maybe no way at all. And what wineries were there in the Swartland? A search in the 2017 Guide will not reveal even the fact that Testalonga existed then (hopefully its existence in 2030 will not be a question), let alone what wines it made. That’s a loss.

It’s true that, even without this problem, the current Platter gives less useful information about wines and wineries than the 1990 edition did. That’s partly because the guide chose to cope with increased numbers of both by reducing coverage, and partly because there was a more recent dumbing-down decision to cease giving “geekish” information about blends, wooding regimes, alcohol, sugar levels, etc. I regret that, as a diminution of the Guide’s role as record and resource. But even more I regret some producers opting out of what is – faute de mieux – the prime historical record of modern South African wine.

  • Tim James is founder of Grape.co.za and contributes to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.

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6 Comments

  1. Dana BuysNovember 22, 2016 at 9:10 pmReply

    Tim, I have a lot of faith in the way the Internet preserves history and that it will only get better in the future.
    That said, it would be quite easy to put together a database to track the kind of information you are keen to preserve.
    If that is of interest to you, lets chat about the kind of information you believe important. Getting it build wont be big deal. Populating it and keeping up to date will be harder and up to producers and industry authorities.
    Maybe Platter could even help with getting the history loaded to the extent possible?
    The annual cost of keeping it running in the modern cloud wont be much.

  2. RyanNovember 22, 2016 at 1:08 pmReply

    It’s not perfect but it is the best we have. Until someone put something better on the market. Enjoy the read.

    • Donald AckermanNovember 22, 2016 at 5:06 pmReply

      Totally agree Ryan. You will never, never get a perfect system or perfect a system.

      Richard Hemming MW, on 17 June 2014 wrote:

      “Everything is relative. Take, for example, scoring 20/20. For eyesight it’s considered merely normal; for wine it is anything but. Furthermore, vinous quality is assessed in a subjective way, whereas visual acuity uses an objective scale with de facto conclusions – for instance, 20/200 is considered legally blind, while NLP is the most severe classification of blindness, ‘no light perception’.

      Similar, if perhaps slightly crass, distinctions might be made between the rigorousness of blind tastings – some are decidedly less opaque than others. As for the objectivity of scoring wine, I side with those who posit that it is essentially impossible. However, the impossibility I find most intriguing is for a wine to score full marks in a blind tasting.

      At the time of writing, 107 wines have garnered 20/20 on this site, [jancisrobinson.com] and they have only one thing in common: none of them was tasted properly blind.

      Before examining the implications of this, let’s look further at the relative opacities of blind tastings. They are usually far from NLP. A truly blind tasting would require that the taster has no information about the wine whatsoever, but just as significantly that absolutely no inferences can be drawn.

      All too often, tasters know the identity of the organiser of the tasting and can make informed guesses about what might be served. Everyone who regularly tastes wine will be familiar with such instances – not that we are much inclined to point this out, having just nailed the vintage and appellation with breathtaking accuracy.

      Truly blind tastings are virtually impossible to organise. The closest potential example I know of is the Master of Wine exams, when almost anything could be presented to you, and therefore any supposition is highly risky, if not downright foolish. However, this is immediately undermined by information volunteered on the exam paper – ‘these three wines are all from the same country’, and suchlike.

      We can therefore agree that most – if not all – blind tastings are never entirely without some insight on the part of the taster. We can also agree that a wine has never scored 20 in a truly blind tasting – not once, among the nearly 100,000 tasting notes our database currently boasts.

      The clear implication is that a score of 20 is possible only when a wine is tasted sighted.

      Here is proof positive that scoring wine can never be objective – but this is hardly a novel conclusion. The more pertinent issue is whether a taster’s subjectivity is considered a positive or negative attribute.

      The most commonly argued advantages of sighted tastings are that the context of a wine – the reputation of producer, appellation and vintage, for example – can and should have an impact on the final judgment on the wine itself. For example, where young wines are being tasted, it is thought helpful to know which have the greatest track record of evolving into the most interesting and ageworthy specimens.

      Another factor often cited as critically important is typicality. Because wine is so closely connected to its origin, goes the argument, surely the most faithful expressions of that terroir are worth more than those which may taste delicious but which do not honestly reflect their origins? Thus, under this directive, the best expression of Syrah you have ever blind-tasted would have to be marked down were it subsequently revealed to be Pinot Noir.

      For the sake of argument, let’s assume these arguments to be true, and these benefits to be valid. But if we acknowledge the potential for witting influence of this type, we must also accept its unwitting relative: bias.

      Bias may influence any wine taster, subliminally or otherwise, and all manner of factors can trigger it: friendliness with the winemaker, sentimental attachment to the region or variety, fear of underscoring a reputed château. Nor should we be naive enough to believe that explicit bribery could never happen – though not on these pages, I hasten to add! [See our ethical policy – JR]

      Incidentally, I keenly felt the pressure of reputation when I tasted certain Bordeaux en primeur samples non-blind earlier this year. However, because I have no personal or professional history with any châteaux, I felt no obligation to give the benefit of the doubt. If anything, I was assiduously critical of the most famous names where I felt the wines warranted it. Revealingly, I got more ‘disappointed’ – and some outright combative – responses from producers for my en primeur reports than I have received for anything else. Most of them advised me that, upon re-tasting, I would be sure to realise their wines were better than I thought.

      The sanctity of scoring is a perennial bugbear for wine. However, when it becomes so apparent that scoring wine is such a fallible exercise, its absolutism can be categorically refuted. Disciples of scores – be they retailers, collectors, investors or indeed producers – are demonstrably pursuing fool’s gold.

      This reduction of wine to a numerical value, and the gross abuse of price that inevitably accompanies it, is the foremost reason given by anyone opposed to the scoring of wine. Yet despite all this, I remain in favour of it.

      Scores are an invaluable comparative tool. I try never to take them out of context, but use them as shorthand for identifying the most noteworthy wines in a given set, and then investigating them further – which includes, most importantly, reading the tasting note.

      Besides, scoring can’t be un-invented. Reducing wine to sheer numbers and claiming objectivity is demonstrably nonsensical – but wherever data exists it will be misconstrued and exploited. So yes, scoring is flawed, and subject to what Robert Parker called ‘ the emotion of the moment’. And yes, that means that bias is congenital, especially where maximum scores are involved.

      But permit me, if you will, an emotional moment of my own. Because isn’t this the very essence of our being? Isn’t it better to embrace partiality and preference, to acknowledge the very personal and subjective nature of every judgement we make? Wouldn’t we rather celebrate all the absurdities and deficiencies that make up humankind?

      Of course we would! For what is the alternative? Something comprehensively objective, utterly neutral, and robotically soulless. Wine is a liquid manifestation of the diversity of its creators, encompassing all their weird and wonderful ways. Scoring wine is an irresistibly emotional reaction to this. Wanting to apply a rationalised, anodyne judgment to such creative wonder is not just short-sighted, it is truly blind.”

  3. Tim JamesNovember 22, 2016 at 8:24 amReply

    Dana – I agree with you thoroughly about the problem of inevitable inconsistency in Platter, though the triannual rotation of tasters helps a bit, as does the blind tasting of all wines rating more than four stars. But if you’re going to pay proper attention to so many wines each year it’s a pretty unavoidable problem (though there might well be better solutions).

    As to your blithe confidence about preserving history, I wish I could agree. It might well be preserved, but accessibility is going to be a problem. Searches are fine, if you know what to search for. A reference work (either online or in print) has done most of the work.

    Even right now, if you wanted to know who is producing varietal cinsaut or carignan in the Cape, how easy would it be to find out? If you turn to Platter, most will be listed there in the index and you’ve made a good start – but confidence in the list’s completeness is impossible.

    You might arguably be doing your brand a favour in the short term by indulging your own preferences, but I’d suggest you’re not doing yourself a favour in the long term – nor are you doing the wine industry as a whole, including consumers, a favour by avoiding this particular industry institution. (Again, I say that with at least as much understanding as you of the shortcomings of Platter; unfortunately, as Margaret Thatcher used to say – there is no alternative – at least for now.)

  4. Dana BuysNovember 21, 2016 at 7:03 pmReply

    Tim, I think times they are a changing and the likes of Google will ensure that we can find out pretty much anything we want, even more smartly, in the future!

    We opted out of Platter in 2011 not because it was just sighted, but because the tasters each had their own sense of taste. Here is a link, long gone off our own website, of our reasons for opting out. http://clients.plusplusminus.co.za/vnl/2011/08/16/we-opt-out-of-platter-sighted-reviews/

    If you are lucky, you get a taster with aligned taste buds. If you are unlucky you dont. That’s like a lucky dip or worse, Russian Roulette!! Not a game you play with your brand and your wines!!

    We submit some wines to sighted tasting like Tim Atkin, but then Tim tastes all the wines and one gets a rating from one specific palate. That is at least more consistent and useful than the individual ratings of say 17 different palates?!

    We took flack for opting out – some restaurants only list wines with Platter ratings, some tour guides only visit wineries with Platter ratings. But I have no regret. The model is fatally flawed and as such the market will take its course!

    Rest assured all of the vinous history will be well preserved :-)

  5. David ClarkeNovember 21, 2016 at 1:43 pmReply

    I agree that the country needs its own document of record. My 2c would be to advise Platter to shift towards being a producer guide and not a wine guide. Review and explain the producers’ location, philosophy vineyards (if owned) rather than try to give out scores. Increasingly it seems that many wines are sold out before Platters is published. Rather build up and talk about producers than individual wines.

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