Michael Fridjhon: Where to for Platter’s?

By , 18 November 2020

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34

It’s easy to knock the Platter’s South African Wine Guide, almost as easy as it would be to find a corrupt politician at an ANC legkotla. It errs on the side of generosity – and has for the past ten years; its five star ratings range from the sublime to the frankly embarrassing; its hybrid format means it’s neither a truly blind tasting, nor does it offer fully the benefits of recognising the value of terroir; the tasting competence of its panelists is uneven; the number of five star laureates rises every year at a rate which cannot be defended, even by arch exponents of score inflation. The list is endless, and mostly the criticism can be substantiated by more than a single example.

So why do we still cling to it? Is it nostalgia, is it the absence of an alternative, are we like shipwreck survivors who prefer the wreckage to the deep blue sea? Is it just possibly so much better than the sum of its flawed parts that its value exceeds its defects?

This year, more than ever before, these are questions which need to be asked, and which need to be answered. Five Star wines have now crossed the 200 mark: last year there were a “mere” 125 or so wines. So this year we have pretty much double the number of these vinous rarities. The 2010 edition recorded fewer than 40. True, the vintages up for consideration included the 2017 and 2019 – both very good – but it’s not as if in every previous year the tasters were forced to confront climatic catastrophes. We know our wines are getting better: we also know we need to raise the bar if only to take account of the improvement in standards. If we raise the bar too high and too fast it discourages the winemakers, and does no service to consumers; if we raise it too slowly we open the floodgates. You can decide if the gatekeepers have done the job required of them.

Part of the problem is that the Guide is increasingly more sighted than blind. The primary taster obviously sees what he/she is judging. The Five Star judge now sees the actual score given by the primary taster. The reason for this is that the Guide’s editorial team seek greater and greater coherence between tasters and between editions. For them discrepancy and error are different sides of the same coin. It’s as if they think that there is an objective reality and a scientific basis for assessing it. Instead of celebrating difference they keep trying to panel-beat it into sameness. When I was a taster I was enjoined not to change the score of a wine by more than half a point. If I did, a second taster was called in to corroborate that opinion. The effect of this was impose order and sameness. Ten years ago there were too many Four Star wines. Now there are too many Five Star wines, too many Four and a Half Star wines and too many Four Star wines.

It is easy to offer a counter-argument to this position: Tim Atkin’s South African Special Report reviews some nearly 1 400 wines of which over 1 100 score 90 points or more. Compared with this Platter’s may seem meaner than a Scotsman in a pub on Hogmanay. But, for Atkin, a gold medal is actually 95 points – and he compares his 95+ wines to Platter’s Five Star awards. This year’s Atkin Report has 25% fewer Five Star equivalents compared with Platter’s – and Atkin is tasting sighted. If you hang out in the Platter’s Five Star Factory you can do all the rationalising in the world about why better wines and better vintages make over 200 Five Star wines in the 2021 guide seem reasonable, but you’re only fooling yourself. Everyone else knows that you’ve turned the currency from US dollars to Zim dollars in just over a decade.

This is not the only moan about this year’s Guide. The asset has been owned by Diners Club for more than a decade, and while it was originally a good branding exercise (and in this sense it has paid for itself handsomely over the years) it is now clearly costing its owners money. Sales of the print copies of the Guide have plummeted over time and are now at about 20% of what they were at their peak. Online sales have picked up some of the slack. But with diminishing advertising revenues and rising costs, Diners has been trying to squeeze the stones till they squeak. Amongst the owner’s ill-thought out strategies to get sign-ups and income has been the decision to release the results in dribs and drabs – unless you’re so interested that you to choose to become a subscriber to get the full picture in one hit. Perhaps this will work; perhaps there will be a surge of new subscribers. I hope so – because, to judge from social media, it’s making a lot of folk mightily pissed off. And with the brand and its credibility in decline, I would guess that over-estimating how far people will go to obtain information which will ultimately be in the public domain, could prove counter-productive.

So I guess the question is: “Has Platter’s finally run out of steam?” Forty years is a good innings in the modern world and it’s gone from being the only resource of its kind to one of many databases of Cape wines – whether or not they’re any good. John Platter based the format on Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Guide – which I think pretty much ran out of runway years ago, so it would come as no surprise if an instantly-out-of-date, review-by-committee behemoth turned out to be a dinosaur. And the corollary is, would it matter?

The short answer to that second question is “yes.” I think it is important that we have the guide – despite its shortcomings, its failures of intent and of execution, its parsimonious owners, its tawdry revenue-raising. It’s like nothing else we have, and like very little else of the kind that other wine industries rely upon. A one-stop bundle of reviews, pretty much complete, brilliantly edited, so that it is largely error-free and perfectly readable. It is indisputably honest: despite the cheap attempts by its current owners to scrape income from the awards announcements, it is fiercely independent and thoughtfully assembled. There is no other show or reviewing system which demands of its tasters that they give the wine time in the glass, and give the open bottle time in the fridge (or on the tasting bench). The Platter’s editor doesn’t want a quick impression and a score, one of fifty or more in a morning’s work. He wants a considered opinion, unhurried, reflective, wine judged as performance art and as the work of time. This isn’t a carefully selected top 200 producers, or a top 1 500 wines. It’s the whole damn industry FFS, and it costs time and money to achieve this. When the Guide sold 50 000 or 60 000 copies it was easy to justify the effort. Now it’s losing money hand over glass-clutching fist.

Nothing of quality is free. “Free news” cost the newspaper industry real journalists and real newsrooms, and opened the door to fake news, and social media sound-bytes instead of proper research. If you want your wine info to be as useless as Facebook and as reliable as a tweet from Donald Trump, begrudge Platter’s the income it needs to survive. Then one day, when you are flailing around for information, click on Vivino and hope for the best.

  • Michael Fridjhon has over thirty-five years’ experience in the liquor industry. He is the founder of Winewizard.co.za and holds various positions including Visiting Professor of Wine Business at the University of Cape Town; founder and director of WineX – the largest consumer wine show in the Southern Hemisphere and chairman of The Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show.

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Comments

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  • Chris Campbell27 November 2020

    What a hornets nest!
    Firstly I think Michael laboured his argument and didn’t consider a number of facts. We have just been through a horrendous time for the wine industry in South Africa and Michael was reduced to selling glasses to support his business. Sorry I didn’t buy any but I already have more than enough.
    Let’s not bash Platters this year. The industry needs all the help it can get and if a little bit of exuberance on their awarding of stars helps the better wines, so be it. We all have different palates and our preferences can change, so let’s stand back and try some additional wines, and perhaps save a vineyard!

    • Michael Fridjhon28 November 2020

      Thanks for your comment Chris – Though I don’t actually make a living from selling glasses it’s a good metaphor for the time we have been through. However, I think you need to re-read the article: you will find that in the end the article was not about bashing Platter but rather about celebrating the value it does add to our lives.

  • Julian Richfield24 November 2020

    I must say that I am saddened by the aroma of bitchiness in some of these remarks.

    The wine industry is in treacherous times, for some survival is an ambition.

    It need all the encouragement and positivity we can muster.

  • Top Wine SA21 November 2020

    How about that! In Platter’s 2021, the 28 ‘Wines of the Year’ don’t include any from the ‘Winery of the Year’.

  • Alexandra21 November 2020

    I followed a series of Tweets a few months back where a number of Platters tasters were complaining about the number of wax sealed wines they had to wade through. How the wax was messy and irritating to work with. As a small producer we wax our bottles by hand as an extra touch. But it made me wonder if the grumpy tasters take a look at the bottle from an unknown, tiny new producer and get a bee in their bonnet before the wine has even touched their lips…

  • Colin Harris19 November 2020

    The Winemag editor is shining in his absence on this issue. Come one Christian – what do you have to say about all of this? Surely you have an opinion?

    • Christian Eedes19 November 2020

      Hi Colin, It strikes me that the one challenge that both Platter’s and winemag.co.za share is economic sustainability. There is always quite a bit of lamentation when media titles close down but surprisingly little effort to support them when they are still up and running. I’m not inclined to comment on the Platter’s methodology for generating and disseminating ratings, but if you or anybody else like our work, then making a contribution is easy – simply go to https://winemag.co.za/contributions/

  • Kwispedoor19 November 2020

    On the one hand I’m scratching my head at some of the producers’ wines that received full 5-star ratings (up to seven..!) and on the other I’m thinking that some of them finally got the recognition that they should have received in previous years.

    I can’t help but think that there are just too many five star wines. Hunting for five star wines is not really a thing anymore – there are plenty to be found. However, we have to remember that not only has the quality of SA wines been on a steep upward curve, but a host of new quality producers have entered the market too – not contributing significantly to large volumes, but bringing plenty of new wines worthy of 5-stars onto the market that wasn’t there before. That alone must lead to plenty additional top ratings.

    So comparisons with historical ratings are problematic, although there is some merit in comparing the 2021 edition’s results with Platter’s own results from last year and with someone like Tim Atkins’.

  • Michael Fridjhon19 November 2020

    There’s quite a lot of vitriol out there – on both sides of the divide. I hope it’s not because – as they say of academic disputes – the arguments are so heated because the stakes are so low, because they aren’t.

    I think people are missing the main thrust of the article. If the Guide is a valuable point of reference for SA wines, despite differences/disputes about the Five Star wines (which appear to have come to mean more than the 700 pages or so of often useful text) it needs to be sustainable.

    It is a matter of some concern that we have what reputable international critics regard as the most exciting wine industry in the world and yet we cannot sustain one consumer-oriented print magazine. The only specialist consumer wine website survives by churning out sponsored reports every month. Wine education survives on sponsorship and subsidies. The Covid pandemic will wreak havoc with the viability of grape farming and the sustainability of at least 100 small wineries. The big players see wine as a necessary but inconveniently difficult segment which cannot be managed with the same ease as beer and cider.

    And yet people who care enough to snipe, or even to engage in open warfare (and who often hide behind nom de plumes in order to do so) are not coming up with any suggestions about whether and how to save our last hard cover annual. In fact anything which savours of commerce and profit seems a legitimate target.

    Diners Club doesn’t only need us to tell it what’s wrong with its business model – although that was clearly necessary when its current solution involved a drawn out and unsuccessful launch/awards programme and the controversial plan to trade in 5 star wines. It needs to know what does work. Then – assuming it has the necessary skills – it can focus on viable and ethical revenues.

  • Kurktrekker19 November 2020

    Have you seen the 2021 Hidden Gem list? Scary stuff!!

  • Wes18 November 2020

    Omg…. just looking at some of the comments.
    Thanks Tim. The piece by Fridjhon lacks insightfulness as we know , surprisingly too. How he manages to curate the TWS reminds me of stories of daisy chains at Sandy Bay.
    Nonetheless, scores are indeed on the up, generally, and for example Sons of Sugarland would be an interesting to monitor across the Atkin (aaaah) and other portfolios.

    • Tim Atkin21 November 2020

      Hi Wes

      As you asked, my scores for Sons of Sugarland Syrah are as follows: 2015 (93 points), 2016 (93 points), 2017 (94), 2018 (93) and 2019 (94). Thanks for spelling my surname correctly…

      Tim A

  • saffawinesnob18 November 2020

    Good and valid point Michael, can’t fault it, but I agree we still need it, or something to replace it. I wait every year to get my hands on the guide but morbidly only look at the 5 starts followed by how my favourite winemakers performed. Then there is Vivino, however, there’s guys like me who regularly slag off the Aussie Shiraz (sorry Australia) on there, so is that a good gauge? Bottom line is those Cape winemakers are fantastic and I will remain blindly biased to their efforts, even if it doesn’t always stack up. Maybe there is someone with deep pockets who is ready to step in and do it right?

  • Tim James18 November 2020

    Michael says: “When I was a taster I was enjoined not to change the score of a wine by more than half a point” (I presume he means half a star). Forgive me if I doubt that. In my 20-odd years of Platter tasting I have never been directed in the slightest about my scores (nor have they been subsequently questioned by the editor), and I find it hard to accept believe that Michael ever was. Who “enjoined” you, Michael? The only remotely relevant provision that I am aware of is that if a taster changes the score by more than 1.5 stars then a second opinion from another Platter taster must be sought. I would also be interested to know which of the five star wines this year Michael considers “frankly embarrassing” – or indeed undeserved. I myself think there are very few undeserving winners. I’d also like to see an acknowledgement from Michael that, as the owner of the Trophy Wine Show, has an axe to grind in denigrating sighted tastings. (I do note that the final paragraphs of the article apparently offer a counterweight to the sarcasms and fundamental criticisms that have already given a marked tendency to it.)

    Michael is also incorrect in his insinuation when he comments that “If a primary taster sends in a wine from a known rockstar winery with a 97 or 98, it’s unlikely that the 5 star judge will take it down to 94. ” It is unlikely, in fact (though it happens extraordinarily seldom); but the 5 star “judge” does not know that the wine is “from a known rockstar winery”.

    I myself have many problems with the way the guide is run, including the unevenness of tasters, who are not all well chosen or adequately monitored, in my opinion. And this year’s release of results seems to me particularly unconsidered and inept. But I would defend the sightedness of the guide – and Michael is correct that it is now much more sighted than blind. That shift was a conscious decision, and one that I would defend. It is a guide rather than a competition, and desirably conservative. For frankly embarrassing awards, Michael could more profitably look at what blind tasting has given to the Trophy Wine Show over the years, I’d suggest. At least Platter never gave Polla’s Red the equivalent of a trophy.

    • Michael Fridjhon18 November 2020

      I’m never sure whether Tim launches these responses for the joy of controversy or because he really believes everything he says.

      More than half a star (he is correct, I meant half a STAR, not half a point – but in those days the guide only awarded stars) is at least one star and at that threshold a second opinion was sought – at least in my time as a taster.

      Tim is being disingenuous in suggesting that I am implying that the five star taster would know the wine was from a rockstar winery. The primary taster knows it’s from a rockstar winery and sends the wine up to the supposedly blind five star tasting with a score well above 95. The five star taster sees a score of 97 or 98. He/she presumably doesn’t know who tasted it before (not that it matters). Pushing a 97 or 98 down to 94 is less likely than pushing it down to 96 or 95 – which still gives it its five star rating. It’s a flawed system if you’re trying to suggest it’s blind – whatever the motive behind it.

      For the rest Tim’s defence of the Guide relies on attacking the Trophy Wine Show. I’d be the first to agree that not all the results in all the classes are fireproof. That’s the risk you take as a taster when you don’t have the label in front of you. But this is a red herring. The discussion here is not about the Trophy Wine Show but about the Platter Guide. And to suggest that there is some conflict of interest because of my involvement with a blind tasting competition is just a cheap and rather inept debating point. In Tim’s own words Platter “is a guide rather than a competition” – so he doesn’t think they’re comparable except when he’s scrabbling around for weapons with which to launch a counter-attack.

      • Mike19 November 2020

        Interesting that while the Platter’s team isn’t comfortable with the term ‘competition’, it is relaxed about referring to the awards as ‘results’.

      • Ashley Westaway19 November 2020

        Surely though, Mr Fridjhon, if you assert that some of the five star ratings are “frankly embarrassing”, you should be frank enough to indicate which specific ratings you are referring to? Tim asked this and you chose to ignore the question. So I’m asking the same question again. As a wine authority in this country, your views in this regard are of significant public interest.

        • Michael Fridjhon19 November 2020

          Hi Ashley – I’m not going to do that for the same reason that I prefer to write about good wines, and not hammer the ones I don’t like. Producers who received five star awards have every reason to be partying and I’m not going to rain on their parade. There’s enough controversy around the line-up to suggest that there are surprise inclusions (and surprise exclusions)

  • John W18 November 2020

    For me Platter remains my primary reference, highly useful, and regularly referred to. I do have my regular wine buys, vintage after vintage. Without Platter it would be impossible to have an idea whether the untasted by me bottle in front of me is worth buying. Price is definitely not an indicator. My one rule nowadays is that if the wine is not listed in Platter then I do not buy it. My understanding is that if a producer does not submit their wines to Platter then the producer has a much higher reverence for the wine than what is actually in the bottle.

  • Neil Fortes18 November 2020

    Wine Guru Selections my company representing many South African wineries has a hard time establishing credibility of our South African wineries in our market. There is no regard for Platter and also Tim Atkins. Our market looks to international scores from Wine Spectator or other credible scorers. Many excellent South African wineries do not export and would like to. Some with money succeed. We therefore need a credible scoring source in South Africa to uplift the perception of SA and their qualities. With 200 5 star wines Platter does not cut it. We need another source to help the industry in international markets

    • Top Wine SA19 November 2020

      But Neil, last I heard was that Wine Spectator’s scores are primarily those of James Molesworth, based on ‘sighted’ tastings, rather than of a panel judging ‘blind’. And interesting that you don’t think much of Tim Atkin’s ratings… although he might well know the SA market better than Molesworlth.

  • GillesP18 November 2020

    Have given up on buying the Platters annual guide since at least 5 years, not even checking the 5 stars results anymore. Lost credibility ….

  • Gareth18 November 2020

    Thanks for an insightful read Michael.

    I’m particularly interested by the piece about the “5 star reviewer” being given the original score of the wine. To me this discredits the notion of a second round of “blind” tasting for all wines scoring 93 and over. I of course don’t have details, but I suspect that the scores don’t often change from the original 1-person’s opinion in the second round of not-so-blind tasting.

    Or am I misinterpreting?

    • Michael Fridjhon18 November 2020

      I agree with you there, Gareth. Apparently there is a movement (upwards and downwards) at the 5 star tasting, which is to be expected. But the 5 star taster is being “guided” by a sighted taster which, as I pointed out in my article, makes the blind part of the hybrid system less independent and less useful. If a primary taster sends in a wine from a known rockstar winery with a 97 or 98, it’s unlikely that the 5 star judge will take it down to 94. The 95s and 96s may go down (as the 94s may go up) but the system is loaded in favour of score inflation

  • Colin Harris18 November 2020

    One of my biggest gripes with Winemag, Platters and other non-competition platforms is the fact that a wine gets dumbed down to a score. All the controversy around Platters would be moot if they would stop wasting space by publishing stars. Instead, they can publish as they are – tasting notes and the odd bit about the viti- and viniculture WITHOUT the scores. The relevance of the guide is still that it is a great source of information of who produces which wines.

    • Tierseun18 November 2020

      I agree with you, scores do dumb it down, BUT without a score how do you even begin to differentiate? If you read 100 Chenin reviews they all begin to sound very similar, except the top end wines that get descriptors like “world class”, “incredible depth”, “focus”, etc. For the remaining 80 wines I might as well not read the notes because I already know what Chenin smells and tastes like.
      And if a wine doesn’t have a score, what’s there to argue about? I’m not going to be pissed off that the tasting note says quince and I’m not smelling it, but give a wine 95 points that, in my opinion, is rather average I’m immediately annoyed and calling the taster useless!

    • Kwispedoor18 November 2020

      Most people would agree that it’s not really possible to assign a ‘correct’ score to any wine. Wine changes and evolves constantly, many external factors affect the way it tastes, people have very different organoleptical sensitivities/skills, etc. etc. But doing away with points or stars will simply not work. They already tried it in 1997 and 1998 (and even then they still had a replacement ‘bunching’ system to categorize quality) and it was a disaster. The market generally wants scores – period. Eschewing a scoring system will likely be the death knell of the guide.

    • Duncan18 November 2020

      As a consumer, there’s definitely value in crude ratings in the middle of the quality spectrum. Give me a shortlist of wines scoring 4 stars and above so I know what will be an enjoyable, maybe even reasonably interesting, bottle to buy at the supermarket or order at a restaurant.

      Beyond that, it’s really not clear we should be reducing aesthetic criteria to a score.

  • Michael Fridjhon18 November 2020

    I believe so. Is that insider trading? I suppose so though I can’t see how that would affect impartiality of scoring. The wine already has its five star accolade. Now the Guide is trying to tap into the revenue stream which its rating has actually created. There’s an argument which suggests that in time the publishers would generate more five star wines to generate more revenue. I doubt this would happen: the tasters who make the five star call are independent and do not benefit from the decision.

    • Tierseun18 November 2020

      Michael, your point about it not affecting impartiality of scoring because the judges themselves don’t benefit is likely correct, but it is undoubtedly insider trading and Diners would have a very hard time convincing the public of this, especially when there is a sudden 50%+ increase in the number of 5* wines…

  • Kevin R18 November 2020

    Would like to hear more whether Platters did indeed approach 5 star winners, pre-public announcement, this year requesting allocations of these wines to later sell themselves?
    True or not??

    • Tierseun18 November 2020

      This is an interesting theory, but practically how would this work? Diners Club is a loyalty network. If they were to stockpile physical wine, how and to whom do they sell it? Retailers who’ve run out of stock, direct to public, or to their card holders?

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