Michael Fridjhon: Why do some wine producers enter competitions and others not?
By Michael Fridjhon, 14 June 2023
Depending on your wine budget, the extent of your geekiness, and possibly whether or not you live in the Cape, you will either drink wines made on what used to be called estates, or from producers whose USP is that they are artisanal craftsmen. These broad (and therefore easily shot-down) generalisations reflect the following assumptions: the less you can afford to spend, the more you will gravitate to higher volume wineries (these might include the so-called producing merchants); the further you live from the Cape, the less readily available the lower volume (and often geekier/more artisanal) wines will be.
This situation suits everyone for a variety of reasons: it enables the Cape to feel vindicated in its natural sense of superiority about the mining town in the north, and it allows Gautengers to mock what they see as the cottage industry side of the wine business.
As with all generalisations, there is enough truth to the caricature to make it stick. Distribution costs tend to keep from the average Gauteng retailer’s shelves many of the craft producers’ wines. If you live in the Cape – close to the winery (and possibly with friends or colleagues who know someone who knows someone who knows a boutique-type producer) – there’s a kind of tupperware party quality to these connections.
If on the other hand we’re talking about the rockstar artisanal producers, their wines are hardly ever visible on the shelves of even the most upmarket wine stores. These “vinous treasures” are offered and sold through mail order. You need to be a bit of a wine buff even to know that unless you get your name onto a mailing list, the only way you’re going to be able to buy the wine is on auction several years later.
At one level, the snobbery which comes with these distinctions is misplaced. Just because you can afford to buy something more expensive and less accessible doesn’t ensure you’re getting anything better than the person who is not persuaded that shortage of supply is a guarantee of quality. Just because other people buy on the basis of brand is no reason to assume their judgement is any better or any worse: exactly the people who look down their noses at folk who proudly display their Louis Vuitton handbags or their Gucci belts delight in serving “on-allocation only” vinous rarities. The same attributes are required to own the handbags or the wine: money and access.
So is there an objective – or relatively objective way – of distinguishing between quality and puffery? Given that quality itself is not verifiably measurable (at least in absolute terms) this may seem a fool’s errand. If we accept that it is possible to compare wines on the basis of their attributes at a given moment in time, then skilled palates can draw a distinction. This is what happens when acknowledged wine judges, tasting blind, arrive at a conclusion. They may differ in terms of preference but they are likely to be able to sort the great from the good, and the good from the ordinary. They are obviously unable to pass the kind of judgement that would be influenced by knowledge of the terroir – so their opinion is more about the here-and-now, and less about what the future might hold.
You might ask that if this is all that is required to arrive at a less-than-subjective view on wine quality, why isn’t this the approach adopted by wine industries around the world. The answer is that those who depend for their sales on perceptions of rarity and the perceived desirability of relatively unobtainable products would never knowingly agree to such an arbitration. At the time of the inaugural Trophy Wine Show we assembled the wines of the leading producers who hadn’t entered the competition and conducted a blind tasting which we called “The No-show Show.” Needless to say, the producers in question – all of whose wines were in the public domaine – were incandescent with rage. (Incidentally, so were quite a few consumers, who didn’t like the idea that their favourite brands might not have performed so well).
So why do some wineries enter competitions, while others don’t? Those which are newly established, or have invested heavily in winery/vineyard upgrades, know that show successes are a cheap way of getting the message out. But there are also highly regarded producers who take their chances every year, despite the apparent downside risk. They have worked out that their brand is strong enough to survive a disappointing showing. When a consumer trusts a producer, he/she is more likely to blame the judges for not recognising the virtues of a favourite wines.
A healthy wine industry is a self-critical and dynamic one. The best producers seek constantly to improve, no matter how good or prestigious they may already be: the Lafite Rothschilds produced today are vastly better than the wines made in the 1960s and 1970s – a situation forced upon even the most famous Medoc estate by the arrival on the scene of Robert Parker.
Clinging desperately onto a position of pre-eminence hoping not be overtaken by newcomers is a certain route to catastrophe. Wine consumers are like the electorate in a functioning democracy: they don’t change sides easily. But they have also learnt the biblical lesson of Lot’s wife: when they move on, they don’t look back.
- 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 Trophy Wine Show.
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