Michael Fridjhon: Why do some wine producers enter competitions and others not?

By , 14 June 2023



Hagen Viljoen of Zevenwacht, Most Successful Producer at the Trophy Wine Show 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.


7 comment(s)

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    paul sheppard | 26 June 2023

    I cant imagine a less objective tasting environment than a whole room of wines from producers who snubbed your show – no amount of integrity would survive the notion..

    Mike Froud, Top Wine SA | 17 June 2023

    It should be obvious, and yet. Wine competition transparancy is of paramount importance – the rules and procedures, the results and how they are presented. Clearly, who’s running the show and who’s on the panel of judges counts a lot. Some competitions are pretty much on a par in terms of their status, some are secondary, some carry very little weight at all – even though each claims to be more meaningful than the other. And, as is their right, certain wine producers choose to avoid certain competitions, some avoid all competitions, while others even steer clear of being mentioned in Platter’s SA Wine Guide, which we’re regularly told is not a competition, and yet. How true that a good panel is likely to sort the good from the ordinary and the great from the good, albeit that they may differ in terms of personal favourites. Producers who try to prevent their wines from being reviewed at all by anybody should raise eyebrows, surely…

    Michael Fridjhon | 16 June 2023

    James – to continue the discussion: of course you’re correct that with too many competitions there is a dilution of impact. It’s also likely that people who cannot distinguish between the credible and the frivolous risk being misled.

    However, I’m not sure how this can be managed: just as consumers gravitate to their preferred sources of information – FOX versus CNN for example – so consumers of wine will find where they can place their trust.

    That’;s why it is important to insist on transparency, to demand to know more about the process – to verify, if you like, the trustworthiness of the source.

    Short of an industry equivalent of the old Publications Control Board – which none of us want – I can’t imagine how this can achieved. I guess I’m saying that consumers cannot abdicate the responsibility of learning who to trust.

      James Bosenberg | 16 June 2023

      Thanks Michael, that’s a very good point re the trust aspect and the need for transparency. I think consumers will eventually settle on who aligns most with their pallet. It might just be a little more trial and error.

    James Bosenberg | 15 June 2023

    Thanks for engaging Michael. Your point about not having one truth is valid and and any rate, it would not be at all healthy. I still believe, however, that there are too many competitions flying around and it allows producers to pick and choose the one they fair better in. Maybe that’s fine and you’re probably right, they have their market and it helps promote their wine. I just think the sheer amount of competitions somewhat undermines the really skilled producer.

    Michael Fridjhon | 15 June 2023

    Hi James
    There are countless movies critics, restaurant reviewers, journalists who test drive cars. They all have opinions. Arguably some are more “expert” than others, some are more entertaining, some are better informed. To remain in “business” they need to have a viable audience. Their followers may prefer to be entertained than to be guided (unless they really intend to buy a car, rather than to hear what Jeremy Clarkson has to say about what Richard Hammond and James May have been arguing about).

    The simplicity you seek was readily available to the citizens of the Soviet Union for most of the 20th century. Whatever the shortcomings of a system with too many views and opinions, it clearly beats one in which there is a single and apparently indisputable “truth.”

    James Bosenberg | 14 June 2023

    On the subject of competitions, there seems to be extraordinary number of them around, each coming up with a different set of ‘top results’.

    For me, that dilutes the prestige and creates more confusion than it does good? Surely the industry is better off with one National competition, if you will, and perhaps that is what platters is? A farm can enter 20 competitions and choose the highest rating sticker to add to its bottle. Or, in the case of Saronsberg, add all 100 stickers.

    If anyone can help me understand why we have so many, I would be grateful.

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