Tim James: When wine becomes wearying work

By , 20 September 2021

There is one group of people that will regret, I have no doubt, the ending of my stint of tasting and rating samples for the next edition of the Platter’s guide. Each Monday for the past few months, the remarkably cheery men who empty my wheelie-bin of refuse have also collected some opened bottles of wine – sometimes four, occasionally even a dozen, depending on how much I’ve been tasting and on how many other supplicants there are for the leftovers. The binmen don’t always get the best of my leftovers, I confess, nor yet always the freshest (though I would never give them stuff that’s in the same category as the contents of my bin), mostly because I have reason to suspect that the wine tends to get mixed with cola before being drunk. Though I must also confess that there’s an element of cynicism in my sweeping judgement – for all I know, amongst the group of recipients there might be one or two who will get to superciliously sniff, swirl and spit (or swallow) and make pronouncements as to the wine’s quality.

Anyhow, I do know that they’re pleased with the wine. Why else would they now desist from leaving my wheelie-bin on its side, mouth agape, somewhere down the road or pavement? Instead, it gets tidily, even tenderly, placed up against my front gate. (Which makes the gate extremely difficult to get through and, as that gate is at an angle to my garage swing door, I can’t open that either. So I’m left to struggle to get out and retrieve my bin, regretting the days when I’d simply have to identify it among the forlorn huddle and rescue it. But I am pleased and a little proud to be thus marked out as the Binmen’s Friend, and sorry their regular Monday wine supply has been suspended.

And me? Will I be sorry about Platter’s winding down? Decidedly not. While it’s an extraordinary privilege to taste through whole ranges of many producers, I find it mostly hard (though ultimately satisfying) work doing it under time pressure, having to write comprehensible and hopefully useful notes that fit into the required length, and, above all, having to assign a score out of 100 for each wine. The latter task is made all the more difficult in that I know that I’m a mean scorer compared to at least a few on the team of Platter’s tasters, and one or two of them would lavish more points than I, which is a nice thing to do (you’re never going to get a universal standard between 15 or so tasters operating independently, with very little control over them – though the editor does occasionally ask for another taster to give an unsighted opinion on a fresh bottle). But I increasingly find precise scoring to be something absurd, and certainly something I don’t enjoy.

Apart from that, I just find it hard work … a First World sort of problem, that. Non-wine professionals that I say this to are rather incredulous. Sounds like a great job: someone delivers you loads and loads of more or less decent and sometimes great wine (at one point my small house seemed to be groaningly full of the stuff awaiting tasting), you taste and swig – that’s fun; where’s the work, let alone hard work? And, yes, I’d rather do this than be a binman. It’s probably partly that something mostly associated with pleasure and a depth of satisfaction gets compulsion and pressure and relentless demands hedging it around.

And I admit that many people taste much more than I do, for Platter’s and throughout the year, and they might well think just I’m a whingeing wimp. Those who judge in competitions somehow get through hundreds in a day – and even some Platter’s tasters will regularly taste and write-up 20 or more in a day. I’ve had about 400 Platter’s wines this year – most of which I taste in pretty leisurely fashion, and most of them at least twice, on successive days (and do sometimes change my opinion, or at least develop my understanding of the wine, on the second – even if deciding whether score it 94 rather than 93, or 84 rather than 82, doesn’t become a much less ludicrous and invidious task).

If I’m wearier than usual this pandemic year, it’s mostly because of the lockdown problem, when Platter’s samples couldn’t be delivered on schedule. When the restriction on wine movement ended again, it all happened in a rush, making the usual pressure to get through the wines that much tougher.

Anyway, it’s all over – for me, just some writing and editing to do (I elected to not take part in the final blind tasting judgement of wines scoring 93 or more). And I can get back to enjoying wine. During the tasting months, I actually seldom drank wine, as opposed to tasting it. By the time evening came, I’d pretty well had enough of it (though brandy was exempt). Necessarily, a lot of the better wines were, anyway, young and rather too raw to give me pleasure – especially the reds. Getting back to older wines, and a leavening of foreign ones, is slowly restoring wine to me as an object of sheer pleasure rather than one of work. Last night I had the second half of a bottle of 2010 Reyneke Reserve Red – happily even better on the second day, unlike the last bottle I’d opened, which had tired quickly. Not a drop left for the binmen.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing 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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