Platter's versus the Peoples' Guide

Thursday, 3 December, 2009
Cathy Marston
So, the guides we have all been waiting for have finally hit the book shops - in time for Christmas (surprise, surprise) but which one should be in our stockings this year?
As the only person who has done work for both publications this year, I thought I should take a good look at what they both offer, ignore any brickbats and curveballs which may have been thrown around over the last few months and just see whether these guides actually do do what they say on the tin.

The John Platter Wine Guide is now in its 30th year and for such an old boy, is surprisingly up to date. No Silver Surfers, they have entered the rapidly-growing virtual world of cellphone applications with the launch of their iPhone version, Wine-Oh!, revamped the layout and text (am I the only old fogey to find the font-size a bit small and the text a bit pale though??) jazzed up the restaurant section and plotted an ever-increasing number of wineries on clear and accurate maps. There is no getting away from it - this guide is HUGE. There is so much information in it, on topics you never really realised you wanted to know about, laid out in ways which seem repetitious but are actually all surprisingly useful in their own way and all of it with detail - carefully researched, meticulously-verified detail to give you everything you could ever need. As a wine writer, I wouldn't think of sitting down at my laptop without a copy on hand - it knows things even the wineries themselves don't know and, to my mind, is absolutely indispensable.

So what about the new kid on the block - The People's Guide? This was set up with the belief that wines should be tasted blind (so you don't know who made them) unlike Platter whose tasters know what's in the bottle (at least in the early stages of the tasting). Neil Pendock and Michael Olivier gathered together a diverse collection of wine tasters (including yours truly) all with expertise and interest in different fields. I have to tell you, we had an awesome time at the tastings even though I thought my tongue might fall out after the second day and my three year old son ran screaming and hid under the bed when I bared my claret-stained teeth.

We tasters agreed more than we disagreed, discussed, debated, argued - and then drank our favourites at the end of the day which seems to me to be a civilised way of working. The Guide itself is colourful and fun with lots of space (sometimes perhaps a little too much), contains pictures of bottles (which is more important than people realise) and pulls no punches in terms of what is in and what is out - just because we liked your Cabernet doesn't mean we also liked your Sauvignon.

One of the best bits of this Guide is the fact that we tasted in price bands - under R50, R50-R100, over R100. This is where blind tasting truly comes into its own. We rejected a lot of wines, in particular in the more expensive categories, because although they were good, we didn't feel they were good value at their asking price. We had no axes to grind, no agendas to forward and frankly, I was extremely surprised at the quality offered from some big brands which until now, I wouldn't have touched with a bargepole. My bank manager is delighted...

At the end of the day, the whole point of all guides is that they are just that - guides. Not rules, not absolutes, not laws, just knowledgeable people giving their opinions on a subject. I chatted with a couple of senior Platter judges at the launch who said that they had reservations about one or two of the 5-star wines this year and, looking through the Peoples Guide at our Coup de Coeurs, I am not sure that I agree wholeheartedly (ha, ha!) with every single one of them, so you do need to remember that you can never discount the personal factor in wine judging.

These are two very different books, written for very different reasons and aiming at two very different markets. There is definitely a place for both of them and if it means that people tour with their Platter and shop with their People's Guide, then that's fine by me. Cheers!