Is wine appreciation generationally dependent?

Tuesday, 15 June, 2010
Neil Pendock
Neil Pendock asks whether well entrenched tasting panels are clogging up the U-bend of the South African spittoon. New brooms, anyone?
Paradigm shifts, like moving pianos, are rarely painless. When Pop Art emerged from the confusion of Abstract Expressionism in New York in the sixties, establishment Willem de Kooning famously accused newbie Andy Warhol of destroying art and beauty. But a more potent statement was Jasper Johns's 1964 sculpture "The Critic Sees": two mouths behind a pair of spectacles, implying that critics "see" with their kissers. The exact opposite of wine assessment where some assess wines with their eyes (in addition to their noses and mouths).

As Gary Indiana notes in Andy Warhol and the Can that Sold the World (Basic Books, 2010) "the formalist critics who had supported Abstract Expressionism saw with their mouths and judged works of art on the basis of their own critical pronouncements rather than the intrinsic qualities of the works themselves."

South African wine finds itself in a similar state of turmoil to American art in the sixties with establishment figures on the tasting panels of magazines and sighted wine guides ferociously defending their turf against Next Level tasters like the gourmet guerillas at Under the Influence, retronasal revolutionary retailers like Roland Peens and Lisa Griggs or sommeliers turned entrepreneurs like Jörg Pfütnzer.

Brett is a good an example. One high profile wine marketer complained that the medal winners showcased after last month's Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show were "boring. The best red was the Buitenverwachting Cabernet (the 2006 scored borderline silver 80 and the 2005, a high bronze 78) and that was because a touch of Brett added character".

Robert Parker would probably have agreed, as it's no secret that he prefers a touch of Brett in his Bordeaux. Although if the Buitenverwachting was indeed Bretty, it must have slipped through BEZ (the Brett Exclusion Zone) as several judges on the OMTWS panels are paid-up members of the Brett Police.

International microbiological consultant Lisa van de Water runs Brett management courses in several wine producing countries and although she professes (as a consumer) to hate the earthy/leathery character Brett imparts to a wine, one Overberg winemaker claimed she adds a dash to her own wines to "increase complexity" and presumably Parker points. So quite how much Brett is permissible, is up for debate. As a panel chairman at the recent Concours Mondial in Palermo, I saw how judges scored young Bordeaux blends - a nicely bimodal distribution of low scores to Bretty wines centered around 60 from technocrat tasters and the mirror image around 80 from more permissive palates.

The Lomond Pincushion Sauvignon Blanc 2009 is another well-named example of the struggle for an acceptable South African wine style: scored a full-house five stars in the 2010 edition of an influential sighted wine guide, it could do no better than low bronze when tasted blind at OMTWS six months later. I tasted it recently and felt like an angel dancing deliriously on the head of a pin. In the case of celestial spirits, their footing is so sure, they don't need to look down to maintain balance. But for the rest of us, a peak at the label can be marvelously reassuring.

Even more interesting than the 450 medal winners at OMTWS was the flood of high priced and highly rated wine that failed to clear the 70 point bronze bar. A point glumly made by Glenwood winemaker DP Burger at a (sighted) tasting of his wines at the magnificent Clico guesthouse in Rosebank last month.

Some producers are at their wits' ends and a murmuring rebellion against the results is gathering a head of steam. "Which competition should we enter?" ventured one winemaker over Sunday lunch. "We spent over R10K in entry fees, gave-away loads of bottles and got a couple of bronzes in return." I took the fifth, but did ask "When was the last time a co-op won gold at such a show?"

Not that boutique producers necessarily do any better in blind tastings. Last month I was seduced by a spectacularly fragrant white that raised a wry comment from the winemaker. "I entered it into a blind tasting and the magazine phoned to say it had done really well. They asked for an interview, a photo and a recipe. So imagine my disappointment when I bought the publication and saw a 2½ star rating and a recommendation to drink my wine with pizza." (The wine in question sells for well over R100 and is listed in some of the Cape's priciest restaurants).

"I phoned up the mag and they read me the judges' scores. I had been marked down by the old fogies on the panel. Why did you tell me I'd done well? I asked. 'Well here in the office, your wine is our favourite,' replied the young staffer."
The winemaker's point is that wine judging is age dependent, with Generation X consumers queuing up to buy coffee/mocha styles of Pinotage and Shiraz and now chocolate Port, styles often rubbished by panels of bibulous Baby Boomers. Factor in the urge to not rock the boat, a strong one among publishers (as producers on the star-studded Hollywood Walk of Fame often have advertising budgets) and the result is rating inertia.

So when a new producer or style comes along, it has to be really good indeed to upset the status quo as the status of five star producer is rarely downgraded and there is a relentless upwards pressure on ratings in publications: just look at the recent explosion of five star stunners in WINE magazine and tsunamis of red ink in influential sighted wine guides.