A worm in the garden of bad dreams

Neil Pendock March 30, 2009 3

Johannesburg born novelist, fellow CBC old boy and Witsie, now domiciled “in a remote village in rural France”, Christopher Hope, published a collection of short stories last year called The Garden of Bad Dreams (Atlantic, 2008). A collection about which I was all set to interview him for a review in the Sunday Times if judging the Concours Mondial in Bordeaux had not clashed.

In his capacity as director of the Franschhoek Literary Festival, Christopher invited me to “submit the best piece of writing you published in 2008 on any wine-related topic, for the Franschhoek Literary Festival’s SA Wine Writers Award” last week. An award that may turn into a nightmare suitable for inclusion in a sequel.


My eyebrows flew off the Richter scale when I ogled the prize – R25,000 – nearly two year’s pay writing columns for WINE magazine or a year at the Financial Mail in those salad days when I had a semi-regular slot.

As someone who’s been fairly vocal on the subject of blind versus sighted assessment of wine, I was dismayed to see the panel of judges: “Jancis Robinson MW (Financial Times wine writer, Oxford Companion To Wine Editor), Stephen Tanzer (International Wine Cellar editor, Food & Wine Magazine senior editor) and Duncan Minshull (BBC commissioning editor).” A curious choice indeed when the judging criterion is “literary merit.”

But then including two winespeak heavyweights (no personal insult intended) the laser beam of international attention is shone on SA wine, even if through a glass darkly in the case of some turgid prose that passes as winespeak. But with one judge having commercial connections with several high profile SA wine writers through a recently defunct column at WINE magazine and twice judging at the Trophy Wine Show, a whole shoal of red herrings and partial torpedos will be launched at an industry recently described on one communal blog as “a tragi-comical construct that lingers between consumer-capitalism, ego, muddle, squabbles and wishful-thinking.”

Blind assessment is a non-starter if you have any kind of distinctive style while given the requirement that submissions should have been published last year, if you leave off your name, a well-placed Google query would add it. Not to accuse the judges of a priori unprofessional behaviour, but as with most things vinous, perception counts way more than facts.

Not that the FLF organizers aren’t bending over backwards to accommodate conscientious objectors. When Emile Joubert pointed out that Afrikaans, the lingua franca of the industry, had been overlooked, the organizers quickly agreed to accept translations – which they would even do themselves if required.

Of course if the panel had included Christopher himself or André Brink (a bilingual bibulist who’s even written books on the stuff) the issue would never have raised its ugly xenophobic head.

My own take away order of Nando’s chicken with extra chili seems to have come home to roost. As Christopher himself noted “writing has always seemed to me to be a rather mischievous occupation. I write not to change the world but to undermine it, since the models on offer seem pretty dull most of the time.” Which is how I would describe Sour Grapes (Tafelberg, 2008) and many of my columns in the Sunday Times or on www.winenews.co.za. I can offer multiple irate letters to the editor from foreign wine identities whose modesty I had outraged and even a threatened lawsuit from Decanter in evidence.

To quote the master again: “much of life is odd and disorganized. Many people who pretend to be sure about things are either ingenuous or wicked. They are also often charlatans. One wants to record their utterances as a warning to others.” Hardly a point of view to endear you to your colleagues in the wonderful, whacky world of winespeak.


  1. Gilly Hemphill March 31, 2009 at 8:25 am -

    Dear Wine Writer,

    Three questions have been raised regarding the Franschhoek Literary Festival SA Wine Writers Award, which the organisers would like to briefly respond to.

    1. Regarding the foreignness of the judges: the pros and cons of local versus foreign judges were carefully considered, as was the related questionof whether the submissions should be judged by wine writers or non wine writers. We decided to err on the side of closeness to the art of wine writing, which necessarily implies geographical distance. To balance things, however, we have also included one non wine writer.

    2. Regarding the impartiality of the judges: this is of course better assured through a panel of foreign rather than local judges. Impartiality is also assured by the transparency of the judging process: three independent judges (not closely associated with each other) from two different countries and two different professions will jointly select the winning entry.

    3. Regarding the English language of the judges: please feel free to submit your work in any of the official South African languages. We will arrange for professional translations to be made where necessary; but you might well prefer to have your own translation made. (In other words, you may submit your work in the original language, or in English translation.)

    Since this is the first time the award is being given, please bear with us while we try to get the process right; then we can make changes in future years, as we learn from the experience. We are aware of the problems inherent in judging any form of cultural work (indeed, spare a thought for the wine producers that you normally judge!). But we are committed to doing all we can to ensure that this prize is fairly and appropriately awarded each year to SA’s pre-eminent wine writer.

    Do please submit your work as soon as possible before the deadline, especially if it requires translation.

    Thanking you,

    Christopher Hope
    Director, FLF

  2. Martin March 31, 2009 at 11:55 am -

    Jancis Robinson should withdraw as a judge.

    Tim James admits that both he and Michael Fridjohn are paid by her to contribute to the Oxford Companion to Wine.

    How on earth can her opinion be impartial?

  3. Ruth April 3, 2009 at 3:52 am -

    I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don’t know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.



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