Ad hominem attacks from The Widow

Neil Pendock May 3, 2008 1

The departure lounge at Frankfurt airport is not the most luxurious location in Germany if you are flying poverty class on SA Airways as I was on May Day, returning from a week tasting wine in Alsace and before that, a week judging the stuff at the Concours Mondial in Bordeaux. Especially when you read an outrageous personal attack on the Grape website. A quick e-mail to Philip van Zyl, editor of Platter’s wine guide, confirmed I was NOT fired as a taster for the guide – a misunderstanding that could have arisen from an unfortunate letter to the editor of the Financial Mail by Business Day wine pundit Michael Fridjhon last year and which is now repeated in The Widow’s occasional column on Grape which also hosts Fridjhon’s Business Day columns. Of course an apology was always going to be a bit of an ask, but The Widow responded in her usual cowardly fashion by pulling the page – she did this once before after making a libelous allegation that I had received a free case of wine from David Brice’s Wine Cellar when I’d actually paid full price for it. But thanks to the miracle of Google, the latest Widow column can still be found here.

The story is a tissue of vicious fibs. I was asked to travel (economy class) to Northern Ireland to the Bushmills Distillery by the deputy editor of the Sunday Times Travel and Food – not by Bushmills, so a declaration on my part for favours received would have been posing. As for being attacked for being large and rich I blame my genes for the former and my saddle-sore bottom (seat 47D) replies “if only for the latter.” As Francis Picabia memorably noted in such cases: “to those talking behind my back: my ass is looking at you.”

As for “forgoing respect from his wine writing colleagues” goes, guess being offered a new column “Amateur Hour” in WINE magazine, a major feature in the June edition of Wine Tourism News on negative foreign perceptions of SA wine and a feature on my inspired culinary skills in Fynpoe’s June edition must have been made out of pity for rich fatties. But then self-praise is no recommendation.

The rest of the column is likewise an outrageous fantasy. This is unlikely to be the last we hear of the matter. The timing of the scandal is unfortunate as Fridjhon’s Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show kicks off at the Grande Roche in Paarl next week. Two of the SA judges are Cathy van Zyl and Angela Lloyd who together with former picture framer Tim James are the editorial collective responsible for The Widow column.

That e-mail from Philip van Zyl in full:

Dear Tim (James)

Readers of the May Day edition of The Window might infer that Neil Pendock (copied herewith) was fired from Platter’s Guide. This is incorrect, and I’d appreciate it if you would note this on the website.

Best

Philip

That letter to the editor of the Financial Mail by Michael Fridjhon on 2 February 2007:

Amateur whiner

Neil Pendock’s “exposé” about wine competitions (Life January 26) was published without any disclosure of his own interest in the matter. Though your wine columnist is a highly regarded mathematician specialising in the interpretation of geological data, in matters of wine he is merely an enthusiastic amateur.

During 2006 he was relieved of his position on two tasting panels – the Trophy Wine Show and the Platter Guide. Since then he has persistently denigrated the institutions which placed their credibility above the convenience of having an influential journalist on their tasting team.
While Pendock did in fact join the Tasting Academy he belittled in advance – and which he has now described on wine.co.za as “excellent” – he only attended two and a half of the four segments of the course. He also vanished before the written examination, citing an urgent need to return to Johannesburg. Given that he travelled on the same return flight as other participants, the inescapable conclusion is that his opinion of his own tasting abilities corresponds with the views of the two institutions which dispensed with his services.

Not all wine enthusiasts can be trained to make good wine judges – just as not all students of the law make good lawyers.

And my reply of 9th February 2007 (before I checked that I had indeed NOT been fired by Platter [at least]):

The cart before the horse

The letter from Michael Fridjhon (Letters February 2) stating that I am critical of wine competitions because I was fired from his Trophy Wine Show and the Platter Guide puts the cart before the horse. Readers of the FM will know that I have been critical of both institutions for years, which I assume was why I was fired.

I do agree that not everyone makes a good wine judge – referring especially to wine show impresarios, importers and consultants whose commercial interests make a mockery of transparency.

On the matter of bunking the written exam for the Tasting Academy run by Wine magazine and Fridjhon, I never had any intention of sitting it for reasons presented in the story he objects to (FM Life January 26) and besides, I have little use for a certificate of “tasting competency” that is issued by a clique to those who aspire to become insiders. Wine magazine’s own January poll confirms that the broader wine public values the views of “enthusiastic amateurs” like myself by voting me SA’s most respected taster (Fridjhon came a distant fourth).

Chronological note (posted Sunday 4 May)

The Fridjhon bombshell required an immediate response. As the “relieved of his position” allegation was made by a senior Platter’s taster (Fridjhon) I thought it prudent to check that the editor and publisher would publically disclose their reasons they had given me privately for our parting of ways. I received this confirmation too late for the next edition of the Financial Mail. I find it hard to believe that two associate editors and another senior taster on the guide did not hear the truth about the matter as it was a cause célèbre for a while. “For evil to prevail it is sufficient that good women do nothing” as they say in the classics.

That Widow column in full:

Some dull thoughts on dull subjects, at excessive length
1 May 2008

There have been one or two eager enquiries after my health, but I’m not dead yet, despite the occasional moment of doubt. I thought I’d share with you a few observations about wine writing – yes, you may well groan, and I too would rather write about spicy adulteries and fruity adulterations committed by our leading winemakers, but they’re all being too discreet and we’ll just have to wait till they issue revealing press statements like Teddy Hall (talking of which, do you wonder as I do about whether these religio-maniacs like Cape winemakers and American televangelists become more ardent in their faith after being caught in flagrante, as it were, or less so?).

I do at least start with an international perspective on the media issue. I was intrigued to see that a bunch of French journalists were self-righteously indignant when a very expensive watch was slipped into their goody-bags by the ultra-rich supermarketer and wine magnate Bernard Magrez. Well, it was reported that some were indignant, so one presumes that some others were rather pleased by the little gesture. Interestingly, not one of them seems to have objected too strenuously to Monsieur Magrez wining and dining them at one of Paris’s priciest restaurants.

The pickings locally are pathetic by comparison (but then, some might say, so are the journalists). Why doesn’t Johannn Rupertt (who’s so rich I think he deserves that extra, extra ‘n’ on his name, and a little something for his surname too) offer something sparkly to the local hacks, given that he owns half the world’s luxury brands, as well as L’Ormarins? Because he’s too high-minded, I’m sure, rather than because he thinks the hacks would storm off indignantly.

Actually, it’s very difficult to even get to taste Johannn’s wines, let alone pocket any shiny freebies. Sighted tastings are not enough, it seems – he won’t let a wine taster near his fancier-end stuff unless he’s there to guide them through the tasting. Not surprisingly, given their incompetence – at a L’Ormarins function, one of our hackettes (with more years of experience in the wines of the world than she’d care to admit) ventured the opinion that one of his wines was perhaps a teeny bit over-oaked. She had to be reprimanded for having revealed her lack of sophistication. With wine-critics like that about, you don’t easily go handing out Cartier bling-things.

Our own Malcom MacQuitty

Talking of freebies and winewriters, one inevitably comes round to our ‘leading independent wine writer’ as he likes to call himself (and I must say sightings of him are getting easier all the time – he seems to be getting increasingly, er, big….). You’d have thought that such disdain for dependancy would lead Neil to steer clear of those expensive foreign trips offered by the likes of whiskey and cork manufacturers – especially given that his day job has apparently made him very rich). But no. It was presumably a freebie to Ireland and its whiskey distilleries that gave rise to his recent Sunday Grimes featurette on the subject – though I do wish his devotion to independence had prompted him to make what most would have thought the proper acknowledgement.

Actually, despite his independence, Neil always shows himself only too cultural-cringingly aware of what is happening in the foreign press, and tends to rap local critics over the knuckles when they have different opinions from the important metropiltan figures. And I’ve always thought he modelled himself in many respects on Britain’s Malcolm Gluck (the appeal to populism, the willingness to forgo respect from his winewriting colleagues, etc). But did you see the recent attack – not the first – on South African wines by Jane MacQuitty in the London Times? Apart from never having even visited the country whose wines she rubbishes, she has a fixed idea, and tends to come back again and again to make the same point (a hollow destructiveness, accompanied by some out of date ‘facts’). Doesn’t that remind you of something? It made me wonder if perhaps Neil, with his own monomaniacal urge to rubbish the Platter Guide, Mike Fridjhon, and others who disdain his contributions, isn’t also modelling himself on dear Jane? But if Neil’s boringly repetitive viciousness is prompted by being sacked, what sad experience is behind Jane’s, one wonders?

The hardworking Editorial Team

Another bastion of wine-writing integrity, wine.co.za, has learnt a neat trick that I often notice in the Cape Times – claiming as their own work bits of writing which are most certainly the work of others. ‘By our correpondent’ or some such claim in bits of wine news in the local rag only too often heralds an undigested press release. So, winecoza recently carried a piece on an ‘International achievement for Capetonian’, claiming it was ‘by WineNews Editorial Team’ – whereas it was only too clearly the same text that Grape carried in the Open Space section as a contribution from outside (which is what it was). The ‘Editorial Team’ didn’t even bother, in fact, to correct the typo in the reference to a ‘Nobel price winner’. But perhaps they didn’t even bother to read it before claiming to have written it.

Vineyards and golf courses

Fortunately, if our wine journalism is both pretty pathetic and venal, we can look to big business intervention in our wineries to maintain high standards. But those who are observing the encroachment of houses and golf-courses on our lovely winelands might be a little worried by a recent announcement from the existing, soon to be previous, owners of Bloemendal in Durbanville, to the effect that they ‘are uncertain of the future of the farm as well as the brand’. Surely we can hope that at least some of the vineyards will be be spared by Tokyo Sexwale and his pals? Meanwhile, I believe that the plans of Tokyo and his partners to make lots of money by putting up housing for the ghastly rich on his Constantia Uitsig estate are apparently going a little bit slower than expected. Now, I was told that some years back the authorities had to scratch their heads (and give in, as they usually do when there’s big money involved) when the cricketers’ accommodation they thought they were allowing to be built turned into a luxury hotel…. We can hope that they’ll checking things a bit more carefully this time.

Taking pride in one’s (or others’) jails

It’s not every wine region that tries to associate itself with a prison. I’ve never seen Constantia boasting about being home to Pollsmoor (within a stone’s throw of all the luxury of Steenberg, it is). Franschhoek, however, boasts (according to a three-months-in-advance PR email someone forwarded to me) that it ‘houses Drakenstein prison … from which Nelson Mandela was released in 1990’. This wonderful association with a prison is part of Franschhoek’s claim to be ‘inextricably linked with the pursuit of freedom’ as the press release loftily puts it. A rather strange idea it seems to me – especially as it’s a lie, seeing that the prison is on the outskirts of Paarl, and not in Franschhoek (town or ward) at all. Actually, given the concern some producers show to pretend they’re in Franschhoek rather than Paarl, perhaps there’s a move afoot to simply annex the home of the Taal Monument and KWV headquarters.

But when did a bit of truth ever get in the way of a PR company’s inextricable link with the pursuit of … whatever it is paid to pursue? Even ignoring the geographical confusion, as a way of battening onto Nelson Mandela it strikes me as a bit tenuous. But if it’s not enough to tempt you to the Bastille Festival in the town (not on, but pretty close to, Bastille Day), it would seem that the place is much more than the collection of coffee venues, restaurants and antique and craft shops you might have suspected it of being. Indeed, it is central to the history of France, says the PR company (at least I think that’s what the tortured prose is trying to convey): ‘The Bastille Festival celebrates the collective theme of freedom, marrying South African and French history at the heart of both, Franschhoek’. So there you are. Do not pass Go. Go directly to Franschhoek.

The sincerest form of flattery

By the way, a younger (and prettier) person than I has told me that there’s someone who has created a Wine Widow Profile on Facebook ( I confess I have only a vague idea what that means). But, she tells me, ‘the writing style does not seem the same as the Widow though… it lacks a bit of class … somehow I cannot imagine the Widow using the Afrikaans “P” word!’. Indeed not. If I sluggishly resurface from my moribund state, it’s only for Grape. Perhaps for the vulgar Facebook version one should consider someone recently sacked from being the PR for the Stellenbosch wine Route? Just a guess; do tell me if you know better.

One Comment »

  1. Martin Smith May 4, 2008 at 2:11 pm -

    You are 1000 X the wine writer Tim James is. Leave him and the bags to wallow in the gutter.

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