Diners Fiasco: Business Day weighs in

Neil Pendock December 15, 2008 5

Business Day pundit Michael Fridjhon waded into the Diners Club Winemaker of the Year fiasco (from the Italian for a wine bottle, e.g. a fiasco of Chianti) last week. As fellow columnist for organizers WINE magazine and commercial partner in Tasting Academies, Trophy Shows, Experiences and suchlike, his comments are sure to be viewed as less than impartial in some quarters, such is the divided topology of the Kingdom of Bacchus at the southernmost tip, alas.

Sybrand & Duncan

But conflicts of interest in the fourth estate aside, the elephant in the Diners dining room seems to me to be a breakdown in the auditing process. Surely someone should have counted the cases before a winner was announced? Which certainly used to be the case. Simonsig memorably missed out on Diners glory some years back for precisely this reason, the victor’s laurels going (most deservedly) to big Danie Malan of my parish, his famous vis plakkies not withstanding.

The Business Day story quotes Cape Point supremo Sybrand van der Spuy on the fiasco, presumably lifted from my interview in the Sunday Times that mysteriously appeared with the competition’s controversial 3000 bottle stock requirement magicked down to 300. A level most insiders agree would be more palatable. The original text of that interview:

Rules that make sense

The highest profile SA wine competition, the Diners Club Winemaker of the Year Award, collapsed in confusion last month when winner, Duncan Savage from Cape Point Vineyards, resigned after disclosing he lacked sufficient stock to make the 3000 bottle competition requirement. Neil Pendock spoke to Cape Point owner Sybrand van der Spuy about the Diners disaster.

Q: What happened?

A: We entered this competition in the same way as we enter any competition. We’ve been rather successful over the past four years and have seen an increase in demand for our wines. When WINE magazine interviewed Duncan as a finalist a month before announcing the resuts, he stated that his wine (Cape Point Vineyards Isliedh 2006) was ostensibly sold out. The stock level requirement was as at the date of announcement of results.

They published Duncan’s comments in the December issue of WINE and now accuse him of lying about having sufficient stock. I do not know which part of “sold out “ they did not understand. The buck stops with me and I have full confidence in the integrity and personal qualities of Duncan. He is innovative, passionate and a great winemaker.

Q: What can we learn from the affair?

A: The industry needs to urgently reassess the stock requirement conditions of competitions like Veritas and Diners. We must reassess the functionality of the rules. With around 50 entries for Diners, you have a 2% chance of winning. You can’t just stop selling product with such a small chance of winning. One should set stock quantities at the date of entry (and audit them) to compel producers to enter current wines.

Q: Is this a South African thing? Wine competitions (like Diners last year) seem to be magnets for charges of dubious dealing.

A: I was an outsider who got involved in the industry back in 1996. What struck me then (and still does) is the compassion of my competitors. Ross Gower helped us with the maiden vintage and we made the wine in his Klein Constantia cellar. When our first winemaker quit in the middle of the harvest, Herman Kirschbaum from Buitenverwachting helped out afterhours and wouldn’t accept payment whilst André van Rensburg from Vergelegen showed Duncan how to make proper Sauvignon Blanc wine. Can you imagine [FNB CEO] Paul Harris offering to chair Absa’s credit committee whilst Jacko Maree (CEO of Standard Bank) shows Maria Ramos how to run a bank?

5 Comments »

  1. Gary December 15, 2008 at 1:01 pm -

    The thing is that there are many many small wine producers in South Africa (some produce fewer than 100 cases). While this may produce some excellent wine (as the winemaker can concentrate on making one batch of wine rather than running around a large cellar), there needs to be a line drawn somewhere.

    What I mean is that the South African wine industry is a complete false economy. People making below 1000 cases cannot expect to make money and probably never will because most of the time (but not always mind you) their wine is kak and their prices are way too high (500 to 700 bucks a bottle, no thanks). The upshot is that most of the SA wine industry is running at a loss and is being bankrolled by retired bankers, stockbrokers and enormous loans.

    You therefore have businesses (and yes, a winery should be seen as a business not just a lifestyle if you please) which should be failing but aren’t. You have wineries producing 250 cases entering competitions which require that the winner has 250 cases in stock and then wondering what the problem is. Wineries as small as these do not add value to the SA wine industry- this isn’t France for goodness sake where they can arguably justify making 100 bottles of great stuff and still save face. We just aren’t there yet in terms of quality and reputation yet. Check back in about 100 years.

    But enough ranting, there is an easy remedy to the problem explored in the above post: Different categories must be set-up according to the size of the OUTPUT of the producer. Hence, everyone gets to play in a category that best describes them, along with everyone else who is similar, with their own goal posts and level playing field. There must also be auditing and oversight mechanisms in place to make sure everyone is playing by the rules.

    While they are about it I reckon the Platter should start to do a bit of weeding out too and categorise producers by size (for goodness sake there are people in there producing 50 bottles, what on earth is the point?).

    The consumer is really the loser here. There is far too much overpriced plonk in the SA wine market (and not just from SA either). With so many small producers unable to sell their wine its little wonder that there is a wine lake as it really does all add up.

    Think about it.

    Rant over, I feel better now.

  2. Mealy Bug December 18, 2008 at 12:59 pm -

    Dearest Neil,

    I expected more from your readers. Seems as if the furore over this competition has dissapeared. Only a brief mention of it on page 17 of the latest WINE magazine (a magazine mostly not about wine). Christian Eedes seems to have escaped unbruised and head held high. Nowhere has he apologised for his tragic handling of this illustrious competition. It was he who caused all the problems by not checking the stock levels. Accountability is an interpreted concept at WINE it seems.

    Much love,

    Mealy Bug.

  3. Phil Phylloxera December 19, 2008 at 5:58 am -

    My sources in the financial services sector say that Diners has decided to walk away from the Winemaker of the Year Competition. Congratulations all round, chaps.

  4. Christian Eedes December 19, 2008 at 8:32 am -

    Dear Mealy Bug,

    I can assure you that I’m indeed bruised and head bowed over the whole affair. It has been said that critics are the traffic wardens of culture. If WINE magazine was guilty of being too busy admiring the Lamborghini parked on the yellow line that was the Cape Point Vineyards entry in this year’s competition rather than handing out a ticket, then I apologise in my capacity as editor. The point can also be made that what was really required was more parking bays and not heavier policing.

    I’m disappointed that you think WINE is “mostly not about wine”. We cover wine but also home cooking, restaurants, travel, other alcoholic beverages and winelands personalities. Basically, it’s your “taste of good living” as our tag-line suggests. Perhaps the only related topic we don’t cover is s*x, but then for some a glass of dry white is sufficient…

    Yours,
    WINE mag ed.

  5. Mealy Bug December 19, 2008 at 9:30 am -

    Dear Christian,

    Thank you for your response. I found your brief letter (not anglo-dutch tautology) illuminating for its avoidance, once again, of culpability.

    I find it sad that one wine maker is vilified for being honest and that one wine maker is stripped of his title and humiliated not only on blogs like this one, but also in Business Day. Here we find Michael Fridjohn wading into a battle long after the last dead have been buried and the weary have returned to their moribund, provincial lodgings. But, hey, its okay, Fridjhon was armed with information that sounded like the rat-ta-tat-tat of the little drummer boy from the faction of white robed victors. Your complicity in the tarnishing of this revered competition is obvious. My brother-from-another-mother, Phil Phylloxera, offers that Diners Club are going to let the most anticipated annual wine makers challenge go. Quietly. In fact, they have remained mute throughout the entire debacle. It will indeed be a sad day if this happens. I do hope that Phil Phylloxera is wrong, and that his information source is as reliable as his host’s roots are pretty.

    But never fear, you, Christian Eedes, can walk tall. You can lift your charged Riedel bubbly glass (filled with Dom Perignon from the bottle you didn’t hand out in your January edition)and say cheers to your circulation figures.

    A merry Chrstmas to you from an infectious little critter.

    Mealy Bug.

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