Inverted pyramids of piffle

Neil Pendock August 22, 2008 10

I realized my source giving last Friday as the date for the Platter High Five tasting was somewhat off the mark when Pieter du Toit asked me to drop off two Cederberg High Five contenders at the Vineyard Connection in Stellenbosch on Tuesday. Either that or it was a rerun of last year’s High Five Fiasco when several Waterford wines were omitted from the High Five Finale because of slow Somerset West electrons snarling up e-mail messages between taster and editor. The charming VC ladies were, well charming, even if they were hoping for four bottles, the extras presumably for own consumption.


I learnt a lot in the Cederberg and Pieter, who has every copy of the Platter guide ever printed – including that rara avis indeed, an Afrikaans edition – inadvertently provided me with another reason for having Sour Grapes published by Tafelberg. They were the publishers of the Afrikaans Platter and a much better fist they made of it than the English edition that year.

Paging through early Platters, one is struck by the genteel politeness of wine writing back then and how reassuring to see French First Growths rated five stars, even if it was done sighted. How totally random if today’s High Five Finale featured First Growths – and how many would get the nod from this year’s pundits as the High Five Finale is performed blind?

Of course fear of getting the wrong answer is the motivation behind the adoption of the “seeded player” strategy in blind tastings by some local wine pundits. The more you think about it, the more you realize it is a travesty and a fiasco. “An inverted pyramid of piffle” as the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, called (true) allegations he was having an affair with Spectator columnist Petsy Wyatt.

A friend summed it up thus: “seeding wines is an abomination, whatever the argument, there is no merit to it and it makes no sense. This approach is nothing else but a devious mechanism to favour and preclude (pre-determined) nominated wines from scrupulous assessment; it obviously prevents wine judges from expressing their views for the sake of informing the consumer public on the real and true standing of any wine; by implication it protects weak wine judgment decisions; it makes a mockery of the principle of wine ‘competitions’ which, in case nobody has noticed, goes about wineries actually competing through their wines, and which must be conducted in a fair and objective manner, with a level playground applying to al participants; and it places a huge question mark on the integrity of any accolade awarded in such dubious fashion. An outstanding wine can only be nominated through impartial, that is unsighted evaluation.”

Another friend noted “the real tragedy is that even worthy winners are besmirched by the process when it is perceived as manipulated.” The time is fast approaching when producers will have to make a stand on seeded player tastings. Word from the Chenin Blanc Association, the Sauvignon Blanc Interest Group, Chardonnay Forum, Méthode Cap Classique Producers’ Association, Muscadel SA and Pinotage Association is awaited with interest.


  1. Christian Eedes August 22, 2008 at 9:27 am -

    The problem of judging large classes of wine is that no matter how qualified the panel, palate fatigue becomes a factor. Hence WINE magazine introduced the concept of “seeded players” as a
    way of offsetting this – by way of analogy you can be sure that the organisers of this year’s Wimbledon made sure that Federer and Nadal didn’t meet in the early rounds.

    It needs to be conceded that wine judging is not a perfect science and on that basis WINE magazine’s methodology is under constant refinement and is always up for debate.

    That said, I’m not at all ashamed of what emerged as the top wines at this year’s Shiraz Challenge. These results, as with any, should essentially be seen as a guide to purchase, with it ultimately up to the public which source of critical advice it trusts most.

    It bears mentioning that in the recently completed but as yet not public Cap Classique Challenge, there were a much smaller pool of entries, doing away with the need for seeded players.

  2. Cru Master August 22, 2008 at 10:02 am -

    if the managing partner of a large accounting firm blamed fatigue for doctoring the books of a public company such as Pick n Pay – i doubt that would be a suitable defense in court.In addition i doubt the public would be that forgiving.

    wine tasting may not be a perfect science, but it is very easy to identify which elements should never be involved.

    in this case, no matter what you say, there is no defense of sending certain wines through to the next round based on seeding.

    I want to know who made this decision and who has the final say? Is it you Christiaan, the likes of someone like Michael Fridjon or is it a collective decision?

    I also would like to know when the seeding takes place in relation to the competition..

  3. noid August 22, 2008 at 1:57 pm -

    Cru master, to compare wine judging to doing an accounting audit is like comparing…chalk and cheese. I just don’t see the relevance of you argument. Palate fatigue is a reality. The only fatigue I would accept from an auditor is index calculator finger fatigue! Maybe Christian should tell us what the international standard is and if seeding is unheard of at prestigious international shows. Neil I have a question for you…The Platter tasting for the guide is done sighted, then tasters nominate wines for the 5 star accolade. This final tasting is done blind by about 15 tasters and points tallied up and 5 stars awarded to those wines that come out tops. Am I correct in saying this? If so where lies the problem for you?

  4. Neil Pendock August 22, 2008 at 4:18 pm -

    Hi Noid

    The problem is the wines are nominated sighted by tasters who are insiders: retailers, commercial winemakers, highly paid consultants, even the chairman of a major wine producer. The default rating for a nominated wine that doesn’t make it, is 4.5 stars.

    The argument that Platter is a guide and not a competition also doesn’t wash. Look at the Steenberg Magna Carta 07. Rated 5 stars this time last year, to be launched in Johannesburg next Tuesday. Why include a wine in a guide a year before it is released, if not to brag?

    Platter is a de facto competition and the most influential one in SA at that. Ratings with the current panel constitute a sighted wine competition. Nothing more, nothing less. If it works for you Noid, go for it!

  5. Tantalus August 23, 2008 at 9:03 am -

    Tall poppy syndrome.

    Platter is a guide. It is ‘pocket sized’, convenient and covers just about everything Joe Public needs. It lays no claim to being the new gospel according to St. John.

    The wino anoraks who denigrate it, sometimes entertaining when exercising their acerbic wit, are hardly in the same league.

    Would they have us cart around 25kgs of magazines, or search through obscure wine blogs on Internet enabled cell phones whilst considering wine choice at a restaurant or at a wine store ?

    Joe Public buys the wine, while the anoraks appear to spend much of their time hunting down free tastings / samplings / events.

    I await, patiently, for the publication of the definitive SA wine guide produced by a panel of these experts, a panel chosen by their peers. The panel selection process alone, open to Joe Public in the interests of transparency, should be worth the price of the ticket.

    I am reminded of poor old Julius, “yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look”.

    In the meantime Platter does it for me.

  6. Speedy August 24, 2008 at 10:31 am -

    Tantalus, you’re missing the point.

    We don’t need a new Platter. If tastings were done blind, it would be perfect. At the moment, it’s grossly unfair – just ask a producer van anderkant die berg.

  7. Cru Master August 24, 2008 at 12:01 pm -

    noid – it was a quickly constructed metaphor to try and illustrate that when dealing with public perception (and shaping them for that matter) one needs to be 100% transparent.

    i am also trying to say that there can be no excuse for seeding wines sighted and then pushing them through to the next round of ‘blinded’ tastings. Palate fatigue is simply not a good enough excuse, it’s irrelevant. by blaming fatigue you are making an excuse for protecting the wines that get passed through and the credibility of the tasting panel.

    it’s ridiculous.

    if wine magazine just said that all wines are tasted blind and that was the gospel truth then I’d be happy. But thats not the case is it. so therefore they cannot claim that.

    in fact, if they were up front and said ‘these fifteen wines were seeded and pushed through to the final tasting…and subsequently of those wines pushed through this is how many made it into the top ten” – well I’d be a bit more satisfied because at least then they’d be being transparent with us.

    better yet, they should give a good enough reason for why they have seeded each and every wine.

    the bottom line is they pulling the wool over our (the public) eyes for their own benefit/cred and im sure some third parties too.

    like i said i would like to know who makes those decisions and why.

    Furthermore, I’d like to add that as a result of this ‘seeded’ business in their challenges, I will not be renewing my subscription and/or recommending the magazine to anyone. In fact I’ll be telling friends what a scam the ‘blinded’ tastings are.

  8. Tantalus August 24, 2008 at 8:58 pm -

    Speedy, I’ll concede that blind tastings are more fair. BUT

    What is the real cost of carrying out blind tastings for all wines referenced in Platter ?

    What is the perceived cost to producers of losing whatever influence they have ?

    Would Joe Public be prepared to pay the price for full blind tasting ?

  9. Speedy August 25, 2008 at 8:12 am -

    Tantalus, wines are already delivered free of charge by producers to the Vineyard Connection in Stellenbosch. With the overwhelming majority of tasters CPT-based, there would be a cost saving having a blind tasting at VC.

    Of course this dependence on producer largesse flags another problem with Platter. Are the wines they taste the same as we get here in Durban?

  10. Tantalus August 25, 2008 at 8:34 pm -

    Speedy. I’m not convinced the problem (or the solution) can be laid at Platter’s door. Most people I speak to in the Midlands recognise it as a guide and not a bible.

    The debate will rage hither and yon while there is vested interest to protect, and it will continue to provide good reading 😉

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