I’ve been invited to take part in a panel discussion on wine shows as part of the Wine Cellar SA Symposium at the Lord Charles Hotel on Thursday along with Johann Krige from Kanonkop and South Africa’s most experienced foreign taster, Dave Hughes. My brief is to speak to the integrity of wine shows and so I plan to set out my stall in a couple of postings. The first deals with the integrity of entries. The second, the reliability and fairness of the tasting process itself and a third on how honestly these results are used to market wine.
The Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc scandal is a cautionary tale for SA wine. The facts of the matter are simple: New Zealand lifestyle magazine Cuisine rates the Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc 2006 Five Stars and includes it in a list of top 10 Kiwi Savvies for 2006.
After hearing rumours of special show bottlings (known as “beaker blends” in the trade), Michael Cooper, chairman of the Cuisine tasting panel, buys one from his local retailer, the Birkinhead Countdown, and smells rat pie.
Testing at the Institute of Environmental Science and Research reveals the competition and shop bottles have different levels of alcohol, sugar and acid and a verbal conclusion that the wines are “completely different.” So no surprises that in a blind tasting, Cooper picks the competition cuvée five times out of six. Both bottles were closed with screw caps, so cork inconsistency is not a feature here.
Cooper looks credible on paper: he has a moustache and is an officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit. A national show judge for 15 years, he is author of the top selling Kiwi wine book, the eponymous Michael Cooper’s Buyer’s Guide to New Zealand Wines. He’s also on a mission to expose shenanigans. As he told the New Zealand Herald: “As a wine writer, my commitment is to the truth and to the wine-drinking public of New Zealand. There’s a lot of bullshit that surrounds wine. My guiding principle in all this has been to come to the truth.”
And BS aplenty piles up as Cuisine hires two more judges to hopefully duplicate the Cooper conclusion. Alas, judge number one shows an equal preference for the two bottles, choosing each three times. Judge number two prefers the Birkinhead Countdown cuvée by a margin of five to one: exactly the opposite ranking of Cooper. You couldn’t invent this material!
Meanwhile Cuisine management are back-pedaling furiously. Having agreed to disqualify the offending wine, they then decide not to say why. So Cooper, having previously announced that he was quitting Cuisine, leaves early in a huff and a blaze of publicity. The publisher’s coyness probably has nothing to do with the fact that more than a million bottles of Wither Hills Sauvignon Blanc are sold each year and the winery is owned by Aussie wine and beer corporate Lion Nathan, having been sold by the man (and his dad) responsible for the 2006 Savvie, back in 2002 for R250 million.
And they weren’t the only ones: the CEO of the NZ Winegrowers Association knew of the problem two months before the scandal broke and his reaction was damned as “blasé” by the Herald editor, as was his insistence that he is “not concerned for the reputation for the industry”. With SA Sauvignon Blanc yet to fully recover its poise after the 2004 illegal green pepper flavourant scandal, SA wine marketers will agree with the editor when he notes that the “industry must prize the integrity of its product, yet seems to allow practices that can undermine it”.
But before pundits expend hours of debate on schemes for random chemical analyses of competition winners à la doping tests at the Olympics and Tour de France, the solution to the problem is as clear as a glass of Sauvignon Blanc: competition organizers should use some of the sponsor’s largesse to purchase bottles of wine they evaluate from randomly selected retailers. Ditto magazine and wine guide publishers in the rating game, for that matter. This solution will save producers money and stamp out that insidious cottage industry of selling tasting samples, popular among some wine show judges.
This common sense algorithm would have several benefits: hard pressed producers would actually sell stock, rather than subsidizing show organizers and publishers, and consumers would be guaranteed that the wine they purchased was statistically identical to the one that was judged. Although with Cuisine judges returning diametrically opposed opinions and random results, quite why any Kiwi consumer would follow their recommendations, is a moot point.
Some of the above appeared as a column in WINE magazine in 2007.