Inside the Platter Talkshop

No blindfolds, please, we're not sexy
No blindfolds, please, we're not sexy

Wine Goggle is proud to bring you the most extensive coverage of the open discussion on The Platter Forum from he was there, Brad Majors.

My, my, what an interesting week it’s been. ,First up we had the much-awaited Platter Forum at the Lord Charles on the 16th of April. ,Maybe feeling himself in the presence of royalty inferred by the name of the venue (or should it then have been the Prince Charles?), Andrew “Pomp-And-Ceremony” McDowall opened the gathering of enthusiastic gawkers by admitting his jealousy of Philip van Zyl and the Platter tasting crew being invited to “sexy wine launches” while he had to stay at home to man the office. ,Now every good speaker knows that sex is the one thing that sells even better than the Platter guide, so the attendees were rooted to their seats, hoping for some sordid details. But alas, no tales of the daring escapades of any Platter tasters were to follow (not even a mention of a certain Platter taster making unsolicited amorous advances to a producer or anything such).
Philip van Zyl was his endearing self-effacing, well, self. ,Explaining the history of the guide as well as how processes have been fine-tuned over time, his most thought-provoking statements included that the Platter guide is “an independent mouthpiece” and “a consumer publication”, before going into some interesting aspects of how Platter scores can be massaged by the editor(s) if they feel that the stars given by the tasters do not correlate with, for example, competition results and scores given by other publications. ,This surely is a new definition of the word “independent” and it reminded me of what David Lamb had written in his seminal work when he declared that Africa is known for “one man, one vote, one time”.

African time
It was only later, when Ken “Imbongi” Forrester stood up and did a worthy impersonation of an African praise singer, that I realised that yes, we were indeed in Africa where the real important issues are glossed over, only to be replaced with rhetoric and mutual patting of backs.
Not once were the important questions raised. The beautiful Janet Weiss look-alike sitting next to me did get quite twitchy when Jeremy Chennels tried to explain what Philip van Zyl had said instead of acting as an unbiased facilitator for constructive debate as was originally intended. ,I sat with bated breath hoping that mention would be made of what, or should one say who, had been the instigator for this “turn out for the books” event. Although quoted anonymously, Neil Pendock was never mentioned (although I did hear his name muttered in hushed tones and private discussions). ,So where was the man? ,According to his own blog (http://blogs.thetimes.co.za/pendock/2009/04/17/pendock-not-opposed-to-sighted-tastings/) he had felt that it would be unbecoming to attend as he is launching his own (blind-tasted) wine guide in the near future. ?+¦?-¼?+«+ë?+¦???+½?+¦???+¦
Philip van Zyl had, however, already indicated that “it’s not a question of whether the Platter guide should be tasted sighted or blind – that is not possible”, laying down the rules for any possible dissent in the ranks on this important issue. Giving testimony that tasters did actually taste blind, well, sort of, sometimes, maybe, Philip opened up a potential debate but seemingly with no takers. Was Kobus Deetlefs asleep or just biding his time as everybody knows that he had publically proclaimed that he felt that Platter tasters were biased against non “this-side-of-the mountain” producers. ,(Sidebar: ,When almost everybody had left, Kobus did muster up the courage to give some opinions, but they were unspecific and only asking that Platter should either “cross-reference” or not give stars but rather recommendations – an opinion that did not hold much water in the company of five star laureates such as Jean-Vincent Ridon, David Trafford, Ken Forrester and Chris Williams, to name those that I had seen).

Margin ratings
Philip van Zyl was at pains to explain that the stars in the margin were an indication of a wine’s track record. ,I found this quite intriguing as, for example, Quoin Rock The Nicobar Sauvignon Blanc, indicated as a “new” entry in the 2009 guide, managed to garner the much-coveted five stars in the margin (in contrast with Philip’s answer to Jaap Scholten of Cheviot Winery that a wine had to have a two year track record to get a “margin” rating). ,Surely one year cannot be seen as a “track record”. ,Reading the descriptor that the wine has a noticeable residual sugar and had been oaked I suddenly realised that Philip van Zyl’s contention that it is a “consumer publication” was complete bollocks. Show me the average consumer who prefers a wooded Sauvignon Blanc over a racy, zippy Springfield Life from Stone, a 480g/l sugar, 16g/l acid, 5.1% alcohol dessert wine at R1 500 per 375ml bottle over a “lekker” R40 a bottle Muscadel. ,Nope, suddenly one realises that you’ve crossed the bridge of ponce and left good, honest pleasure behind.
Probably the most important question never raised was how tasters are selected (or deselected for that matter).
Philip stated that the tasters are “enthusiastic, professional and qualified”. I have no way of measuring “enthusiasm” (do they jump up and down when opening a bottle), “professionalism” (do they send a thank you note to the producers whose samples they sell off for personal gain?) but “qualified” must surely have some meaning? ,OK, Cathy van Zyl MW is undoubtedly qualified, no questions asked, but some of the other tasters’ qualifications are quite suspect. ,Without going into this into too much depth, I cannot see that a quasi-academic qualification bestowed by one of the other Platter tasters can actually be seen as relevant, or am I being too cynical in seeing the panel being far too “clubby” (a word, incidentally, used by the self-same Platter taster when he referred to the KWV of years past).
The concept of “bias” was mentioned but not debated. ,Are tasters biased towards certain areas of production origin? ,Are they unanimous in believing that more (in terms of residual sugar, wood, over-extraction, alcohol, etc.) are better than dry or elegant? ,These were the questions that needed to be asked. ,Will Robertson ever be able to deliver a five star wine with the current tasters or even will any unwooded Sauvignon Blanc not coming from Cape Point manage to crack the nod of five-star approval from the requisite number of judges? ,I think not. ,Sweet rules (six of the thirty two five stars in Platter 2009), wood rules (don’t even go there but but unwooded five star wines are scarce, if not completely impossible), palate weight rules (will we ever see a five star, unwooded ros+¬? ,I think not).
(Oh, before I forget, wasn’t it just so poignant that Backsberg was the example used for explaining the workings of Platter, as if to further fuel Pendock’s contention that tastings cannot be unbiased when some of the tasters have financial ties to specific producers. ,Great Scott, what perfectly unplanned (hopefully) genius.)
One could also ask many other questions such as who decides on the “calibration” wines. ,A case where the police are policed by the, well, police? ,This does seem to smack of socially engineering how tasters should assess wines. ,How does this gel with the concept of independence or are the tasters just supposed to be automatons in coming to the results that they are expected to deliver?

Ludicrous proposals
There were also some ludicrous proposals from people normally seen as rational human beings. The Rustenberg clan trying to oust small producers from Platter (Simon Barlow advocating that producers should pay for panels to assess the wines and Dave Hutton contending that small producers should be put into cyberspace and not waste valuable ink in the hard-copy edition). Somebody called Jack, from Nelson Estate, actually made some sense and got the closest to giving some good reasons why blind-tasting could add value. Their ros+¬, although able to do well at blind tastings such as the Terroir Competition and Wine Magazine, only managed to get two stars in Platter, effectively half a star less than “good everyday drinking”. ,Maybe a case of taster-bias against ros+¬ as a category?
There were, however, also other people who tried to convey some sense but were probably far too academic for the touchy-feely audience present. ,University of Stellenbosch lecturer, Dr Wessel du Toit’s contention that the process should be more scientific with track-backs and correlation analysis found few supporters. Paul de Wet of Zandvliet’s contention that price was maybe also a cause of bias (i.e. low price cannot be good, high price must be) could make for a good research piece.
All-in-all it was a great fun day. The coffee and snacks served beforehand were definitely worthy of five star status. And I sincerely hope that all the pats on the back will make Philip van Zyl have less of his self-confessed “sleepless nights, hernias and ulcers” (although I have no idea how hernias can be caused by being the editor of Platter) but, as the Bard was wont to say: ,”All the world’s a stage” and the fact that the people of the Platter guide put themselves onto the stage is commendable. ,Viva critical thinking, viva.
*The next installment will feature the failed coup d’etat attempt of Dana Buys and his USAPA boys, so watch this space.

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