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On Star Wars & Cloud Nine

Wine drinkers can typically be grouped into two categories: Those that are fanatical believers in wine ratings – stars, awards and achievements, and secondly, those who delight in drinking wine for the pure hedonistic pleasure.

Despite what seems to be a growing interest in wine, some aficionados don’t bother with wine industry politics. Generally, these people simply intend to learn a excellent wine at a fantastic price so that they can delight in it with friends and family.

But, there are many wine drinkers who are influenced by the critics and make buying decisions based on the feedback of various professional groups such as John Platter, Decanter, Veritas or the Michelangelo Awards. Consumers now find themselves becoming dependent on the opinion of such professionals who have earned a name through years of hard work, proving themselves as leading wine critics and judges.

What individual hasn’t erred by judging a wine by the bottle’s mark or award stickers before even having tasted the contents!? Yet thanks to the custom of the blind tasting we can now abolish favouritism and encourage right wine appreciation. But we don’t always have the luxury or opportunity to experience the pleasures of such anonymity.

I recently learnt through a wine-fundi friend that a respected wine critic takes home a minimum of six bottles of wine per estate, in order to rate for their annual wine guide. Naturally, I assumed that these wines under review were tasted at a blind tasting. Much to my surprise they weren’t. Surely a judge cannot remain unbiased if the identity of the winemaker is already known? And perhaps after a customary business lunch, might there not be some subtle influence tipping one to up the rating?

How many wine award panels and wine critics practice mark transparency and possibly subject themselves to such potential partiality? I do respect that trained wine professionals judge wines as objectively as possible, but let’s face it – human nature tends toward favouritism and nurturing preconceptions.

So why are wine ratings so well loved? Being in the business of online sales of South African wine I can honestly share with you that in order to offer an attractive package to the consumer, it’s one way of giving the consumer an thought of the quality of the wine in terms of an accepted S.A. industry benchmark.

Ratings impact on sales. I’ve heard from the wine retail industry that when an awarded wine is announced it’s already too late for the consumer to obtain the wine at a reasonable price. The ratings are pre-released to various liquor outlets who in turn push up the retail price before the awards or wine ratings go public.

I congratulate the non-conformist wineries who refuse to enter their wines into competitions for the sake of sporting the latest award or adding it to the repertoire of growing achievements. These are courageous and bold wineries indeed.

This leads me to precisely why I’m writing this letter: To encourage individuals to foster an adventurous nature by indulging in free-spirited wine tasting. The objective is to be able to make a buy choice that’s less influenced by commercial indicators as evidenced by the trend in current wine sales.

I’m passionate about wine and like to taste and drink the noble liquid without rating it – since I’m a purist at heart and tend to avoid having “top-ten favourites”. After all, South Africa has so many incredible wines out there… how can one possibly single out a handful?

I wish I could say that wine prejudice is a thing of the past. Alas it appears to be alive and thriving. Wine drinkers need to be encouraged to make their own decisions about what they delight in because enjoyment is paramount.

What happened to honest presentation and an unbiased approach that allows people to unlock the essence of a wine and of its winemaker… and the discovery of a local wine unique to its terroir, home-grown with hints of wildness and a reflection of our right South African spirit?

And what happened to the heady days when one could become inebriated by musings over the wine’s bouquet alone… without being told what to expect? The French have shown that wine appreciation may be a noisy affair, sucking air through the wine to ventilate and liberate the layers of flavours woven into the wine by the skill of the wine maker consorting with the magic of nature.

There should be extreme pleasure in becoming acquainted with a new wine and finding the nexus between the wine being appreciated and your chosen cuisine. Is it a marriage made in heaven… or a racy liaison with a bit of edge? Most wines can be said to fulfill the following: Quickening the heart, bringing a glow to the cheeks and lubricating the conversation. After all, is that not what one may call an “honest” wine?

Iconic wines may be respected by virtue of their historical track record or possibly by perception associated with an internationally recognised sportsman that’s paid handsomely to be their brand ambassador. But in the final analysis, the most vital benchmark to the consumer should be the price-quality ratio. Most people want really excellent value for money and shouldn’t be waylaid by marketing hype.

But don’t forget the excellent ancient-fashioned enjoyment factor. It’s not just about unleashing your taste buds. Ponder the hue of the wine as you hold it to the light. Listen with your nose! Is the wine nervous or bold? Fruit-driven or tannic? Wooded or un? Is it long or small in end? Indulge in the rare pleasure of being your own judge. The beauty of the subjective experience is all about being teased by variety and tickled with contrast.

Don’t let the professionals steal your fun! Surrender yourself to the pure and spontaneous enjoyment of the next glass of wine that you taste and allow your senses full reign to transport you to greater heights. It’s the simple pleasures in life that often offer the greatest reward.

Leslie Maliepaard is a freelancer, online wine editor and travel writer. Leslie specializes in managing start-up companies, business & process consulting, in-depth eCommerce knowledge and has extensive people management experience.

Leslie Maliepaard
Director of
wineweb.co.za www.wineweb.co.za.
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