Building Trust in Critical Thought

Johan de Wet (DuToitskloof Wines chairperson) left with (2013 winner) Tim James right.

Johan de Wet (DuToitskloof Wines chairperson) left with (2013 winner) Tim James right.

On the 22nd of November, Du Toitskloof Wines and Standard Bank awarded the first annual Wine Writer of the Year Award to Tim James. A prize of R30,000 was given for his critical piece on the impacts of climate change on the South African wine industry. The actual article is still under embargo, for the exclusivity of publishing houses.

Wine writers do not have it particularly easy. Their reputation as leaders of critical thought may proceed them, but the payment for the value they add is not always forthcoming. The South African wine industry is notoriously small. This can complicate the environment for those who wish to point out inconsistencies in the industry, who wish to be critical of cellars or appellations, or those who wish to push the envelope of free thought.

When one believes one’s work is not adjudicated without bias, is can be disheartening. There is nothing greater that shackles the creative-mind more, than the notion that independent opinion is stifled and that free thought goes uncelebrated. However, this slight negativity has been turned on its head by the ironclad vetting, strict auditing and administrative integrity of the Du Toitskloof Wines and Standard Bank Wine Writer of the Year Awards.

The awe was palpable at the awards evening, held on the 22nd of November at Terra Mare in Paarl. There was a relieved disbelief that Du Toitskloof Wines and Standard Bank, the convener and headline sponsor, had no knowledge of who the entrants were, until that night; that names were only given by the independent auditors PriceWaterhouseCoopers, to the PR agency, for invitational purposes only. Entrants were astounded by the organiser’s lack of inside information.

This is how it should be done. This allows that free thought and independent opinion to be just that, free and independent. The fervor with which PriceWaterhouseCoopers kept any details under lock-and-key rendered undue influence impossible. 

It is also important to note, that the judging panel was academic-heavy. If the judging is seen as being populated by industry insiders, credibility goes a begging. However, when you have the esteemed Dr. Gawie Botma, chair of the Stellenbosch Department of Journalism, convening a panel of academics and writers, like Erns Grundling, Maureen Joubert and Prof. Ian Glen, the quality of interpretation of opinion is cemented. Despite the reported high-quality of each entrant, the judging panel was unanimous in its decision of the 2013 winner, highlighting the exemplary nature of Tim James’ writing.

It came to light that only five entrants were received; albeit a small step forward, a cursory glance around the venue would have you believe that all the top wine writers were present and this was indeed the case. All the biggest names entered. It is acknowledged however, that new blood is necessary, for new blood is to the body as new thought is to critical opinion.

The value of translating scientific jargon into layman’s terms is unquantifiable. The research, effort and subsequent simplification of Climate Change terminology is invaluable, as it is now within easy reach of the industry and those interested in it. The publication possibilities and knowledge gained, by writing about such a critical issue, cannot be underestimated.

It is also hoped, the competition will gain traction and fame as the years go by, transforming the notion that the-other-side-of-the-mountain is ‘that lesser part of the Winelands,’ to being ‘a region synonymous with excellence, global-reach and innovative ideas.’

One cannot expect the wine writing fraternity to fall in love with another competition overnight. Trust and respect is earned. We hope our respectful actions will embolden that trust. It is clear for us and for Standard Bank that 2013 was just the beginning for Wine Writer of the Year. The affections from those who entered gave us a similar indication of long-term commitment. That 2014 will see a greater influx as credibility of the process is made known.

We raise a glass of Brut to the custodians of free thought. We raise this glass to those who had initial confidence in us. We raise the glass to those who will follow suit in 2014. As long as we are the purveyors of value-for-money wines, we will be the purveyors of progress and excellence in a notoriously difficult industry, for without critical self-reflection, we cannot hope to grow and improve. 

By Andres de Wet

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