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26 May 2017 18:56 (South Africa)
Opinionista Michael Fridjhon

Of schadenfreude and wine

  • Michael Fridjhon
    Michael-Fridjhon.jpg
    Michael Fridjhon

    Michael Fridjhon is South Africa's most highly regarded international wine judge, the country's most widely consulted liquor industry authority, and one of South Africa's leading wine writers. Chairman of the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show since its inception, he has judged in countless wine competitions around the world. Visiting Professor of Wine Business at the University of Cape Town, he has been an advisor to the Minister of Agriculture and is a recipient of the French Chevalier de l'Ordre du Mérite Agricole. Worldwide winner of the Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year award in 2012, he is the author, co-author or contributor to over 30 books and is a regular contributor to wine publications in the UK, France, Germany and China. He is the founder of winewizard.co.za , a site which specialises in scoring South Affrican wine and guiding consumers to excellent value for money and quality.

The number of Five Star wine winners began increasing year on year. The 2005 edition had 17, the 2010 edition more than double this number and I doubled again in 2014. Sure, Cape wines are getting better, but it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that, in some way, the currency is being devalued.

Schadenfreude is not a very grown-up emotion. We are taught from an early age not to take joy from the misery of others. At an even more primitive level, we are led to believe that if we do so, we will attract the attention of the evil eye. Laugh at someone who slips on a banana peel, so the message deeply embedded in our DNA goes, and as you step around the next corner you will land in dog turd and slide off the kerb.

Sometimes however it is almost unavoidable – the sense of glee at the misfortune of the unloved, and the unlovable. Somehow we want to believe that the curse that awaits those who take pleasure from their discomfort will at least be suspended, as if the gods share in the judgement, and have invited us to feel, at least, a tremor of amusement. In these circumstances, we even have another word to describe, and therefore to justify the warm sense of contentment which spreads through us, at least when what befalls the other party seems particularly apt, and that word is “irony.”

Take MTN's R70bn Nigerian fine. At one level, it is simply outrageous. It is arbitrary, thrust upon the network operator by a cash hungry fiscus, and wholly disproportionate to the offence. It is unlikely that any court of law, in any civilised country, would impose even a R7bn penalty for the failure to terminate the connection of 5 million unregistered users. Of course, running a business in a country whose administrative and judicial system has the elasticities such as Nigeria, has delivered much of MTN's income to it. What turned out to be a little awkward for the network operator, was the change in government; it is rumoured that the new dispensation has chosen to be less flexible than its predecessor. As Lucy (or Snoopy) said in a Peanuts cartoon of about 40 years ago: “Live by the poach, die by the poach.”

But the reason I am enjoying MTN's constricted sphincter so much as nothing to do with its preference for doing business in places like Nigeria and Iran, where transparency is a swear word and shady a way of life. My happiness is the joy that all kids on the playground feel when the bully skulks off nursing a bloody nose. In all my (admittedly limited) dealings with the network over the years, I have been at the receiving end of the same arbitrariness, irrationality, and lack of communication which is now causing the folk at MTN their momentary misery. For example, I am now four months into a couple of queries I raised in connection with a cell phone contract of a member of my family. I have yet to receive an answer (other than the standard email which says that they hope to revert within three business days with a response to my complaint – which then never happens.)

Try to get them to provide documentary evidence of data usage (especially if some of it is alleged to have taken place outside the country, where the tariffs are so outrageous that firms like Knowroaming can make a living by offering alternative services for a fraction of the price.) Ask yourself how many calls you make each week that are trouble-free – a crystal clear connection which lasts for the duration of the communication: my guess is that it's comfortably fewer than 10%. In short, the service is mythical, only the tariffs are real. If any organisation deserves to be pulverised, disregarded or treated with scant respect by those in a position to impose maximum misery on its management and shareholders, MTN (and probably most cell phone operators) should be up there with the top ten.

Now you might argue that the whiff of vitriol lurking just below the surface in this argument suggests that while I am savouring – at least intellectually – the irony of the mobile operator's predicament, my glee is nothing other than undisguised schadenfreude. You would be largely right of course, but that's because I cannot pretend to any detachment. However, take the tragic Russian air crash in the Sinai desert in late October. It is impossible not to feel sympathy for the relatives of those who lost their lives in the disaster – the same emotions, one would hope, that Vlad Putin, the Russian centaur, would presumably have felt for the victims of the Air Malaysia flight downed over the Ukraine last year by weapons he had so generously supplied. But that did not stop him proffering bare-faced denial, as a first line of defence. When a killer comes home from a night of dirty work, and finds his family dead in their beds, there is no joy in the tragedy, but the sense of irony is inescapable.

Or when Julius Malema, Jacob Zuma's blunt weapon, turns on him, or Jackie Selebi goes to jail, or Lolly goes down (so to speak). All of these moments are pregnant with irony – you just have to be ready to appreciate them. But what when no one deserves to be a victim, when there's no malice, just a set of circumstances with an outcome that would be noteworthy to a playwright, though hardly the subject of even a one act play?

I'm thinking of the Platter Five Star tasting results, published in late October to coincide with the release of the 2016 edition of the eponymous guide. For some reason – probably the authoritative nature of the guide itself – the industry sets great store by the list of wines judged to be of Five Star standard. Long ago, when John Platter did all the ratings, the top wines from his review of all the current releases in the industry were judged to be the best of the best, and were given five star scores.

As the ratings became more collegiate, the judges who did the primary tastings were asked to produce a list of five star candidates from among the wines they reviewed. This short-list was then judged blind, by all of the tasting team. An arcane scoring system aimed at minimising fence-sitting was applied. The best-liked, least controversial, wines emerged with the coveted award. But then the number of Five Star winners began increasing year on year. The 2005 edition had 17; the 2010 edition more than double this number; the 2014 double again. Sure, Cape wines were getting better, but it was impossible to avoid the conclusion that in some way, the currency was being devalued.

Part of the problem lay in the number of wines being submitted for this final arbitration, part in the increase of the number of tasters, with some more inclined than others to put up five star candidates. However much you may like to imagine that judges have an absolute standard in mind, conclusions are often arrived at by way of comparison. If there are 80 wines under consideration and the tasters think (subconsciously) that the top 30% should make the cut, you will land up with 25, or so, in the hallowed space. As the number of contenders for a five star rating increases, so does the likelihood of there being more laureates – even if many of the wines on the tasting bench should never really have made the list.

I suspect that this was what made the guide's publisher, JP Rossouw, take the brave and counter-intuitive step of taking all the wines awarded 4.5 stars by the primary panellists, and putting them into a five star tasting of almost 700 wines. He was clearly saying from the outset that the majority of these wines are not really worth five stars, and so the award should be the exception, rather than the rule. He also equalised, and minimised the role of all tasters as gate-keepers: as long as a wine was worthy of 4.5 stars, it went into the blind tasting, where I served as one of two roving chairmen. Our role was strictly circumscribed: we could only be called upon to resolve disputes between the panelists.

If the intention of the exercise had been to bring down the number of five star wines, it failed miserably: over 80 made the cut – but they represented just over 10% of the wines tasted, and in this sense it was a much fairer way of dealing with the industry's top wines, and a much less arbitrary way of determining the best of the best. At this stage it is too soon to say if the new arrangements will achieve the publisher's objective of greater certainty, about which are the best wines of the year. Some of the producers you would expect to see in the final line-up were notably absent, while last year's Winery of the Year (Sadie Family Vineyards) managed only one Five Star wine. The top producer – Mullineux – had an unprecedented five such wines. Incidentally, Mullineux had achieved a comparable result two years before (Winery of the Year and four Five Star wines) so no one could argue that the new tasting arrangements counted against them.

It is however hard to spot a pattern. While many of the big names or regular performers (Meerlust, Cape Chamonix, Spier, Newton Johnson and Nederburg) are there, the list is too amorphous for a trend to be discernible. This may be because, in my opinion, too many wines made the cut. The Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show, which awards trophies and golds to around 30 wines from just over 1000 entries, (a high percentage of which are top players), suggests a smaller first division. Increasing the size of the pool (since the Platter guide judges almost every wine produced in South Africa) does not vastly increase the number of top candidates. Except for the boutique and garagiste end of the industry, a source of perhaps 20 five star calibre wines, most of the likely contenders are accounted for in the entries of the top wine shows. In short, there really should not be many more than 50 – 60 wines on the five star list.

What, you may ask, has this to do with schadenfreude or even irony? Not a lot – except that when any list of top wines is treated as divinely delivered insight, it is impossible not to wish to remind those clutching the tablets of stone that they are holding the work of human frailty. There is no doubt in my mind that when there were 200 wines on the table, and roughly 70 Five Star laureates, a percentage of those which made the grade did so because they had a one in three chance of being there. So I am pleased for some hard-working producers, who must have been wondering if their exclusion from the candidate list was a matter of fashion, and just as happy that some overly-cocky ones have had their sense of self-righteous certainty dented, if only gently. We are privileged to have more fine wine available at more affordable prices than almost any other wine producing country. If a few of the wines which made this year's Five Star list are lucky inclusions, there are others which could as easily have been there. It is worth obsessing less about magical numbers – five stars, 95 points – and begin treating wine (to use the words of Benjamin Franklin) as “constant proof that God loves us and loves to see us happy.” DM

  • Michael Fridjhon
    Michael-Fridjhon.jpg
    Michael Fridjhon

    Michael Fridjhon is South Africa's most highly regarded international wine judge, the country's most widely consulted liquor industry authority, and one of South Africa's leading wine writers. Chairman of the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show since its inception, he has judged in countless wine competitions around the world. Visiting Professor of Wine Business at the University of Cape Town, he has been an advisor to the Minister of Agriculture and is a recipient of the French Chevalier de l'Ordre du Mérite Agricole. Worldwide winner of the Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year award in 2012, he is the author, co-author or contributor to over 30 books and is a regular contributor to wine publications in the UK, France, Germany and China. He is the founder of winewizard.co.za , a site which specialises in scoring South Affrican wine and guiding consumers to excellent value for money and quality.

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