Platter Wine Guide – more than just a guide
27 November 2015
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Brad Brown: Welcome back to Old Mutual Live. It’s good to have you with us and we’re talking wine once again and one of the industry standards, it’s a guide that’s been around for a long, long time and a lot of people won’t drink anything unless it’s highly rated by the Platter Wine Guide. We’re joined by the editor now, Philip van Zyl. Philip, welcome back onto Old Mutual Live, a returning visitor, good to have you back on.
Philip van Zyl: Thank you so much.
BB: Philip, I wanted to delve into a little bit about the Platter Wine Guide and the history behind it and how it all started and where the journey began. Before we do that though, let’s touch on your journey into wine. Where did it all start for you?
Philip’s personal introduction to wine
PVZ: It started when I was living in Johannesburg. I grew up there and my wife and I, Cathy, we started doing the Cape Wine Academy courses up in Johannesburg and enjoyed that so much so that it kind of snowballed and spiralled out of control from there.
BB: I’m sure it’s horrible. I know you’re now based in Cape Town as far as I know and you get to drink wine for a living. I could think of worse ways to make a living. I say that in jest. You obviously work a lot harder than that but I’m sure that’s what a lot of people think you do.
PVZ: Well, not in six months of the year, you wouldn’t say so but the rest of the time, I mean, living in the winelands, it’s absolutely incredible. You get in your car, drive a couple of kilometres and you can go and taste the wine literally from the barrel of the winemakers and just enjoy the beauty of it all. It’s fantastic. It’s a brilliant lifestyle.
BB: It’s a tough life but someone has to do it I guess.
PVZ: Exactly, I was going to say.
BB: Someone’s got to take one for the team. Philip, talk to me about your involvement with the Platter Wine Guide. You’ve been there for many, many years now.
PVZ: Ja, in fact I started, I signed up in 1998. The first edition that I worked on was the 1999 edition and it was one of those issues of being in the right place at the right time or in the wrong place at the wrong time. Because unbeknown to me the John and Erica Platter who founded the guide in 1980 had sold the guide to their printing company Creda Press and they were looking for an editor at that stage. I kind of volunteered for the job, had the job interview with the then sales director, Andre McDowell. The interview lasted all of, I think maybe two minutes, and that was it so I got the job.
BB: Did you know what you were getting yourself in for back then?
PVZ: Absolutely not. No.
BB: If you had to go back would you make a different decision?
PVZ: No, don’t think so.
How has Platter evolved over the years?
BB: Tell us a little bit about how the industry and the guide has evolved over the years. You mentioned it’s been going since 1980. We’re in 2015 as we record this now. The industry itself has changed but technology and the way people consume not just wine but information has changed too.
PVZ: Totally, I think it’s been completely transformed so just on the industry side, the first edition 1980, John actually made a note of it in his preface to say that he had tasted around about 1 500 wines and our tally on our database at the moment is 8 000 so we’re looking at an incredible growth over 36 years just in terms of the number of wines.
Then the number of producers has rocketed, is now over 900 producers so that would include merchants and wineries who actually produce wine and grow grapes and it’s become incredibly dynamic just in terms of the dynamic of the industry. As you say, the technology, social media, all of those things. It’s completely transformed. It’s nothing like it used to be.
BB: What are some of the challenges you’re facing right now as a wine guide?
PVZ: I think what we try to do, first of all we try to be, which was John and Erica’s aim right from the start which was to be inclusive and as comprehensive as possible so we try to include or certainly give everybody the opportunity to be included.
Because it’s on an opt in basis so if you’re a producer and you don’t want to be in the guide then we don’t include you but I would say that you know the overwhelming vast majority of wineries are represented. That’s a challenge in itself just to keep track of who’s producing.
We try to obviously try and do everything as accurately and as meticulously as possible so we have a particular, fairly large team of, everybody’s freelance and we put together a team of freelancers who are all experts in their field towards the middle of the year round about June time frame and then things start to get very, very busy from there.
BB: As far as, I mean, you mentioned social media and technology, things have changed a lot over the years and Platter’s Wine Guide has sort of kept up with the times. You’ve got a very nice website that’s got some incredible information on there as well. Tell us a little bit about that web portal that you’ve created and what you hope to achieve with it alongside the guide itself.
Our embracing of technology
PVZ: The website was started in 2010. Basically, as a front end to the guide itself, so we have, in a proper database format, MySQL database format, we have all the editions since 2008. Previously it was digital but basically, believe it or not, in the form of a Word document or Word documents which obviously was a nightmare so from 2008 or 2007, we converted that into a proper, a rigorous database which we can publish from and we can also run as a backend for our website.
Basically what you see in the book is exactly the same as what’s on the website. We’ve got access to all of that information online and then obviously from very soon, a couple of days’ time we’re launching the new apps for android and for IOS and those will also have editions 2008 to 2016 basically in your pocket so that’s pretty cool.
BB: Ja that does sound amazing. Philip, it’s interesting to me because obviously the Platter’s Wine Guide is, a lot of people, it’s their go to when they are looking for various wines to try out and use it, whether it be a dinner party or whatever it is.
Are you finding that it’s difficult with the way the world is changing and how quickly things are changing that you almost, as a business want to try and keep up with that but you still want to remain true to what you set out to with Platter’s when it first started?
PVZ: Ja, I think so. I think, you see John and Erica, when they founded the guide, they were inspired in turn by a guide which was published or in fact, created by Hugh Johnson, the leading UK wine writer and he basically did a, his was an overview of the world’s wine production.
John and Erica were mainstream journalists at that time but passionate about wine so what they wanted to do was to combine journalism with wine writing and so that was kind of the theme that’s run through the book throughout so it’s not…The one thing that, the advice that Erica gave me, you see because she was the editor at the time, John was more the taster and the kind of writer.
She said, “Don’t let the guide turn into a laundry list. What you want it to do is, you want it to keep telling a story” and I think that’s probably the key to what we want to do. Rather, we want to give a news update since last time for the winery, a snapshot of all of the wines that will be available during the currency of the guide. Then also look ahead if you know, if that’s relevant in terms of the particular winery itself so journalism is an underpin and a theme throughout.
BB: As the editor of the guide and as you have been for many, many years, you’ve seen the South African Wine Industry change and evolve. As it stands right now, you’re probably one of the people who have got their finger on the pulse of the industry and where do you see it standing right now from a health perspective? Is it as strong as it’s ever been, is it growing, is it on the way up, is it on the way down? In your opinion, where do you see it?
What’s your take on the industry currently?
PVZ: The amazing thing is that a new generation, a younger generation has taken over or is taking over and the new folks are incredibly passionate. They’re very knowledgeable and they’re also very experienced, not only locally but I would say I’m pretty sure that’s true that all of them have had some exposure overseas.
Whether it’s in the new world or you know Southern Hemisphere, Northern Hemisphere so they’re coming at it from a youthful, vigorous, you know, let’s go do it perspective and that, as you can imagine has ramifications for the entire industry. So there’s this new dynamic, this new enthusiasm that’s speculating up through the industry and I think it’s fantastic.
The interesting thing is that they’re rediscovering the wines from the sixties and the seventies and saying how awesome some of those were because some of them are still fantastic and some of the great varieties that have fallen out of favour, they’re kind of reviving and resuscitating.
They’re going in and finding old vines that are neglected or you know half dead or whatever, resurrecting them, nursing them back to health and making some absolutely fantastic wines in the most natural way possible. I think that the emphasis is on natural, on organic and doing things without artifice, without additives, etcetera.
BB: Philip, as far as those young winemakers go and I get the sense that we almost, I don’t quite know how to put it into words but I get the feeling that we’re almost carving our own niche now where for a while we were trying to emulate what was being done in the sort of old world wine regions in Europe so to speak.
I just find that a lot of these young South African winemakers are going, you know what, we’re good enough to hold our own. We don’t need to be a replica of what’s happening elsewhere. We need to really put our foot down and go this is South African wine and we’re proud of it.
A new generations of “South African” winemakers
PVZ: Ja, I think you’ve absolutely nailed it there. First of all we did ourselves a disservice when the international markets opened up in 1994 by going in at the lowest price level and we’ve been battling to recover from that perception ever since.
But you’re absolutely right and the younger generation has been saying exactly what you said and that’s making the difference because they then are perfectly happy to focus on what they see as authentic or authenticity and varieties and styles and blends or whatever that interest them.
It’s coincidentally also, it’s picking up the overseas media and critics and influences are picking up on that and really enjoying what these youngsters are doing and so they’re talking about it, getting enthused about it overseas and so it’s a happy mesh. It’s a wonderful time to be in the industry.
BB: Ja, it is truly exciting. Philip, thank you so much for your time and sharing a little bit about the Platter Wine Guide with us. If people want to find out more about it or get their hands on it, what’s the best place to find it online and offline for that matter?
PVZ: Ja, so the website is wineonaplatter.com and there’s an About section. There’s a mail, the editor mail publisher so I think wineonaplatter.com is the place to go.
BB: Fantastic, I’ll pop that link into the show notes of this episode of Old Mutual Live. If you want to check it out do so and we look forward to chatting again soon. Philip, thank you so much for your time today.
PVZ: Thank you.