The Diners Club Wine List of the Year
22 July 2016
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This is Old Mutual Live Wine Edition and thanks for joining me. I’m Jenny Crwys-Williams. Now it’s that time of the year The Diners Club Wine Lists of the Year are about to be announced. I recently had a small insight into a part of the seriously serious judging process. But let’s go behind the scenes with organiser and so much more, JP Rossouw. JP, thanks for joining us. I had no idea what a mammoth task the Diners Club Wine Lists of the Year actually is.
JP Rossouw: Yes, Jenny it is. It’s more like work than fun isn’t it?
JCW: Well, it’s certainly what I experienced was work and great concentration as well. But I guess so many questions are asked of the entrants who put forward themselves for Wine List of the Year. How does the process begin in the first place?
The history of the Diners Club Wine List of the Year
JPR: Yes, the Wine List of the Year is a Diners Club initiative that was begun two decades ago. So it has a good track record. It was at a time when the founder, I think it was Hugh Keating in the day said. “You know that wine lists in a restaurant are a primary part of the story that any establishment is telling”; it’s also really an important part of dining which ties back to Diners Club itself. One of the fundamentals of the brand is the dining experience.
So they thought the Wine Lists of the Year Award would be a good initiative. I think over two decades it’s proven its value for establishments to do well in the awards. It gives them a very prominent position and great exposure. The Wine List of the Year Awards has developed. It is still an initiative that is linked to establishments that are Diners Club vendors or supporters.
So that is one of the changes over time that I’d like to try to work towards. Is that it’s more open to establishments more broadly, but in a sense it’s the perk of being a Diners Club member. That you can participate in the Wine Lists of the Year Awards. What that then means is that you get your wine list assessed by, as you experienced, a panel of experts. Very rigorously assessed and if you do well you get some incredible acknowledgement of your wine list’s quality.
JCW: So really the ultimate aim is to sell more wine and to educate. I use that word very loosely of course. ‘Educate’ a public who is going out and who is eating and who might want to explore the wines. Maybe pressure the restaurant owner to stock more, to stock better, to stock more broadly for instance.
No place for lazy wine lists anymore
JPR: Yes, indeed. I think wine is an interesting component of a restaurant’s mix. Because it’s the one of only a few where the restaurant actually is an on-seller of the product. You know food, the menu itself, the restaurant is the factory that makes that item. But wine is an on-sell. So for me as a long-time food and restaurant critic, I think it’s a vital sign that you actually care for wine as a part of the meal.
To give your customer, your diner a good wine list. What the Wine List of the Year Awards and the judging process that I also tweaked this year tries to highlight; are restaurants that do show that attention. That do show they care. That do give diners a good selection but also a selection that is suitable to the establishments menu. It’s style and its personality.
I think the day of a lazy wine list where you just plonk down the obvious bottle, you still unfortunately get restaurants that do that and sometimes. I don’t want to blame a restaurant where they’re working on tight margins. In a sense a chain or a very clear concept. But where you are offering the diner a unique restaurant concept your wine list should also be unique. That’s exactly what the Wine List of the Year, we look for those unique lists.
JCW: I know that you go to four different places when you actually announce the wine list. Is it divided into numerous categories or is there ultimately, this is just the most superlative wine list of them all?
The 4 different categories
JPR: Yes, the four categories or the four achievement levels are Silver, Gold, Platinum and Diamond Class wine lists. Then over the course of the last years, we’ve gone to as you say, the four, we call them regions. It’s loose collections or areas that’s been the Cape, Gauteng, the Garden Route area, as well as Kwazulu Natal. We give out the best Diamond award in each of those regions as an ultimate accolade. So we don’t give the best in the country as a Diamond. But we give the best Diamond for those four areas.
JCW: So that’s a sign of ultimate quality. But it also, which is what I find such fun, it could go to actually a very modest little steakhouse that’s got a decent menu. But also some great wines on that list that have been carefully chosen and is appropriate to a small steakhouse for instance.
JPR: Yes, exactly. I think that’s very important to communicate. These aren’t just the so-called the wine list Bible. The wine list for the wine cellars that are boxed with every brand from A to Z. It’s about the lists that are chosen to be appropriate to the establishments to suit the cuisine.
Therefore if you’ve got a steakhouse, even a little mom and pop shop style steakhouse and you’ve got the right 20 bottles of red wine and the right 5 or 10 bottles of white wine. Because we assume a steakhouse to be more red wine orientated, that itself shows an attention to your cuisine.
So for me apt examples were Indian restaurants or a spicy cuisine of any form. Those restaurants should be highlighting the aromatic whites and the semi-sweet whites, the off-dry whites. Because those are the wines that naturally suit the cuisine.
If you do that, if you show that interpretation of wine through your wine list those lists were awarded for their interpretation of the wine and the food. Indeed could end up with a Diamond award and notwithstanding the size of the list.
What role do the descriptions play?
JCW: How important is the restaurant’s description of the wine because that is how the judges judge it of course?
JPR: The wine list descriptions or the wine description is very important. The modulation I introduced this year was; I said that if the entrants indicated that they have a wine sommelier or a wine steward, we would give them the benefit of a middle score. Because the role of the wine steward is actually to be the human interpreter and explainer of the wine style and quality.
But if there’s no wine steward or sommelier then your wine descriptions are vital. Because wine is living product as you know. It has its own story and there again we looked for interesting descriptions. What I mean by interesting, it’s especially not the generic descriptions. Not the cut and paste off the back label. Not the wine distributor said to you are the wine’s character.
But through having tasted the wine yourself as a restaurant owner. What we loved were descriptions that were personalised and that actually had an element of interaction. You could see the people were looking at the wine tasting and thinking about it and actually had their own story to tell.
How important is the vintage?
JCW: There’s also the matter sometimes of maybe giving too much information as opposed to too little information. So you’ve got the description, how important is the area and how important is the vintage. Because I don’t think South Africans are very strong on vintages. I don’t think that’s really part of what we look for yet.
JPR: No, exactly. It is important, especially for the higher level awards that you give accurate details to that level of the area and the vintage. What I decided again this year was that you couldn’t achieve a Diamond award by not carrying vintage. Because vintage wine is not a factory product. It’s not something where consistency of style, consistency of character is just locked in by a Coca-Cola-like recipe.
Wine is something that has the influence of weather stamped into its very essence and DNA. That’s mysterious about a wine. You need to tell us which vintage of that wine it is. A Sauvignon Blanc from 2015 won’t be the same as a Sauvignon from 2016 and you need to modulate your descriptions accordingly also.
JCW: The wine of origin, your area that you come from, that for me is also incredibly telling because. If it comes from Swartland for instance or if it comes from the Stellenbosch area you’re going to get different wines but the same varietal maybe.
JPR: Exactly. What makes that even more interesting in the South African context is that we have the advantage over international producers to be able to make an incredible array of wines. From each of our regions which, we have such interesting micro-climates and differences in typography.
But at the same time you’re absolutely right that the Swartland has its own meso or macroclimate. It is a warmer area. It has particular soil, it has particular conditions which are vastly different from Cape Point as an example or Constantia. That’s a vital part of understanding that wine.
Wine by the glass – don’t understate it
JCW: I have to say that I went out to my local award-winning steakhouse last night and I looked at the wine list afresh. What disconcerted me was a more than adequate wine list. The wines mostly correctly stored. But the wine by the glass was pitiful. How much importance do you put on wine by the glass?
JPR: Ever more important because we are, for a number reasons, more interested as diners in the wine by the glass. Not withstanding jumping into a car, notwithstanding having only an hour for a meal and you’d like a glass of wine. It’s also a vital indication of how serious the establishment is about wine. If you look at the offering by the glass.
I think the wine lists that’s what we really didn’t give the points to were the ones where the by the glass wines were the generic commercial style. But where the wines by the glass were actually interesting wines that came from the interesting selection of their wines on the list. That was where the points lay. So your by the glass offerings should be of the same quality as your complete list.
JCW: Well listen, I think that’s one area where lots and lots of people can brush up on. So what does this mean in the end for the “winning restaurants”. No matter what category they’re in. What does it actually mean to get the Diners Club accolade?
What does it mean to get a Diners Club accolade?
JPR: It’s essentially bragging rights, Jenny. It’s a lovely certificate, it’s the opportunity to tell people on your wine list that you are an award-winning list. It really is a form of an audit and it’s up to the establishment itself as customers.
But I think again that refers to the track record component of the Diners Club Wine List of the Year. That it’s been going for over two decades. Some establishments, they just rise to the top and they tell a consistently good wine story and those in the end are…wine is a litmus for general quality in my view. If you care about your wine list, you generally also care about your restaurant and about the food.
JCW: Well I think you’re right and I am also just wondering as we begin to wrap up this conversation what it actually means to the restaurant. Do they actually see more feet going through the door because this attracts a lot of publicity? These awards attract an awful lot of publicity maybe because South Africans love to go out eating and drinking.
JPR: Absolutely and Diners Club do a lot with the winners and the high achievers. They tell their diners and customers about those restaurants and it’s as ever and ever more a competitive environment. Rands and Cents are more and more dear. So you want to go and spend those in the right places.
JCW: So when are you first, which is the area that you’re first announcing the Wine List of the Year, would it be Gauteng or the Western Cape?
JPR: Yes, we do start in Gauteng, the last week of July. We will start in Gauteng on the Monday. On the Tuesday we are in the Southern Cape and we’ll be in George. Then Cape Town on that Friday and then the following Monday. The beginning of August it’s the Kwazulu-Natal announcement.
JCW: Well I was just thinking what a good guide it actually is for visitors to the country as well if they are interested in wine. I think a lot of them are, so really, really interesting and I thoroughly enjoyed my little peek at the Diners Club Wine List of the Year. JP thank you so much for joining us.
JPR: Thank you Jenny and thank you for your assistance as a judge.
JCW: Well it was good fun. Thank you.