Innovative, well put together, funky! These were but some of the descriptions of the best wine lists recognised at the Diners Club Winelist Awards for 2013 by celebrity chef Benny Masekwameng, one of the judges at this year’s awards, who admits he was quite impressed by the entries. WANDA AUGUSTYN chatted to Benny about wine-by-the-glass, spelling mistakes and amazing vino moments.

Benny, who you might recognise from the Tsogo Sun ads, is also one of the MasterChef judges, currently on air on MNet and according to those in the know, the quintessential people’s person. He’s also Tsogo Sun’s own celebrity chef and a person, they claim, who personifies the warmth, beauty and proud heritage of this country.

He grew up in Alexandra in Johannesburg, and was inspired at an early age by his mother, who supplied meals to local construction workers in order to provide an additional income. “I grew up around food and cooking with my mum since I was eight years old. I got into wine after my first year at Tech and completed the Cape Wine Academy preliminary wine course,” he explains. And it was the determination, skill, and business acumen demonstrated by his mother that proved to be the catalyst which initially propelled Benny on his impressive culinary journey.

Benny graduated from Natal Technikon with a diploma in Catering Management. He began his career as a trainee at the Hilton Hotel in Durban, where he gained valuable experience for more than six years. He travelled overseas regularly to promote local food at events hosted by South African embassies. It was at these events that he learned the value of creative showmanship as a means of adding even greater value to the already stellar cuisine that he was producing. Benny joined Tsogo Sun in 2006.

“We were not looking for winelists offering numerous wines at high prices, but for creativity and choice giving an enhanced experience to patrons,” explains Bennie. “When looking at a winelist, the wine offering is important,as well as whether it suits the type of establishment. The order in which it was put together, whether for instance it is in a logical order that makes sense, provides a comprehensive description of region, grape variety, star rating, and origin, is as important. We also had a look at correct spelling, price, look and feel of the winelists and if there were any new or quirky, informative or funky ideas on it.

“In short, a good winelist is suitable for the type of establishment; it offers variety, is informative and descriptive and offers value for money.” According to this guy with the easy smile, the exceptional rise in standards year on year was once again, evident this year too. “The tough competition among the entries and people looking to achieve Diamond status or maintaining their Diamond status was evident and it just shows that the standard is rising year on year.”

Overall national results consisted of 74 Diamond, 62 Platinum, 65 Gold and 7 Silvers being awarded with 38 restaurants in the Western Cape receiving Diamond awards, putting the Western Cape in the regional lead once again this year. The winelists were judged on the basis of their wine selection (35%), how well balanced the
selection was (30%), the presentation of the winelist (25%) and the suitability in terms of cuisine offered (10%).

“The winelists this year were impressive overall. The inclusion of a lot of craft beers and different mineral water offerings impressed me quite a lot. There also were a lot more options in wines offered by the glass. What bothered me, though, was that some restaurants entered unchanged winelists from last year hoping to get the same award or higher. This does not show creativity, improvement or innovation at all and as a result had a negative impact on their scores. There were also many spelling errors, which is unacceptable if you are applying or competing for top awards!”

Different wine varieties representative of the plantings in SA did not play that much of a role, he says, rather seeing a lot more local wines. “But we also have to have international wines and other, different varieties coming from around the world to broaden the offering and be able to appeal to a broader market.”

Benny says wine is one of the main factors for the majority of consumers when choosing which restaurant to go to. “Because the consumer in South Africa is increasingly aware of the array of wines that are available in the country, it makes sense for businesses to enter for the Diners Club Winelist Awards. If you want to be known in the game for having the best winelist and being a major player, this provides a great advantage to your restaurant. It can only mean more business to your restaurant, as you show innovation and service excellence through a consumer centric approach.”

On the educational side, Benny believes a good winelist helps increase consumer knowledge of wines and lists specific info that they might require to make a choice on what they want to drink.

“And in terms of staff the winelist offers them the help in recommending maybe a dish to go with the wine or vice versa. It also provides a source of reference in case they forget something.” When dishing out advice, Benny believes in innovation. “Stay up to date with trends; check your winelists, the spelling, descriptions, ratings and pricing and tailor your offering. Well trained staff is invaluable. Seek to improve every year to ensure relevance in the market and always deliver on what you promise!”

Challenges facing SA wine industry

Changing the perception that wine is not only for connoisseurs and people that can taste and smell the different textures, layers and aromas, but for everyone who enjoys drinking wine, especially the majority of South Africans who love and enjoy wine, but are intimidated by the ‘rules’ associated with wine.

Strengths of SA wine industry

The quality of our grapes, wine regions and abundance of talented winemakers gives South Africa the ability to compete on the world stage.

Favourite things to do

Eating and drinking my way around South Africa.

Best wine moment

Stellakaya Merlot

Guilty pleasures in life

I enjoy other people’s cooking, especially my wife’s; like so many chefs, I prefer not to cook, but rather enjoy the comforts of a home cooked meal.

“We were not looking for winelists offering numerous wines at high prices, but for creativity and choice giving an enhanced experience to patrons.”

“some restaurants entered unchanged winelists from last year hoping to get the same award or higher. This does not show creativity, improvement or innovation at all ”

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