Changes since 1983

At the end of my piece on changes since my professional involvement with wine began in December 1983, I mentioned I’d had more thoughts than I could cover in one go.

The Pebbles team; Sophie Warner is 3rd from left in the back row.
The Pebbles team; Sophie Warner is 3rd from left in the back row.

This year – 2014 yes, we’re there – will celebrate ten years’ since The Pebbles Project was established to help children with special needs, especially those with foetal alcohol syndrome. The brainchild of special needs teacher, Sophie Warner and run by her with an ever-expanding team, Pebbles itself has expanded in its reach, although it is mainly contained to the Stellenbosch area. The full scope of its activities can be viewed here but surely training the crèche and after-school members has been one of the most important. A few years after its establishment, I spent a morning with Sophie, visiting three different farm crèches; what an eye-opener it was. I wrote about it for our old and now defunct Grape website, but if anyone would like to read it, please let me know and I’ll email a copy.

The final paragraph of that article reminds how, in my Foreward to the 2006 Platter Guide (my 20th year with this publication) I urge of the need to value and nurture our farm workers. Farming today is an ever more demanding undertaking, often perilously poised between walking a tightrope and dropping far to the ground beneath. Workers on wine farms need to be properly trained for the work they do in both the vineyards and cellars, not just because machinery today could do much of their work, but mainly to give them a sense of worth and pride. There have been some remarkable, spirit-lifting owner/worker partnerships built over the past 30 years, ones that have no need of ethical certification, but there will always be bad eggs or people who are merely re-active rather than proactive.

Zelma Long & Phil Freese at an annual Vilafonté vertical.
Zelma Long & Phil Freese at an annual Vilafonté vertical.

Talking of wine farming and farmers, one of the major changes since 1983 is outside investment and what great people the Cape has attracted. High-profile and generally nice American folk include husband and wife team, Phil Freese and Zelma Long (Vilafonté), who were among the first. Phil also offers first-class viticulture advice to other wineries. More recent and visible American arrival is Charles Banks (Mulderbosch in Stellenbosch and Fable near-ish to Tulbagh). A trio of delightful American ladies are also making their mark here: Ginny Povall (Botanica), Samantha O’Keefe (Lismore) and, thanks to marrying her South African husband, Chris, we also have Andrea Mullineux of the eponymous winery.

Charles Banks & his US winemaker, Andy Erickson
Charles Banks & his US winemaker, Andy Erickson
Madame May Eliane de Lencquesaing (courtesy of Michael Olivier)
Madame May Eliane de Lencquesaing (courtesy of Michael Olivier)

Big names from the French wine scene have joined the foreign throng: Bordelaise, Madame May Eliane de Lencquesaing (Glenelly); Bruno Prats and Hubert de Boüard, also from Bordeaux who were founders with Lowell Jooste (formerly owner of Klein Constantia) in Anwilka. Michel Rolland briefly came and has gone (I know of those who say ‘thank goodness’). Of those Frenchmen who have settled here, Jean Vincent Ridon of Signal Hill and Christophe Durand of Vins d’Orrance are just two making exciting contributions to Cape wine. Americans, French but also Italians, Greeks, English, Belgians, Swiss, Chinese and even South Africans from other parts of the country – all have invested in our wine industry, not only financially but with new skills, new thinking, new ideas. As ambassadors, they are spreading the word about the new South African wines in their own countries.

Sadly, we’ve also lost valuable people: Prof Sakkie Pretorius, who headed the micro-biology department at StellenboschUniversity before he was lured to Australia, as was Prof Alain Deloire, with his immeasurable knowledge of viticulture.  Losing leaders like these shows the industry needs so much more support – actually any support – from the South African government. All they, in the form of the Minister of Health, are attempting to do now is ban alcohol advertising, probably because it’s the easiest rather than the most effective route to halting alcohol abuse. Prevention is better than cure, Mr Motsoaledi and that lies in education and effective policing.

Enough of looking back, what would I hope from the future? A less fractured wine industry, something that is another legacy of the past, with some credible, respected leaders; enjoyment of wine by a wider public with less dumbing down, grapes can make delicious wine on their own!; on the journalism side, a focus on writing by a broader spectrum of South Africans that will attract that wider public to enjoy wine and, lastly, an excellent 2014 harvest that will yield delicious wines for all to enjoy.

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