Dave Hughes — the swirling, swigging life of an extraordinary man of wine

Dave Hughes — the swirling, swigging life of an extraordinary man of wine
Dave Hughes in the James Sedgwick Distillery in Wellington. (Photo: Supplied)

The passing of legendary Cape wine phenomenon Dave Hughes this week has reverberated loudly in the South African wine industry, prompting choruses of approval of his exceptional talents and wit, and not a few delectable anecdotes. But all stories have to start somewhere, so let’s start this one on the Blue Train, one balmy night in 1995…

I went on a swirling, swigging, singing, but hardly ever spitting, wine safari once. Everyone you needed to know in the Cape wine industry and wine writing community was there, and it was the moment when, as a much younger journalist, I found myself accepted by this extraordinary, wild bunch of connoisseurs and occasional miscreants, some of whom are friends to this day.

It was dubbed the Swirling, Swigging, Singing Safari Tour and it happened, mostly, on the Blue Train from Pretoria to Victoria Falls. It would not have been the fabulous success it was without Dave Hughes, even then a deep veteran of wine tasting, matchless wine knowledge and writing, and who has died at the age of 84 after living a truly splendid life. Hughes, due to other commitments, was not able to join the tour, but he was and remains entirely associated with it even all these years later, having orchestrated the events, tastings and created the heart of the thing. It is hard to imagine it having happened at all without this ever-present wine industry phenomenon, somehow there even when you don’t see him, like a conductor leading the orchestra, crucial, but not in this instance visibly a part of it. In that halcyon decade, as before and after, he was at the heart of everything.

It began at the old, much smaller, Cape Town Airport, or DF Malan as it was known then, one morning, where we gathered and shook hands before boarding an SAA flight to Pretoria. There, we boarded the Blue Train and headed north through a much younger and more stable Zimbabwe, destination Victoria Falls.

Let me tell you that much of it passed in a glorious haze, because if a wine writer tells you that he or she always uses the spittoon, he or she is almost certainly lying. Most of it went down, and glasses were topped up without hesitation by anyone in the vicinity when your glass appeared to be even remotely approaching empty.

What a motley bunch. John and Erica Platter, the inimitable Duimpie Bayly, wine eccentric Jos Baker, occasional faux French accent and all, gracious and graceful Phyllis Hands with her naughty chuckle, the ebullient man-of-wine Bennie Howard of the former SFW and later Distell, and of course the man himself, Dave Hughes, with his Father Christmas beard, his eyes alive with intelligence and a kindness that shone through his every gesture and word, illustrated by an ironic chuckle.

No one in the industry was ever humbler and less pretentious than Dave Hughes. No one hosted a wine event or tasting like Dave Hughes did, not least the annual pre-Nederburg Auction tastings year after year. Even as you assembled and found your seats before a Dave Hughes tasting, there’d be a glow of expectation in the room, because this man made wine come alive. I knew little about wine tasting at the time, very much the ingénue, but he had a way of opening it up like an uncorked bottle of wine given time to breathe before you finally savour it. You fell in love with the wine while he described it to you, and he never ever did so with even a hint of the pretentiousness that most people outside of wine-tasting circles presume to be de rigueur.

I fell in, even at the airport before the flight, with a then-young winemaker called Mark Carmichael-Green, then the winemaker at Zonnebloem and who became a wine consultant and later relocated to the United States. Mark and I decided to adopt faux cheesy-Russian accents and imagine that we were spies infiltrating a group of wine writers who, in our script, weren’t really wine writers at all. We kept talking behind our hands and casting suspicious glances at our swigging, swirling suspects (“I hyev my eye on thyet one, vot d’yew thyink, comrade?”). It was hilarious, mainly for us. On the return trip on the train, after a wild night of drunken wine-writer revelry and singing in the Blue Train bar, Mark and I snuck away and went along the carriages swapping the name tags on the brass plates on all the compartment doors. When they all finally weaved to their beds for the night, no one could find their own compartment, some not even their own carriage.

John Platter’s face when he walked into “his” compartment and found Phyllis Hands in it has stayed with me ever since, though I don’t recall Erica’s response.

Dave Hughes, doubtless, would have twinkled and chuckled, as was his way; I imagine he might have thought, “why didn’t I do that?”.

I even wrote a song for the tour, a rewrite of the lyrics of Billy Joel’s Piano Man, which Mark and I sang to the group shortly before our late-night prank. They were polite in their applause. It’s not entirely impossible that we may have been a tiny bit sozzled.

Tributes to the recently departed are meant to be serious, and peppered with sadness, but this is Dave Hughes we’re remembering, a man both of wine and of mischief, though it is of course sad that this wonderful man has left us. But he was such a smiling, happy and kind human being that writing a light and, I hope, very human piece such as this befits who he was and who he will remain in the minds and lives of all who knew him.

To that end, I asked a few of his peers in the industry to trawl through their memories and share their own anecdotes. Chief among them is one I have not yet named who, this week, alerted me to Dave’s passing. She is Fiona McDonald, now a veteran in her own right but then a young writer starting out and in awe of the older crew. She wrote her own tribute (link below).

John Platter shared these anecdotes, this week, of his old friend’s life and times:

“He was the ‘bearded one’. A respected, loved Cape wine apparition. The Dave Hughes beard, latterly anyway, was snow white, unruly, flowing. He was an avuncular Father Christmas figure. For a man whose daily routine required pin-point spitting of hundreds of wines, he kept those crowding, encroaching wisps scrupulously stain- and scent-free.

“In full fluff, his roguish, indulging grin was obscured a bit, not so his chuckling grunts. Hughes was always up to something — just back from faraway places, with new stories, an international wine figure of great repute, author of many books, judging and lecturing all over. For years, the face of Cape wine, so welcome everywhere.

“Earlier, as Zimbabwe’s most experienced distiller-winemaker by the mid-1960s — trained in Scottish distilleries, at Harvey’s of Bristol, at Pernod in Marseilles, Mumm in Champagne — Dave was instrumental in the frantic rush to establish Zimbabwe’s own vineyards. The blanket bans on exports to the Ian Smith regime prompted a flurry of hasty domestic wines, including an ill-fated 1967 ‘Rhodesian White’. Guided by Dave, David Simleit, a farmer, had made wine from a blend of Seneca, a table grape, and Colombard and Clairette Blanche. Hughes left bottling instructions and headed for the Inyanga Hills. The Governor-General and high-powered VIPs gathered for Simleit’s launch to herald Rhodesia’s vinous self-sufficiency. Simleit took a precautionary sip of the first bottle. Stony-faced, he ordered the lot removed.

“‘Fortunately, we had mature Ch. Margaux to get by on,’ said Simleit. Hughes later explained the fiasco to me. In his absence, immediately prior to bottling, they’d held the new wine in a tank that had been used to store paint stripper.

The young Dave Hughes at work in the former Rhodesia. (Photo: Supplied)

“That wasn’t all. Dave organised for thousands of grafted vines to be trucked in from South Africa. ‘Unfortunately, not all of them arrived,’ said Dave. ‘All those thousands of damp plants heated up terrifically in closed trucks and yes… there was spontaneous combustion and they blew up. Pretty standard for Zimbabwe — a bit of farce along the way.’ Self-deprecation came easily to him.

“Since 1979, Erica and I benefited hugely from Dave’s kind advice and friendship. Eventually, he agreed to join the Platter wine guide tasting team. What a constant inspiration and tonic, a man of boundless warmth.”

Erica Platter, who was editor of the Platter wine guide that she and John founded, wrote: “Dave always made me want to smile. That twinkle, that naughty crinkle of his eyes, that teasing tone of voice. All his girlfriends over the years were brilliant, and Lorna was a poem. He was the least snobby and most knowledgeable of wine people.

“And as for The Beard! It was and will remain peerless.

“Despite authoring so many books (12 or so) and contributing a foreword, and tasting notes for decades to the Platter guide, he was a man of action rather than words. But whatever he wrote was okay with the ed. Because, well, he was Dave Hughes! And always at such full stretch on his myriad international and local activities, running panels, industry bodies, marathons, the lot.

“If I could give him ****** I would,” Erica concluded cryptically.

Wine writer Michael Fridjhon wrote: “Dave Hughes was extraordinarily generous with his knowledge and his time, always on call as a repository of industry lore, always ready to assist in the cause of advancing wine knowledge. He was a founding father of the Cape Wine Academy, an author and contributor to the first truly modern books about the South African wine industry and the first of his generation of wine industry leaders who made himself available as a resource to wine consumers outside the lager of the Cape Winelands.

“The Cape wine industry of the 1970s and 1980s was not particularly welcoming to outsiders, meaning anyone who wasn’t in the production sector, a member of the industry mafia or a descendant of a landowner whose ancestors had received their properties directly from Simon van der Stel. Dave was different. He made me feel welcome (perhaps because he too had been an outsider). Warm and engaging, though with a dry, wry sense of humour which tempered his exuberance, he came across as thoughtfully restrained rather than high-spirited, genuine and a little pensive, rather than high-handed and dismissive. He was a really fine human being: it was impossible not to like him.”

That night on the Blue Train, Fiona McDonald, then a fledgling in the wine writing business, and I discovered a mutual penchant for singing at full throttle while drunk on wine. As well as penning her own personal tribute to Hughes, Fiona shared the following in an email to me this week:

“I know that you will recall the swirling, swigging, singing safari to Victoria Falls in 1995 for our memorable night singing a capella on the Blue Train, but Hughsie was instrumental in all the planning and arrangements, and setting up the tastings we enjoyed at Elephant Hills.

“I was the youngest on that trip by at least a decade and was feeling quite out of my depth (until that last night…) and he was just kind and gentle to a young, wide-eyed wine writer. I count myself incredibly blessed to have become a dear friend to both him and Lorna years later — to the point where he said at his 70th birthday that ‘Fiona’s not a friend, she’s family’.

“You no doubt have your own memories of times with the man during your years in Cape Town’s food and wine circles. The tributes on social media are remarkable and from all over the world. Everyone has a story of his kindness and lack of ego. Or of him dutifully collecting empty bottles to take home after a lunch, wine event or dinner — no matter how modest or posh in the case of some of his English events. He’d carefully peel the labels off and paste them onto an AK sheet, detailing the date, the event, the company and menu and finally a note about the wine. A true vinititulist!

“He arranged for [Italian wine legend] Marchese Antinori’s children to go surfing at Strand when they visited here. He was on first-name terms with so many great names in the wine world, be they from France, America, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Australia or New Zealand. It was while he headed up the IWSC judging that the Austrian ‘tainted wine’ scandal was revealed by them. As memory serves, the wines had been adulterated by glycol. It was an international headline-grabbing event.

“He knew Miguel Torres of Spain, Johnny Hugel of Alsace, Madame May Eliane de Lenquesaing the former chatelaine of Pichon Comtesse in Bordeaux… the list goes on.” Read Fiona’s tribute here.

But the list of tributes has to stop somewhere. Those who did know him will be sure to be toasting Hughsie this week, and probably frequently in the weeks to follow, as reminiscences flow, released no doubt by the flavours in the glass that he knew and understood best of them all.

Dave Hughes. Loved. And peerless. DM/TGIFood


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