Opinionista Michael Fridjhon 21 June 2016

Palate to Palette: A colony of artists paint in wine for a brief moment in time

If there isn’t already a carefully defined hierarchy of occupations – based on preferences, rather than, say, usefulness to society – there should be one. It might not be as universally accepted as Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, though I imagine there would be broad agreement that sewerage work would feature near the bottom (sic) of the pyramid, whereas the Trumpian CEO in a real-life “You’re Fired!” would be closer to the apex.

The people who burrow for recyclable value in garbage bins (ahead of the rare trips through the suburbs of Pikitup trucks) and then load the results of their excavations onto flatbed trolleys and walk vast distances to trade their treasure would be nearer to the sewerage workers. Pimps and drug lords would doubtless position themselves closer to Trump.

A defining distinction – the equator line if you like – would be whether or not matriculants would tell their career guidance teachers that this is what they wanted to do for the rest of their lives. While I suspect that no one seriously announces that digging out long drops is a compelling proposition, I can imagine that working in a slaughterhouse appeals to a certain type of (admittedly socially dysfunctional) personality.

Lebo (and this may be her real name) plans to become a hairdresser. This might not have been her first choice – had her family circumstances been otherwise – but at least it was a realistic prospect, one she’s on course to achieve. It’s not without its difficulties: she lives in Krugersdorp and she has an apprenticeship at a salon in Illovo. At 05:00 every morning she leaves home and two taxi rides later arrives at her place of work. Wednesdays – when the salon stays open late – she overnights somewhere in Johannesburg: the commute is too long to allow for the round-trip back to the West Rand.

What complicates things for her is that she is the effective head of her house – with two younger siblings and a cousin dependent on her for parenting and financial support. When she gets home at night she helps her brother (now in matric) and her younger sister (in Grade 10) with their homework. When she stays over in the city, she provides this assistance remotely, using cellphone technology to guide them. This year she will move from washing hair and applying colouring to learning to cut: all going well she will be fully qualified and earning real money when her younger sister needs to make career choices after matric.

None of this sounds easy to more privileged children attending the plethora of private schools which have come to decorate the South African landscape. Their guidance teachers are already taking them through a number of career options, all of which require a stint of tertiary training. For them, actuarial science vies with medicine, law, accounting and design as possible prospects, just as Stellenbosch, UCT, Tukkies or Wits are potential destinations. Very few are thinking about becoming beauticians, nurses, hairdressers or bank tellers, and even fewer are considering a career as a sex worker.

Some of the more passionate (or less realistic) ones may seriously be contemplating a future as an artist: either a painter, or a sculptor or a wood or metal worker. There may even be a couple who – without any family connection to the wine industry – are planning to spend their lifetimes tramping the vineyards and transforming grapes to wine. No doubt for some this is a calling, a teenage epiphany, a prospect so intriguing that all other possibilities pale to insignificance alongside it. However, even those who come from moneyed backgrounds, and who feel an overwhelming compulsion to create art from grapes, would have to think twice before embarking on such a course of action.

Yet, and this is extraordinary, their numbers appear to swell every year. A couple of decades ago winemaking was largely the domain of (mainly Afrikaans-speaking) white males, many from farming backgrounds. Some, I suspect, were the younger siblings of the heirs to the land. A stint of training at Elsenburg Agricultural College (where only the final year curriculum offers a focus on wine production to a select few) would have been the primary route into the profession, though those with a slightly stronger academic record might have done the oenology degree at Stellenbosch.

Either way, they were equipping themselves as much for farm management as for the more hands-on business of winemaking. Depending on whether or not they were destined to get some family land, they might then have drifted into more general agriculture, selling grapes to the local co-op, or else they might have worked their way through the co-op system to the position of general manager. The more gifted and enthusiastic among them would have aimed for a job at Stellenbosch Farmers Winery or at one of the handful of corporate estates with a successful wine business.

Nowadays the pointy end of the industry has seen an influx of artists, the wine trade’s equivalent of poets-in-a-garret. Variously labelled “Young Guns”, “Rock stars” and “Lunatic Fringe” by a largely approving and enthusiastic press, they number somewhere between 40 and 70 players, all with their own labels (I hesitate to describe them as “brands”) and a presence – however peripheral – in the market. Many have tracked down interesting vineyards which, in the not-so-distant past, supplied some of the better fruit which went into the crush at the 70 or so co-operative cellars which used to dot the landscape of the Western Cape.

Their production – which probably averages under 400 dozen per vintage – is not really enough to sustain life and limb. They survive because they have additional means of support, or because they have tolerant employers (often owners of larger wineries) who let them build their own brands on the side. Ten years from now, at least half will have given up on the dream (families, mortgage repayments, children and pets will change the arithmetic of sustainability) while a few will have become mainstream. They probably look to the trajectory of the likes of Eben Sadie, Chris and Andrea Mullineux, Chris and Suzanne Alheit and Adi Badenhorst and hope to achieve something similar: like aspirant artists all over the world, only a few will have that combination of talent, access to the right materials, the good fortune of being in the right place at the right time, and the temperament, to succeed.

David Clarke, an Australian sommelier who has been living in South Africa for several years, has set up a specialist distribution business (called Ex Animo) which represents several of these winemakers who have at least created a blip on the radar screen. He’s not the only Paul Rosenberg discovering and promoting the country’s talented young winemakers: Debi van Flymen and the Roland Peens both have their own coteries to hand-manage into the market. It is clear that some of these vinous adventurers, these artists working in the medium of fermented grapes, are edging closer to their dream.

Among the Ex Animo bunch, Mick Craven (Craven Wines) has a perfectly poised Clairette Blanche (R140) and a neat enough “Faure Vineyard” Syrah (R200). Jocelyn Hogan’s latest Chenin Blanc (R305) is unshowy yet substantial, using texture at least as much as flavour and aroma to achieve its result. John Seccombe (whose Thorne and Daughters’ label seems to be getting traction) makes a fabulous – but almost impossible to find – Chardonnay. There is also a white blend called “Rockinghorse” (comprising roussanne, semillon, chardonnay, chenin blanc and clairette blanche, selling for R215) which, together with his Paper Kite and Tin Soldier Semillons (both R270) is worth tracking down. (The latest Paper Kite has been made with fruit harvested from century-old Franschhoek vineyard and should repay a little cellaring.)

Trizanne Barnard produces some of the country’s best sauvignons and sauvignon blends, selling the wines under the Trizanne Signature Wines label. Of her current (2015) releases the straight sauvignon (R95) is comfortably the best wine for drinking now (though it is certainly age-worthy) while the Sauvignon-Semillon blend (R165) needs time to evolve. Julian Schaal’s less expensive Elgin Chardonnay looked better to me than the more premium “Evidence” cuvee.

Craig Hawkins (whose day job used to be winemaker-viticulturist at Lammershoek) has seen his Testalonga enterprise flourish over the past few years. He has managed to develop something of an export market (at least when his often unconventional winemaking strategies don’t encounter the obstruction of the Wine & Spirit Board). There are several different wines under his El Bandito label, mostly made with little or no sulphur additions (except sometimes at bottling). Priced at around R235 they are generally directed at aficionados of long skin-contact wines. Joostenberg (on the Stellenbosch side of Paarl) is hardly a garagiste set-up (though it’s not exactly mainstream either). The 2013 Klippe Kou Syrah (priced at R140) is well worth seeking out: it offers intense spice, whiffs of white pepper, and it has sweet red fruit notes to hold it together.

There are several other producers in the Ex Animo line-up, a couple of whose wines I haven’t tasted recently. J.H. Meyer makes edgy pinots from vineyards beyond the usual appellations – Elandskloof near Villiersdorp and the Outeniqua mountains along the Garden Route. Jurgen Gouws produces several Swartland wines under the Intellego label while Kyle Dunn’s “Skinny Legs” brand offers a Swartland Chenin and a McGregor Pinot. Anne and Craig Wessels produce Chardonnay and Cabernet from the Upper Hemel-en-Aarde Valley.

It should be clear – as much from the brand names as from the dominant appellations – that there’s very little here that’s mainstream, or aspires to be. Even the players who have managed to break into the big time still communicate from the fringe. I’ve no doubt that were they to have vastly more wine than their current production, they would still “allocate” rather than “sell” it. This is how artists take their goods to market – or at least how they like to be seen marketing the objects of their craft.

Precisely because the future of this segment of the industry depends on interesting (mainly old) vineyards, its prospects aren’t infinite. Access to the right kind of vines, to basic production facilities, to capital – all these are more constraining than the usual route to market problems which afflict traditional newcomers. The churn will come from the inevitable attrition, and the attrition will free up some of the sites for the next wave of wannabe wine artists. This makes the current group a reflection of a moment in time, no different from a generation of painters, writers, composers – and though they practise their craft in a different medium, their work is as much a touchstone of our times as any other creative artefact. A bottle of wine may be less permanent than a bronze, but it tells the story of its maker, who he (or she) was, what he believed in, where he lived, even what he hoped for, as ineluctably as a poem, a painting or a play. DM

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