South African Wine Adventure
Trip of a Lifetime
By Dianne Boate and Robert Meyer
Leaving from San Francisco on a winery
January day, we stepped out of the plane in Capetown, 35
hours later, into brilliant South African summer sunshine.
This trip was not just a holiday. We were there to explore
as much of the wine country as could be managed in three
weeks. Our main center of activity was Franschhoek, a very
beautiful valley dotted with wine farms in Cape Dutch-style
architecture. Franschhoek means “French Corner.” Many
families here are eighth and ninth generation descendants of
French Huguenots who arrived in the late 1600s, running from
religious persecution. In the Huguenot Museum is a small
traveling trunk with blue patterned dinner plates buried
upright in sand to keep from breaking. There is a quiet
peace in this valley, less than an hour’s drive from
Capetown. It reminds one of Provence, France, where your
soul can settle in to savor an unmistakable sense of well
being. It is the magic of the air, the smell of sun
releasing the special fragrances of earth, grass, leaves,
flowers, and trees. It is a glass of sparkling wine in your
hand and the smell of outdoor cooking called braai
(pronounced BRY) that we know as barbecue.
Just Like Home
As guests in a beautiful home, and later in a guest house,
we could observe first hand the efforts to create beauty in
the home environment and live graciously while working very
hard at wine farming and raising horses. The people here
reminded us of the spirit of the people of Australia , the
Do It Now Attitude that is on the ready for anything. It is
a gusto for living that is most admirable. The guest house
had a real kitchen, which led to our first adventure grocery
shopping in the local market and at roadside stands. Baby
cabbage, Gem squash, corn, potatoes, mangoes, local cheese,
hearty breads, and Coleman’s mustard powder with green
peppercorns. For about $6.00 US, we could purchase quality
wine, which tasted so good as we sat in the twilight on our
patio overlooking an orchard and a vineyard. This, after an
exhausting day driving to visit wine farms to the east and
Here is a story we heard: Two brothers dumped their
unsalable wine into a river stream. A dairy farm downstream
wound up with drunken cows and milk that tasted like wine.
Yes, they were caught.
A Sorry Sight
At the edge of town, there was a disturbing contrast. It’s
the squatters’ quarters made of found rubble. Corrugated
iron is used for roofing material; odd pieces of wood form
the rest of the small shacks that are chockablock next to
each other. Some of the iron is stolen from bus stop
shelters. Locally it is called “redistribution of wealth”
and “affirmative shopping.” There is no running water and no
electricity here. It was hateful taking a picture.
In order to get around for work and shopping, the folks take
taxis called “Flying Coffins.” The vehicles are vans stuffed
sometimes twice over with people that are frequently killed
when the driver passes on the wrong side and veers out of
control. Driving the roads one sees a never ending
procession of people walking because most do not have cars.
The color combinations of headgear, blouses, skirts, shirts,
trousers, and shoes were fascinating.
Valuable Wine Region
It’s easy to immediately appreciate the value of South
Africa as a wine region when its relationship to other major
wine growing areas is revealed. We saw it on a map: Going
north and south equidistantly from the equator are two
curved bands that look like a smile in the northern
hemisphere and a pout in the southern hemisphere. Within the
bands lie the lands that produce the world’s great grapes.
In the North, the band sweeps from the North American west
coast to southern Europe and beyond the Black Sea; in the
South, it sweeps from Chile and Argentina to S. Africa to
southern parts of Australia and a bit of New Zealand. This
explains why the Piedmont area of Italy, the Napa Valley of
California, and the Rancagua region of Chile in South
America resemble each other.
Our goal was to visit as many wineries as possible in eleven
regions, sampling wine for import. We were very fortunate to
secure the guidance of Mr. Jurgen Wessels, a marketing
expert, who drove over a large mountain everyday to lead us
in the day’s adventure. Our arrival coincided with a heat
wave which sent the farmers scurrying to gather up the
fast-ripening fruit. Everywhere on the roads were gondolas
filled with grapes being rushed to the crushing equipment.
Many of these grapes, however, are used for the fruit juice
industry, a very large enterprise here. You can buy
delicious red or white grape juice in bottles.
Now Dianne must confess: “After the first
week, every morning I thought I would stay ‘home’ in the
guest house, relax, and take it easy. But I somehow managed
to put myself together, have breakfast, and get in the car
for another long ride. I was rewarded by some unusual
sights: two hundred pairs of eyes watching me very carefully
over a fence, ostrich; a field of haystacks put together
like a geometric work of art; two baboons high atop
telephone poles along the roadway; a sweeping vista that
took eight photos to capture in a panorama of where the
wheat grows, and a dozen large white cattle egrets perched
in a vineyard.”
Emerging Wine Industry
The S. African wine industry is just emerging from the
effects of the former apartheid system, the subsequent
sanctions, and the rigorous control of the former monopoly.
How long would you be in business if you were told exactly
what to plant, how much of it, and what the selling price
would be, competing in a world market that was determined
not to buy from you? The restaurants were also restricted in
their choice of wine varietals and selling price. The
monopoly system was there to ensure survival of the industry
but high costs swallowed profits and created years of
hardship. As Jurgen Wessels told us, “In 1994, during first
democratic elections, which went peacefully, wine farmers
realized it was time for a free and independent future from
the monopolies. An (almost) free economy now exists where
they can choose their own partners in trade, locally as well
We want you to have an idea of why this aspect of the
country is so fascinating: Very substantial financial
investments have been made in recent years. We saw new
buildings, new equipment, new jacketed tanks, French Oak
barrels, and great expanses of new vineyards. Some of the
new owners are German, Swiss, Italian, and Russian.
Winemakers come from France, America, and Canada, and call
South Africa home now.
Here is another story we heard at a winery
called Haute Provence. A building there is named “Angel’s
Tears.” Lore has it that one year the grapes were poor. The
winemaker used all his imagination to create something from
limited quality. He was in despair and left it in the wine
cellar. The angels came, tasted the wine, and cried tears of
joy, which the winemaker found.
Our last week in South Africa was very
diverse. Three days on the elegant Rovos Rail train, a visit
to Kimberly Diamond Mines, a private tour of Soweto that
will be a separate story, surviving going down a gold mine
shaft, and spending the night in a tent in a wild animal
park. How would you sleep if the vehicle you were in nearly
ran over an Egyption Cobra, and your companion remarks,
“Into your tent I’ll creep”?
Travel tip: Try not to overload yourself
with information before you go somewhere. Read a good book
on the plane to clear your mind of home, and step off the
plane fresh and eager to explore and gather all that is new
and wonderful. Don’t forget to invite God to go along.
Dianne Boate is a free lance writer and photographer. Her
photography show runs through June 30, 2004 at The Variety
Club Gallery, 582 Market Street, San Francisco. Robert Meyer
is a consultant to the wine and spirits industry. The South
African trip was taken in 2001.