Wine farms are peculiar things. Apart from their ability to absorb almost infinite quantities of cash, they are probably the world’s only large-scale production facilities that are worth visiting. Especially in the Western Cape (and also in other parts of the world) they are surrounded by some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable. Cellar-door sales are not a new phenomenon, but it’s only relatively recently that wineries have twigged onto the marketing benefits implicit in hosting consumers on the property.
From Napa to Adelaide and Stellenbosch wine makers are falling over themselves trying to match proper research and statistics to the observed phenomenon of wine tourism. More importantly, they are making substantial investments in both staffing and infrastructure. But often what is needed is nothing more dramatic than good, old-fashioned hospitality, as evidenced by a friend’s experience 20 years ago as UCT student.
While doing some unstructured Saturday morning wine routing they happened upon Vriesenhof, in what could only be described as a somewhat unstructured state. Not sure that there was anything happening, they were about to drive off when a figure appeared in the doorway motioning for them to come inside. The person was none other than the proprietor/winemaker, recently ex-Kanonkop, and famed Springbok flanker, Jan-Boland Coetzee. He proceeded to take them through a tasting of his wines, after which his wife served them soup and bread. My friend has been a wine drinker ever since, with his wine purchases growing in value as he’s climbed the salary ladder.
These days one is more likely to encounter some kind of commercial operation providing the nutritional base to a day of wine tasting. Winery restaurants – whether on a grand or simple scale – are becoming a base requirement. While it’s not exactly at the winery, one of my favourites is the Klein Joostenberg Deli and Bistro, where you’ll find Joostenberg wines showcased alongside Chrisophe Dehosse’s cuisine. Founded on his classical French training, and making extensive use of the homegrown (and butchered) pork, the food is really good and amazingly good value. Wines are served by the glass or bottle at retail (not restaurant) prices. A further benefit is the large family-friendly lawn, complete with playground equipment. It is not unusual to see fathers rough-housing it on the lawn with their kids, or teaching their sons how to kick a rugby ball.
The Retief family of Van Loveren in Robertson was one of the earliest to launch their own brand. Their way of offering wine tasting was to seat people at a table in the garden, and to deposit the bottles in front of them, for them to help themselves. It should be added that the garden was the pride and joy of Jean Retief, the grandmother of the generation currently running the operation. Each tree was planted to commemorate one or other world event or family occasion. And, when someone inevitably became afflicted by wine drinking rather than tasting, she would pass around restorative vetkoek. These days Van Loveren is the only independent winery advertising on television, which must have something to do with the generous manner in which visitors were welcomed to the property.
Robertson is also the region that hosts the Wacky Wine Weekend. This event, during which each cellar in the area (there are many more than the old days of Jean Retief!) puts on additional activities for the nearly 20 000 people that visit over the course of the weekend. The growth of this event has been a phenomenon.
Its genesis, of course, was a response to the perception that Stellenbosch is the alpha and omega of the Cape’s winelands. Admittedly Robertson is a 90-minute drive from Cape Town, compared with Stellenbosch’s 45 minutes, so it is necessary to give people additional reasons to make the drive.
We face similar considerations at Cloof. While Darling is only an hour from Cape Town, it is geographically very much at the fringes of the Winelands. Our answer has been to offer Gourmet BBQ events on alternate Sundays in Spring, Summer and Autumn. In September we’re hosting Rocking The Daisies, a weekend of live music during which several thousand people are expected to either camp for the duration, or visit for the day.
As an industry participant I find it difficult to approach wine routing in the same spirit of discovery (and anonymity) as regular visitors. I achieved this recently during an afternoon of ‘power wine routing’ in Napa Valley, during which I must have visited 15 properties. I was impressed by the enthusiastic and well-trained staff behind the counter (they’re there to sell, after all), which is not something one could say about every site in the Western Cape. The Californians suffer from a ridiculous neo-Prohibition law which says that wine cannot be drunk on the property without a special licence. So, no restaurants and no picnics. Well, at least they have Dean & Deluca on Highway 29.
It is seldom that wine is consumed by people who have actually visited the winery of origin. They have not felt the particular late afternoon cooling breezes, or made the parallels between the personalities of the winemaker and his wines. It is unlikely that they have trudged through the vineyards, or even tasted the unctuous grapes. And it probably isn’t even necessary; after all we happily spend our money on all kinds of things with which we have no physical or geographical connection. But a memorable cellar visit becomes an inextricable part of the experience of drinking that property’s wines in the future.