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Having fun, writing about the stuff I like

An Open Door

Oscar Foulkes July 17, 2009 Uncategorized 4 comments

The word ‘critic’ is an interesting one, describing two wholly different people. On the one side is the learned, experienced person who judges or evaluates, usually – one assumes – with the aim of achieving some kind of positive greater good. This type of critic, incidentally, appears to embody the original meaning of the Greek word kritikos, from which the word derives. On the other is the fault finder, the person who readily makes harsh judgements. Both of them carry the title of critic, but the effect of what they do can be poles apart.

A.A. Gill is a critic, a very funny one, but also one with sufficient knowledge and experience to give foundation to his viewpoints. Even when he is bringing the axe down on an establishment that hasn’t passed muster it is done with humour (and, of course, incorporating at all times the specific reasons why the dissing is being done). One gets the feeling, though, that he starts every experience with the aim of enjoying it. And if there’s no enjoyment to be had at the hands of a restaurant chef then he’s tuning into the humour he can take away from the experience.

No-one likes to be criticised, whether it’s sold as “constructive criticism”, or not. One especially doesn’t like to be criticised in print without having had some opportunity of answering the criticisms. It’s the equivalent of being smacked in the face while blindfolded.

Mr Gill seems to say nice things more often than he rips things to shreds, which is not the same one could say about Jeanri-Tine van Zyl, who did a ‘critical’ review of Cloof’s cellar door experience in the August 2009 edition of Wine magazine. She describes her experience as being “very unsexy”, clearly drawing from the name of one of our brands, The Very Sexy Shiraz.

We derive less than 3% of our annual sales from cellar door, at a cost of approximately R250 000 per year. This alone should be telling us to shut down the activity. However, tasting rooms on wine farms are part of wine culture; wineries must be the only production facilities that also perform a marketing function. It’s one of those things where you’re damned either way – you’d get as roundly abused if people arrived on the farm and were told they couldn’t taste or buy wine.

So, we devote a disproportionate effort to the tasting room (bear in mind that it’s not only the personnel on duty; there is also a huge admin task in reconciling stock and cash). Several years ago we noticed that hungry lunch time visitors on Mondays and Tuesdays had to be sent to Table View (part of greater Cape Town) due the paucity of options in Darling. In order to accommodate irregular lunchers we planted our own organic vegetable garden. We trained one of the casual farm workers to cook the food (the “makeshift restaurant” she refers to in the review is normally set up in the bucolic bliss of our garden, but this is not possible in winter). The ‘chef’ has gained skills that ensure him employment wherever he goes.

Running a small eatery/restaurant in addition to the tasting room adds to the complexity of stuff one is managing, but we’ve found that the availability of food has improved our wine sales. This effect is very much more dramatic on Sundays when we host Gourmet BBQs, for which – incidentally – we continue to receive much positive feedback.

So, while we ourselves are not yet content with what we’re offering, our hearts are in the right place.

We suffer, of course, from Darling not forming part of the usual wine route traffic. It’s very much easier to justify investing a whack of cash in super-sexy tasting room facilities if one is getting thousands of visitors per month, rather than accommodating that number over the course of an entire year. We are aware that our tasting room, both in situation and décor, is not ideal. However, moving it to a more ideal location involves an investment that could run to in excess of R1 million. It would take us a very long time to recoup that investment, even at an elevated rate of tasting room sales. Yes, Jeanri-Tine is probably correct in calling the tasting room “bland”. However, the walls are over 100 years’ old, as are the stinkwood beams that hold up the ceiling. The space may not be an interior decorator’s dream, but at least it’s authentic.

We’re really sorry she didn’t get to chat to the person on duty, who happened to be the assistant winemaker. It is extremely rare to find winemaking staff on duty in tasting rooms. More usually one encounters part-timers who are either regurgitating a script, or reading off technical sheets. His clumsiness in dealing with multiple customer activities happening in parallel is no doubt attributable to his comparable skill earlier along the production chain, and is being addressed. We are sorry she experienced the inconvenience of having to wait between tasting the various wines.

We’d love to offer complementary snacks with the wine tastings. These, sadly, could not be complimentary, but given our uncertainty about pulling it off successfully we’ve put the idea on the back burner until we can.

She could also have told her readers that we don’t charge for tastings, which we regard as a huge plus. There is the option of tasting the same wine out of barrels from four different coopers, for which the charge is R35 (but this clearly was not offered on the day).

We truly would love to be able to offer Crucible Shiraz for tasting (she complained about that as well). However, we made less than 4000 bottles of the 2006 vintage, and there won’t be any 07, 08 or 09. Apart from the fact that we do need to make it last, we simply cannot afford to open it for tasting.

The review includes a separate judgement of the quality of the wines (5/10 from her), which seems a bit mean considering the number of gold medals and Platter four-star ratings our wines receive (framed copies of the certificates adorn the old walls). We’re not going to get emotional about this aspect; we’re grown-up enough to know that opinions about wine vary enormously.

In short, we refute her suggestion that our attempts at “winning hearts and minds stop at the wine label”. We have no doubt we can do it better, and we’d happily sit down to a glass of wine or cup of coffee with anyone who has practical suggestions for improvement.

In October this year we are expecting in excess of 10 000 visitors for the Rocking the Daisies music festival, which is held at Cloof. It is a source of frustration to us that so few of them drink wine, but we have a few tricks up our sleeves to seduce them this year. We’d love to be in a position to offer the “sexy” cellar door experience she’s wanting, and perhaps that time will come, but we can’t help thinking that the entire world of wine would benefit more from switching some of those 10 000 rockers to wine drinking (in preference to beer, shooters and cider) than investing a fortune for the benefit of the few dozen visitors we get per week. Imagine that as a cellar door experience!


Anonymous - July 21, 2009

Beautifully written Oscar. The reality of all this is that bad news sells more copy than good. That seems to be the modus operandi of the segment.

Affieplaas - July 22, 2009

I agree, a most elloquent article and more of an article than anything that the critic (sic) could produce!
I hope that you'll consider showing her the door if she decides to come to Rocking the Daisies. As it is one of the most awesome festivals of the year!

Dionysus - July 27, 2009

Thanks for a wonderfully honest and frank response. As a wine lover that lives along the West Coast, the Wine Mag article and your response, has only served as greater encouragement for myself to visit your farm and make up my own mind. A review is but one person's opinion.
Dionysis: For The Travelling Vineyard

Anonymous - July 29, 2009

Anonymous, I couldn't agree more – verbally slapping someone in the face seems to sell better. But I know the wonderful experiences (and wines!) Cloof has to offer, and feel that I must dare the lady to return to Cloof in Spring or Summer – perhaps for one of their Gourmet BBQ's? – and THEN try to leave!!

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