Here is the first half of the fifth installment of ‘How we Came to Swim in the Wine Lake.’
I had intended telling you how marvelous De Morgenzon’s grapes are looking and how they’re ripening with the promise of a great 2011 vintage, but here I am again, self-indulgently rattling on about the work we were doing before we landed up on top of a mountain in Stellenbosch.
I am still often asked about the ‘The Wind-up Radio.’ With this project we hit the international media. Our little foundation in deepest, darkest Africa (well, Braamfontein, Johannesburg actually), had its moment of fame. I’ll never forget the bit on the news across the USA when President Clinton and Hilary were moving into the house they had bought in New York. He said that they were still pretty disorganized and their things were being unpacked, but he had his wind-up radio so he could listen to the news. There he stood, the most powerful man in the world, telling the news team that he had this radio which he’d “crank” – and he demonstrated the winding movement to the camera while he explained how it worked. A simulated winding motion isn’t a ‘good look.’
Rewind. I was driving to the office when I heard a story on Radio 702 about a person in England who had invented a ‘clockwork’ radio. It immediately struck me as having potential to be useful for education in rural areas where electricity was unavailable. Batteries are expensive and ecologically problematic. I casually mentioned this ‘clockwork radio’ to my brother Robert. Completely coincidentally a friend of his named Rory Stear, and Chris Staines – a friend of Rory’s, had heard about the invention of the radio in the UK media and had secured the rights.
Shortly thereafter Robert introduced me to Rory and Chris. I became increasingly enthusiastic about the potential for the wind-up radio. They, in turn, became increasingly enthusiastic about the potential for Liberty backing them in their foray into clockwork radios.
So, it was off to London to meet the inventor and see the radio.
Trevor Baylis, the inventor, was a short, ebullient and very enthusiastic Cockney with a shock of silverish hair. He was both eccentric and egotistical, but in an amusing ‘Goonish’ sort of way. His unconventional earlier career had included stints as an exhibition swimmer and as an underwater escapeologist … a bit like a wet Houdini.
We arrived at Trevor’s house on a little island in the middle of the Thames called Eel Pie Island. Yes, seriously “Eel Pie.” It was a gorgeous early summer’s day and Eel Pie Island looked a lot prettier and less slimy than it sounds. Not so the Baylis household – it was happily overlooked by the editors of ‘Good Housekeeping.’ It made me sneeze. It also housed Trevor’s extraordinary inventor’s workshop.
Trevor, with an uncanny ability to spot a gap in the market, had previously designed products such as the ‘Can Opener for One Handed People,’ which he demonstrated to us with great enthusiasm and some dexterity, using only one hand and one foot. Holding an arm behind his back, like a sort of demented and reversed Napoleon, he tried to open a can … I think he eventually succeeded. Understandably, Trevor had not become rich. There was a host of other kitchen utensils that Trevor invented to satisfy the culinary ambitions of those who had lost a limb or two.
My first introduction to the ‘Wind-Up Radio’ was very disappointing indeed. It was, quite frankly, rudimentary in the extreme – but it did work in a manner of speaking (or broadcasting I guess). At that stage the ratio of winding to listening would have had humanity evolve gorilla-like, with huge arms and small ears. Wind, wind, wind … whirrrrr … snap, crackle, pop … “this is the BBC…” Whilst my stomach lurched at the prospect of showing this device to my colleagues at Liberty, my imagination was stimulated … I could see it …. There we were, huddled round an old valve set deep in occupied Europe listening to the BBC … I guess I had watched too many war movies in the Rex in Greenside and Lake in Parkview.
Trevor’s enthusiasm was infectious and he was convinced that his device would stop the spread of AIDS in Africa …
I was then introduced to Linda Chalker, more accurately, Baroness Chalker of Wallasey – Minister for Overseas Development, and the then longest serving member of the British Cabinet. We agreed that we, in partnership with her Majesty’s Government, would fund the further development of the radio and bring it to its completion. Linda had, and still has, both a keen sense of what’s possible in the developmental arena, and a deep commitment to Africa. I quite enjoyed taking our Foundation into a relationship with the British Government. It suited my pompous and grandiose vision of our place in the developmental arena.
Rory, a two metre tall dynamo, swept me into meeting a host of fascinating people. Andy Bearpark, who as the UN Representative, had been based in Sarajevo and sorted out the mess in the Balkans, became another ‘friend in a high place.’ Andy, at the time, was head of the ODA with responsibility for emergency aid. We saw the wind-up radio as having a vital role to play in this arena. Andy always had a sardonic smile and is a serious person who never took himself too seriously – a wonderful quality in my humble opinion.
Through Rory I came to know Josh Mailman, a leading figure in philanthropy internationally. I guess everyone in philanthropy knows Josh and our paths often cross. I don’t quite recall whether it was then, or later, that I met Chris Elias – an inspirational man who has had huge impact on health technologies and revolutionized the distribution of cost-effective drugs, vaccines and immunization. I have also come to know Vincent and Ann Mai who have, over the years, become friends. Circles within circles ….. Vincent, like Josh, is a prominent philanthropist with whom I hope soon to be working in his capacity as chairman of the board of Sesame Workshop, producers of Sesame Street.
Then I met the extraordinary Terry Waite, a gentle giant. He had achieved some fame, and no fortune, as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s special representative and hostage extraordinaire. In the 1980s he had successfully negotiated the release of several hostages held in Iran and Libya.
His talents took him to the Lebanon where he, again successfully, became involved in hostage negotiation. However, his use of an American helicopter to travel secretly between Cyprus and Lebanon, and his appearance with Oliver North, meant that he was compromised when the Irangate scandal broke. My Granny used to say “one is judged by the company one keeps.” She was right.
Despite being advised not to, Terry arrived in Beirut in January 1987 with the intention of negotiating with the Islamic Jihad Organisation which was holding American hostages. He arranged to meet with the captors and was promised safe conduct to visit their captives. The gentlemen from Islamic Jihad, unsurprisingly, broke trust and took Terry hostage. Can you really take the word of men who don’t drink wine?
Waite remained in captivity for 1,763 days, the first four years of which were spent in solitary confinement chained to a radiator. The underground stone cell he called home for over 1,000 days was just ten feet wide and seven feet long. He knows this because he is six feet, seven inches tall. It was not until the end of 1991 that he was released.
A member of the Islamic Jihad Organisation was seated next to an Australian on a flight from Beirut to Sydney. After the plane was airborne, drink orders were taken. There being no South African wine aboard Quantas, the Aussie asked for a Barossa Valley shiraz which was brought and placed before him. The flight attendant then asked the Islamic Jihadist if he would like a drink. He replied in disgust, “I’d rather be savagely raped by a dozen whores and have my head stuffed up a sheep’s arsehole than let liquor touch my lips.” The Australian immediately handed his drink back to the flight attendant and said, “I didn’t know we had a choice.” (Sorry, couldn’t resist that).
The subjects of sheep’s arseholes and Trevor’s ‘Can Opener for One Handed People’ have, by some extraordinarily convoluted thought pattern, brought me to thinking of screw caps and corked wine. The essential question is whether wine can wine be corked if its under a screwcap, or whether it’s just plain screwed?
A ‘corked’ wine is a wine that has been bottled with a cork that is contaminated with TCA (2,4,6-Trichloroanisole). Because most people are not trained to recognize the smell and taste of TCA, only a very small fraction of these bad bottles are ever returned to a store or sent back at a restaurant.
If you were manufacturing motorcars and 7% of them crashed because the brakes failed, would you continue using the same system to arrest the motion of a vehicle? Why, then, do we tolerate a system of bottle closure that ruins seven in a hundred bottles of wine, especially knowing that most people don’t recognize ‘cork taint’ as a phenomenon? They just think the wine they’ve bought isn’t very nice.
Corkiness may appear in a spectrum from barely noticeable to very obvious. A corked wine is not one with bits of cork in it – although those floaty bits of cork debris are another irritating by-product. A subtly corked wine may appear fruitless, a little unbalanced, uninteresting, but without any definite signs of cork taint. Leaving the wine for a few hours, or even days, may make the unpleasant aromas characteristic of a corked wine more apparent. By this time, however, it’s likely you’ve either drunk it or poured it down the sink. More obviously corked wine has aromas of wet cardboard, mushrooms, mould, green bananas and smelly socks (a lot like a perfectly normal pinotage). The palate will taste similar, will lack fruit, and can even be quite bitter.
The screw cap closure is the best alternative to cork currently available. The cork offers tradition and a proven track record, so what is the hold-up? Why not just order up those caps and bottling machines and get to work?
There are still a number of issues. Without doubt, the main argument is over the issue of aging. Cork has a wonderful ability to let the wine breathe. No one knows how screw caps will react to long periods of aging. For the moment, the logical thinking would be that for near-term consumption screw caps are just fine, while for aging, cork is it.
However, how much of an issue is cellaring in the Twenty First Century? The majority of wine consumed is drunk within eight hours of its purchase – and, that majority is probably in the neighborhood of 95 percent. Who, these days, builds a house with a cellar anyway? Storage space is a real problem so not many people buy cases of wine and lay them down for 20 years.
In the world of restaurants and wine service sommeliers, restaurant owners and maitres d’ are a little nervous – we all know and understand the ritual of the cork, but screw caps? Unscrewing simply doesn’t sound the same as the pop of a cork – but then who wants aromas of wet cardboard, mushrooms, mould, green bananas and smelly socks and, (unless you’re Antipodean), sheep’s arsehole?