Here is the first part of the sixth installment of ‘How we Came to Swim in the Wine Lake.’
Professor John van Zyl and I were old friends. We shared both an interest in radio and, I confess, an iconoclastic streak. John had taught me at Wits years earlier. We reconnected in 1990 when he asked me to fund a media monitoring group to look at the SABC’s television news. This was the start of the Media Monitoring Project (now the Africa Monitoring Programme) with Bronwyn Keene Young and Lara Kantor as researchers. Bronwyn went on to scale great heights at eTV and Lara to be Policy Head at the new SABC. William Bird, its current head is highly regarded by all who cherish the freedom of the Press. We continued our association after John had started ABC Ulwazi and the ANC was returning from exile. Oh, we were so idealistic and so naïve – the media is now under greater threat than it ever was in the darkest days of the Apartheid government and the SABC is both infinitely less free and so much worse run.
I had come to know Andile Ngcaba, the ANC’s brilliant ‘young Turk’ who had a passion for broadcasting, communications and technology. The right-wing Radio Pretoria had started illegally broadcasting into the highly charged environment of the early ‘90s. We – the Liberty Life Foundation – had helped Andile to bring Radio Freedom back from Lusaka and its equipment was lying in boxes in Shell House (the ANC’s headquarters). We wanted to get Radio Freedom up and broadcasting – this was heady stuff in those days of transition and my ego knew no bounds. I had a brainwave – why not use the top floor of the Lawson’s building on the Wits campus to house Radio Freedom in a secure environment where the police might be slightly reluctant to barge in and shut us down. I went to see Prof van Zyl who was immediately enthusiastic and somehow got the university to turn a blind eye to our proposed, and outrageous, undertaking. Our idea, however, never came to fruition. It was shot down in flames as the ANC was not prepared to break the law – how times have changed. Andile introduced us to Lyndall Shope, his colleague, and we landed up housing not an illegal radio station, but the ANC archives, at Wits University on the premises of the School of Dramatic Art. John’s and my shared interest in radio, however, never waned.
I’ve always had an interest in, and passion for, media, radio and music. When Anton Harber and Irwin Manoim set up ‘The Weekly Mail,’ Bruce Cohen got us involved in funding the training of a new generation of journalists – many of whom have gone on to make a huge impression in the media. The Freedom of Expression Institute was one of our favourite projects, and not only because of my immense respect for Raymond Louw. Now that the media is under savage attack the corporate sector is strangely silent. Have we forgotten so much?
John had set up ABC Ulwazi in 1994. It trained community radio staff and produced educational and developmental programmes for the community radio sector. Our foundation supported them for many years. They ultimately trained more black people for the broadcast industry than any one else – the SABC included.
I digress. Legislation had changed, the Independent Broadcasting Authority (the IBA) came into being and community radio licences were to be awarded. We believed that we could get a national community licence and that all we’d have to do is demonstrate a ‘community of people’ interested in classical music.
So, with a mindset influenced by our passion for education John and I travelled to all the universities that taught music in order to enlist their support. Our first, and probably greatest, most valuable and nicest supporter was Professor Mary Rorich at Wits University. The title ‘professor’ detracts from the colourful, ebullient and energetic person Mary was. She became a crucial part of our team, a director of ClassicfM South Africa, and a presenter on the station too.
It was a fascinating learning journey. The University of the Free State, if I recall, had more organs and grand pianos than they needed. Wits was battling to replace its baby grand.
We arrived at the music department at the University of Natal. Everyone, including the famous Professor Darius Brubeck, was gathered in a room. John and I explained the concept. We would start a radio station that would play classical music, build an audience and sell advertising. We would take any profit we made and put it into teaching music. Simple really.
Professor Jürgen Bräuninger was glowering … smouldering … sinking deeper and deeper into his chair, his toes curling in his Birkenstocks … steam and smoke coming from his ears ….
Eventually he erupted. A human Vesuvius, Karakatoa … Mount St Helens.
He exploded, shot bolt upright in his chair and spat “vot u are talking about is playing Mozart und Beethoven und Haydn und …..” he spluttered, his indignation tangible…..
“Zis iz eezy to lizzen to musik. It iz chust eezy to lizzen to!!!! Vot von Schopenhauser und Berg und Bax und …. und …. vot von ze moddin und ze experimental? Ur chust going to play music vot iz eezy to lizzen to.”
We couldn’t get a word in …
“Vot von educating zee public …..”
He had a point …. A major point.
“Professor,” I eventually managed to interject, “surely we must play music that’s easy to listen to because if it’s not easy to listen to no one will listen to it.”
Simply put, if it’s not ‘easy to listen to’ is it ‘difficult to listen to’?
I continued “if we play music that no one wants to listen to, no one will listen. If no one listens no one will advertise. If there are no advertisers there’ll be no revenue and it won’t work.”
I never realized at the time how important that lesson would be. How crazy are we who love wine when we taste a perfectly pleasant wine, wrinkle our noses ever-so-slightly, and pronounce “easy drinking.” Just like easy listening ….. What do we want? Would you want to take a sip, feel your throat constrict, your epiglottis go into spasm, your tongue swell and your tonsils seize because it’s a wine that’s ‘difficult to drink?’ Imagine the conversation: “Simply divine darling. You must have another glass. You’ll love this wine …. it’s very difficult to drink.” Blink back the tears from your bulging eyes and croak “please.”
Yes, we want layers of complexity in our wine and yes, the more we come to appreciate it the more we see in it, but how can we be disdainful of wine that is approachable and, essentially, easy to drink? “Easy to drink” used to be praise for wine. Now it’s an insult.
Winemakers won’t write “easy to drink” on sales materials, and sommeliers won’t use the phrase on wine lists. The implication is that an “easy drinking” wine is unsophisticated. As a result, we’ve entered an era of difficult drinking. Where we have a wine that’s elegant, with smooth and silky tannins we have to put a spin on it: Rich tannins. Soft tannins. Calling it ‘easy to drink’ would be an insult to wine geeks and would outrage the ‘anoraks.’
Consequently consumers, in pursuit of ‘sophistication’ ignore many complex and nuanced wines in disdain of their elegance and gentility. What, pray tell, is wrong with a wine that marries modern fruit-forwardness with a beautifully elegant mouthfeel. Why sneer at a wine that allows you to actually taste your food?
So what does “easy to drink” mean, exactly?
“Easy to drink” is not a flavour description; it’s more tactile. These wines don’t scream for attention, or tire out the palate, because they’re balanced. You shouldn’t notice the alcohol, acidity or sweetness because none is overpowering. If it’s a red wine, it’s essential that its tannins are smooth. How can these qualities be bad?
Here’s what “easy to drink” doesn’t mean: simple or cheap. An easy to drink wine might be inexpensive, or it might be a R 5,000 first-growth Bordeaux. And although some easy-to-drink wines have straightforward flavors, the best are also the most complex and fascinating wines in the world – because no truly great wine, at its peak, is actually difficult to drink.