Here is the second part of the sixth installment of ‘How we Came to Swim in the Wine Lake.’ For those of you who involuntarily missed the first five and a bit engrossing episodes, they live on in cyberspace on De Morgenzon’s facebook page. We also have a ‘blog’ on www.demorgenzon.com.
To refresh your memory: the legislation governing broadcasting in South Africa had changed and John van Zyl and I had embarked on a seemingly Quixotic quest to establish a classical music radio station. Despite the extraordinary efforts of the country’s finest media lawyers – Lauren Jacobsen and Mark Rosin – we ultimately came to the inescapable conclusion that we’d never get a national community licence. Somehow the authorities seemed determined that a community of interests that spanned the nation didn’t fit the definition of ‘community’ when it came to radio.
At that stage the National Orchestra was again floundering and about to shut its doors – to finally still the strings and mute the flutes. It took over a million Rands a month to keep an orchestra like the NSO going. In the absence of meaningful state-subsidies it’s impossible to keep a major symphony orchestra alive. We thought carefully about the situation and decided that it was better to create a vehicle that would be economically self-sustaining and would nurture and grow the classical music audience, for the sort of money that it would have taken to fund a single symphony orchestra for four months. We therefore decided to apply, at the very last minute, for one of the new commercial radio licences being offered by the IBA.
Lauren Jacobson and Mark Rosin enthusiastically and energetically supported us with both excellent advice and enduring friendship. We assembled the ‘dream team’ to win a commercial licence to bring classical music to Gauteng. John had had the brilliant idea that we speak with Classic fM in the UK which had proven a phenomenal success. John, with his gorgeous musician wife Charlotte, did an initial recce to Classic FM Holland, and then to Classic fM in London where they met with Michael Bukht, who promised his support.
With about a week before the IBA deadline Mark Rosin and I rushed to London. We met Classic fM’s chairman Sir Peter Michael, a media tycoon, wine lover and owner of a vineyard in Sonoma County, California. We also met Ralph Bernard, the CEO of their holding company and Michael Buhkt, a legendary figure in radio. We all immediately clicked and no one could resist the idea of starting a classical music station in the then ‘new’ South Africa. It took us about an hour or so to ‘do the deal.’ That night Mark and I took ourselves to Marco Pierre White’s restaurant to celebrate.
It was a temple to fine-dining – an echoingly elegant space oozing grace and opulence. We chose our food from menus presented with religious solemnity. I paged through the bible-like winelist which was about the size of the Manhattan telephone directory – and with prices that looked like the numbers therein.
We eventually settled on a bottle of Chablis which we ordered from the excessively French sommelier.
The sommelier went “oui monsieur ….. and?” looking at us expectantly, with a particularly French pout.
“And?” I replied, with a raised brow.
“But monsieur ……” the pout had plunged from the condescending to the disdainful.
“But?” I echoed?
“But monsieur eez aving zee oxtail…..” he sorrowfully sighed, nodding his head towards Mark, with an expression of melancholy disapproval.
“Yes, I know” I answered.
“But…..” a discreet clearing of his throat and lowering of his voice from sympathetic to a firm hiss – “zee wine!” A strong note of admonition crept into his voice and his posture stiffened …”zee wine you haff ordered ees white.”
“Yes, I know” I answered, bursting sarcastically to add ‘Chablis tends to be white.’
He continued, “monsieur,” with a condescending nod in Mark’s direction, “needz zee vin rouge … er … zee red wine” he helpfully translated.
Yes, it had occurred to us, however, the cost of a nice bottle of red wine – and there were only nice bottles of wine on that list – would have cost us the first 3 years profit at Classic fm (in retrospect, it would have been more like the first 10 years!)
That sommelier may have been full of crap. Fortunately most aren’t and their role is as ‘educative’ as it is matching and selling wine. But then we, and so much of the ‘wine establishment’ is also full of crap. There are billions of beer drinkers waiting, wanting, to shed their fat stomachs and beery breath, but we scare them away.
Professional Sommeliers are knowledgeable and passionate about wine and food. It is their business … it is what they talk about … it is what they think about … it is what they dream about … it is what they do … this is how they earn a living – it is their profession.
Sadly there are too few professional sommeliers in South Africa. Neil Grant, Kent Scheermeyer, Khuzelo Phuta or Tobias Brauweiler, Higgo Jacobs, Luvo Ntezo and Chris Ford, offer professional advise predicated not only on your choice of food, but coloured by a sensitive and almost instinctive determining of your price tolerance and personal preferences. They add immeasurably to your enjoyment of your dining experience and educate you. No matter how wine savvy or novice you may be, there’s always something new to try … a discovery to be made.
The South African Sommelier’s Association utilizes the term as defined by the Court of Master Sommeliers (doesn’t that sound marvelously medieval?). A Sommelier, is a trained and knowledgeable wine professional, commonly working in fine restaurants, who specializes in all aspects of wine service and training. The principal work of a sommelier is in the area of wine procurement, storage, wine cellar rotation, winelist engineering and design and also the provision of expert advice to customers.
Imagine the impact that a few more Jörg Pfützners, Neil Grants, Francis Krones, or Miguel Chans could have on the hospitality industry. We like to see South Africa as part of the international tourism mainstream, but our restaurants sorely lack a cadre of wine professionals. Look at the impact that Francois Rautenbach, who is responsible for Singita’s Sommelier Training Programme and who heads up Singita Premier Wine Direct, has on wine exports. Every visitor to Singita leaves with much more than the ‘Big 5.’ Francois and his team are developing a loyal legion of drinkers of South African wine – a group of the most influential ambassadors imaginable.
Alan Pick at the Butcher Shop and Grill runs not only a hugely successful dining establishment, but a substantial wine export business. Alan is by far the largest supporter of the Cape Winemakers’ Guild’s annual auction and a walk through the cellar with Mark Farley or Isaac Khubeka not only adds to the diner’s experience, but to his knowledge too. Similarly at Brown’s in Rivonia where all the manager’s are trained to give professional advice. Charlie Hardie was the beloved Cellar Master for many years. Well respected in the wine industry and having made wine in four different countries himself, Charlie was quite a force to be reckoned with. ‘His” cellar boasted of over 30 000 wines from around the world. Sadly he passed away in May last year – certainly a loss to the wine world.
Contrast this with the experience of a visitor who steps into a restaurant with a laminated winelist put together by a distributor who bought the ‘right’ to control the wines stocked. Yes, sadly some restaurants sell their winelists. Not only is this anti-competitive but do you, the wine drinker, want to be presented with a list of wines offered only by virtue of a distribution company having paid to refurbish the kitchen and supplied a few umbrellas? What of food pairing? Seasonal menu changes? I guess that if your idea of a fine meal is in a chain restaurant …… as many prawns as you can scoff for R 89, soft and floury as they may be, then Plonkfontein would be your beverage of choice. The criterion is the restaurant’s profit – not your pleasure.
Or even worse are the franchised eateries in which the norm is mass production, the food industrially processed, the coffee ‘bottomless’, and the microwave the most used piece of equipment in the kitchen. The success of this end of the market testifies to the demand that exists. Perhaps we should box better wines for them?
Unfortunately there are virtually no funds being made available for Sommelier training and education. Most hotel owners and restauranteurs are unwilling to invest in the training and development of wine professionals. Government is too myopic to encourage and facilitate the process, despite budgeting huge amounts for ‘job creation’ (most of which will go to waste). Tourism is the world’s largest industry, and food and wine a crucial element in it.
Finally, we must recognize and encourage the contributions made by The Cape Wine Academy and ‘Let’s Sell Lobster’ – an extraordinary training initiative driven by the irrepressible Farsi Malherbe, Dale den Dulk, Paul Rowett and Allister Kreft, and their enthusiastic imaginative and creative colleagues.