Growing up, there was constant yard work that needed to be done. My brother, sister and I tried to avoid it, but there was nowhere to hide. Mother Nature was the enemy. Rotten crab apples, reckless weeds, falling leaves…it was endless, thankless and considerably lacking in glamour. Not exactly my style. Working out in the lawn, weekend after weekend, I believed that one day, if I was very very good, that I would no longer have to do yard work ever again. Later in life, not surprisingly; I bought a condo.
Harvest to me, was yard work. Picking grapes did not look fun to me. It looked back breaking! I would listen patiently as colleagues would exalt their stories of working a harvest. Their eyes would be large with excitement, they would get that far-away look in their face…and I felt a
little sorry for them that they had clearly been swept away into a state of bliss…by yard work.
It was the middle of February and I was visiting South Africa with my friend and customer, Linda. We made good traveling partners because we agreed on most things. Until the subject of harvest came up. Linda was one of those doe-eyed earth mama harvest working wannabes. Me, not so much. I couldn't believe my six year stretch was coming to an end…because if Linda wanted to work harvest, then I had to as well. I was there in part, to entertain her. I had to play along.
6am came early. It was misting and cold. Linda and I had had a wonderful evening the night before with Mike, Phil and Zelma at Takara, and the beautiful warm evening turned into an electrical storm, with lights dancing across the horizon, followed by sheets of rain. It was very dramatic. When morning arrived, it brought the cold and wet with it and I just wanted to stay in bed. I thought for a moment that Mother Nature was going to save me! Perhaps she agreed that I had already done my share? But Linda was having none of it. "Get up." She said. And so I did.
I was grumpy and in need of coffee...but the sauvignon blanc berries beckoned and Ronald had no time for Princesses...so I grinned, or tired to, and went with him up the muddy, rainy hill.
I watched in confusion while people arrived to the vineyard in near euphoria...what was wrong with these people? What were they so excited about? They swarmed in enthusiasm to get the fruit from the vine. I felt confused and disconnected. What was I missing? Coffee? I knew they had had breakfast with Joshua, the winemaker, but what did he give them? ...I asked Joshua what he put in their muffins.
Phil called. He was waiting for us at the base of the mountain and we needed to get to Paarl for a vineyard walk with him and Edward before we drove to the winery to sort grapes. Oh joy. Mike drove us down the hill to meet him and Phil took one look at me and said, "You're wearing white?!" Clearly, he doesn't understand this isn't my bag. I climb into his car and off we go to the Vilafonte vineyards...
I shivered and shook through the vineyard explanation--and even though my feet were frozen (cold rain is better than warm rain-for the grapes anyway!) I stuck with him, numbers, data, graphs and all. If I was to be miserable, I was at least going to get something out of it. Perhaps I could finally get what he was talking about? Perhaps this was different?
Zelma arrives. "How was breakfast?" she asks. "What breakfast?" we reply. We continue with field work...looking at the map of the land owned by Vilafonte and comparing it to the land which has been planted...noticing the planted areas are in certain areas only--site specific planting. Pretty high tech. Thoughtful. Different. The blocks are also specific to a purpose--to be blended in either C or M--not both...small bell goes off. Site specific planning is unique in my world, and not at all like the other vineyards i have seen. Cool.
Phil pulls out more data. graphs, numbers...he can collect a lot of data! It means something, but does it count? How much of this really makes a difference in the bottle and how?
Zelma says we should go to breakfast. I am delighted. I am even more delighted when, on the way to breakfast, Phil asked if we need to stop at Warwick for anything as we will be passing by. Halleluiah! I change into jeans, sneaks, warm socks. My feet begin to thaw.
Toasty, fed and comfortable, I arrive at the Vilafonte winery prepared for the dread...the winery version of yard work. I stalled by taking out my camera to take pictures. Phil patiently walks me though the entire process and then Zelma does too. I learn from both. Hopping up on the platform to start sorting, I don't know...somewhere in midair I guess, I felt something shift. An investment inside me started to grow...I was the only person on that table who was going to be responsible for selling this wine. I had to ensure quality.
I picked and I sorted and I picked and I sorted...I was relentless. At one point (was it 15min or two hours later?) Zelma came to "rescue" me from sorting. Knowing i am not a fan of repetition, she feared I might be bored. I share with her my surprise at my own response to this! She gives me a knowing smile. She places me at the back end of the stemmer. Again, I am relentless--I pull out every green element to the mix. I felt responsible to do everything in my power to make sure the details were flawless. Every stem, every green bit was eradicated. I felt empowered. I was making wine with Zelma Long in South Africa!
We finished our work before I was ready to stop. It was only a half day, but it was invigorating! I went upstairs to wash off and prepare for my sit down tasting....concerned that I was now not overseeing these details...actually MISSING the work.
I tasted 2005, 2006 and 2007 vintages of Vilafonte with Linda and Zelma. Zelma tells us that 05 was an even vintage and was bottled a year ago. 06 was a windy vintage and water management was important-it was bottled a week ago. 07 was hot and was not bottled yet, but we had tank samples to taste. We taste in silence, make notes, taste again and share. I finish my line up and a light goes on. The data measured in the field is in the bottle!!!!!!!!!! FINALLY I get what Phil has been educating us on for years...they do not make wine...they grow it. Every step and every detail is measured and managed so that at the end of the day--irrespective of the vintage challenges, the same style Zelma is after is achieved year in and year out. Wow.
The wines taste related--clearly in the same family. Not at all identical but close relatives with an undeniable family relationship. Each one had their own beautiful personality and I was pleased by how much we have to look forward to. Of the many lights that went on for me during my trip, from actually enjoying the harvest experience, to finally understanding Phil's data and
its relation to the wine, the brightest one was that I never saw myself as anything more than a sales person who just happened to sell wine. From time to time, I understand a wine profoundly...but I never understood where it came from--how it could be shaped from grape to glass the way that Mike, Phil and Zelma do it. That day, in a small winery in the South of the
African Continent, something small inside me went AH HA. Thank you Zelma, Mike and Phil for this experience!!!
And thank you Linda for getting my butt out of bed!