I guess it shouldn't be surprising that Hermanus in the Western Cape has at least two proper wine merchants. It is, after all, at the foot of the Hemel-en-Aarde valley, new darling of the South African wine cognoscenti.
Of course, Hermanus having been the focus of Walker Bay for as long as I can remember (and that is becoming a very long time), there are many other wine outlets, too. They range from street corner minimarkets, offering a handful of cheap and cheerful bottles, to large chain store outlets with vast premises and surprisingly little choice.
During numerous previous trips to Hermanus I have treated The Wine Village, which sits a little out of town at the entrance to the Hemel-en-Aarde valley, as a temple to much of what is Great and Good in South African wine. A generous space housing so much, enthused over by a knowledgeable staff. In fact I'd have had no reason to go anywhere else had it not been for a message from my old pal Daryl.
"Banj, go and see Gary at Wine & Co in the centre of town."
Why would I do that? Nirvana was already at The Wine Village?
But, as we were staying within a stone's throw (well almost, certainly easy walking distance) of the centre of Hermanus, it wasn't long before I stuck my head in the door of Wine & Co to see what Gary had to offer. There was an instant, almost spiritual, magnetic draw. This was a rare quality that I'd experienced only a few times before. Fairly recently at the Wine Kollective in Riebeek Kasteel and, in the beginning, Wherever Solange Raffray Was at the Moment. I never went back to The Wine Village. Sorry guys, you were great.
The shop's exterior blends in with its attractive surrounds and the interior is intimate. Gary and Siemon are attentive but not intrusive. It seems as if, despite its pocket size, everything is in there. Mostly Saffa wine but also some international gems (and a choice bottle or two of pukka Whisky).
Wine & Co's Wine Shop stands in one of the charming early 20th century streets behind the main thoroughfare through Hermanus's centre
The shop has many nooks and crannies and, believe me, there are treasures to be discovered poking their insidious noses from those shelves. They go for diversity rather than vast quantities of each individual wine. Except, maybe, for the central bins that contain the "quaffers". There are Persian rugs on the floor that both filter out the harsher sounds and possibly save the odd dropped bottle from a terminal catastrophe.
Oh no, he's orff at a tangent again ...
But first, before progressing further I'm going to digress as I'm often wont to do: We were recently running low on everyday Chardonnay at home in the UK and I had some credit on an account I have maintained at a large mail-order retailer in Norfolk. They generally supply me with splendid products from Richard Kershaw, Kruger Family and other similar wines. I tried to order 5 or 6 of my favourites and they were out of stock. Might as well try something less familiar, I think. Ticked the box for 6 bottles of some Californian stuff at £13 (R260) a bottle. It duly arrived and was clearly off. I attempted to report this via an extremely clunky process on the retailer's website. Eventually ended up phoning the company to report that something was wrong with the wine.
"Can you try another of the 6 bottles?" the operative suggested. I wasn't keen but she seemed be adamant. I've been drinking wine for more than 50 years and I know when a bottle's contents are vrot. Shan agreed with me and she drinks Chardonnay most days of her life.
We opened another bottle. If anything it was even more vrot. I tried to report back but I could not find a way to do it other than via a completely useless bot that had been preprogrammed with a restricted set of options. So I ranked the wine on the site. The winemaker replied promptly and suggested I contact the "Customer Happiness Team" for a refund. Also, this retailer has a set of super-customers that are like school prefects who seem to parse the customer feedback loop. Don't know what their role is other than to tell you to contact the Customer Happiness Team. The winemaker had already told me this on the same thread. Two of them responded in this fashion.
It is not immediately obvious from the site how to contact the Customer "Happiness" Team and somehow I ended up back in the same loop. There was a phone number through all this but it was never available. Eventually found a side street in the bot that allowed me to request a call back within a day or so. In fairness the call back was fairly prompt and my account was credited in full. But what a process and no offer to refund the actual money.
OK, so shit happens and we have to suck it up in the name of convenience. Only problem is that these companies that emulate the likes of Amazon have seen off huge tranches of "corner" shops throughout the UK. Our town used have a wine merchant, as did the next town 5 miles away.
How are Gary and Wine & Co different?
Let's start with the social intercourse. Visiting the shop is an intrinsically enjoyable experience.
If it's just a bottle or two of Shan's everyday Chardonnay you need, foraging becomes a pleasant stroll into a picturesque part of the town and a furtle around in the Wine & Co bins in the middle of the shop (see above). There is almost always one for Chardonnay. Pick up the bottles you want, exchange a few words with Siemon or Gary, pay at the counter and leave the shop with a smile on your face.
Of course your smile is splitting your face because the benchmark quaffing Chardonnay is priced at R70-ish (That's less than £3.50). So, in real terms for comparison's sake, your basic benchmark wine, handed over with a smile, is costing a fraction of its Norfolk equivalent which comes at best with a clinical transaction and at worst with more than a week of aggravation.
At the other end of the scale, Wine & Co gets most of the exclusive "allocation" stuff, including from the likes of the Sadie Family, Alheit, Mullineux, Savage, Leeu Passant, Porseleinberg and many more. For those not in the know, these are limited-quantity high-end wines that riff-raff, like you and me, have no access to (except that we do, provided we know a Gary).
But that's only the half of it and it's not long before the real fun starts ...
Above, clockwise from top left: I'd asked my nephew, Michael Tindall, and his wife and daughter, Janine and Mia, to pop down to Wine & Co to take some photos for me (I'd been too preoccupied every time I went there myself to think of grabbing some pics). Michael's thank-you was to have been the bottle of Anysbos DISDIT he is holding in his paw. Unfortunately, I evidently hadn't explained to Gary that that bottle should go home with Mike; In the mean time, to demonstrate the versatility of the Persian rugs, Mia reclines while checking out the options for her parents' evening quaff (her mother is sadly not in the picture, Mike having delegated the lichtaffen responsibilities); deprived of their DISDIT, the Tindall family bought their own bottle of home brew ... watch out for sharks, crocodiles and bilharzia; Gary and Siemon depriving Mike of his hard earned gains with a smile.
Gary pretty much remembers one's name from the first step one makes into the shop. He also remembers the names of anyone who has accompanied you, so Mark, Shan and Kerry (Shan's sister and Michael's mother), who lives in Hermanus, are all addressed as such. Some other people can do that but Gary remembers one's preferences, too. So, instead of a dodgy website (housed in Norwich) that keeps offering me wine I've explicitly said I don't like, Gary has the knowledge. Stored. In. His. Head.
And it's not long before regular customers get a WhatsApp message going something like this:
"Just opened a bottle of ... that you might like. Pop into the shop if you'd like to give it a try."
I also mentioned that Wine & Co doesn't carry vast quantities of each individual wine. That's because (and I'm surmising here):
I could go on and on but I'll leave it with this thought. Wine & Co is more than a shop. It is a gathering place for people who love wine. If you accept an invitation to "Pop into the shop" you'll probably end up in a spirited conversation with like-minded individuals who've also received the summons. What better way to spend half an hour at the end of the day. If you truly love wine you just want to share that love. If a wine is pretty special, I personally want to sip it in the company of similarly appreciative winos.
Just before I left, I actually took my own bottle of 2017 Syrah down to one of these soirees. I'd bought it direct from wine sage Francois Haasbroek at Blackwater Wine and wanted to share it with people who understood and would appreciate it. Gary and Siemon fitted the bill perfectly.
If you simply need to stop by to pick up a consignment that is too extensive to carry home in a bag, the penguins will keep an eye on your vehicle while you wait.
Wrapping up our 144 days (perhaps as illegal aliens for the last 54).