*Fuzzy Photos and Unreliable Tasting Notes
Handy chronological index at the bottom of this blog ...
Shan said: "Why did you do that? If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Trouble was I'd already done it. "Done what," you may ask.
Weebly provides a facility whereby one can change dates on one's blogs. In my mind, it appeared to provide the perfect facility for archive retrieval in my dotage (or for anyone else who was perverse enough to check up on my dodgy past. Posthumously, maybe.)
I did a test on one of them and everything seemed kushti so I tried a few more.
Suddenly I could access them no longer ... not from Weebly's editor, anyway.
Those who still had the Uniform Resource Locator (URL) links could. Shan tested. Unfortunately, we send info back and forth on WhatsApp so frequently, it may have become a life's work digging them out. But it seems I sent all the missing URLs (and more besides) to my Cuz, Stuart. Thank Cuz
I may yet be able to retrieve the situation but this is a bit of a precaution. Besides, if there's anyone who wishes to start reading the early blogs chronologically (I should be so lucky!), there's an added benefit there, too. Otherwise one has to view them in Weebly's reverse order.
What have I learned from this, then? Listen to my wife.
Fuzzy Photos and Unreliable Tasting Notes
Having selfishly imposed a personal constraint on our initial tribute to Solange, here's hoping forgiveness is in order as it was what it said on the box: a personal tribute. The exciting thing, though, is that endeavours to verify elements of the story resulted in a mine of additional information. Gaps now need to be filled.
What was it that made Solange so special? Perhaps some of this came out in Shelley-ann's and my tribute but there was so much more that emerged from the background work.
Durban's Doyenne of Wine
The key quality that elevated her from other front-of-house wine specialists to Durban's Doyenne of wine was her ability to relate to so many people. From wine-appies on the threshold of a life of appreciation to serious collectors. From newspaper editors to shop assistants. To anyone who shared her love of wine, in fact.
In recent conversations with her family, it emerged that Solange enjoyed dropping the names of the great and the good. This is said with affection, though, and Michelle Sutherland, her youngest daughter, was quick to agree that she treated everyone equally, irrespective of their social standing, particularly those who showed a keen common interest in life. This is rarer than one might think. The wine world is littered with "experts" who somehow breathe more rarified air than we lesser mortals.
How best to do this then? A straight bat with a short biography? A list of the tributes I received when the floodgates opened after initially disappointing responses to requests for background? Mix the two up a bit?
Let's start with a bit of biography and see where that goes. Perhaps appropriate quotes will drop easily into the narrative ...
Before wine was invented
When Durban wine-lovers were asked about Solange and her signature French accent, no-one was ever sure: "She's from France," one would say but, if you asked another the answer would be: "Definitely Mauritius."
I have no detail of how her ancestors came to be in Mauritius, but that is where she was born, on the 22nd of July, 1930. It was quite exciting for me to discover this tidbit because 21 years later, when she was coming of age, I was coming into the world.
That's enough of my personal nostalgia, the circumstances of Solange's 21st were perhaps a little less sanguine. Her father, Joseph Roger Bruneau, had terminal leukaemia and he and his wife Yvonne had travelled en famille to South Africa so he could get the treatment that was unavailable in Mauritius.
Tragically, Joseph's sojourn in South Africa did not last long, unlike Yvonne's. Solange's mère appeared, looking youthful on the cover of my previous blog, much to the delight of its readers. She was accompanying her daughters to a polo match in the late 1980s.
First pic above is of Solange in her late teens shortly before she left Mauritius. A career in wine wasn't really on the agenda until later. Farming in the KZN Midlands was, though. The other photo is of her first-born twins being administered a different kind of nectar by their proud parents in 1956.
It might have been a while before Mlle Bruneau appeared on the Durban wine scene but it wasn't long before she became Mrs Fitchet. In 1953 she married Cedara graduate, Geoff, and ended up farming at Montshonga Dairy Farm near Boston in the KZN Midlands. Then along came the twins, Marie-Claire and Marie-Anne in 1956, followed two years later by a son, Martin in1958.
At this point in the narrative, the trail goes quiet, which is often the case as families explore their nascent years. Pictures of Solange below are of an elegantly-dressed French mother, an elegance that accompanied her into her Durban Doyenne years a couple of decades later.
All immaculate with the twins in 1957 and again with Martin included in 1959. As with many families (I know this because mine was one) a laat lammetjie in the form of Michelle arrived in September, 1965.
Michelle found her given name all too formal and referred to herself as Mimi or Mym. Still does.
So the trail continues to be quiet, pretty much until 1977 when Solange and Geoff were divorced.
It may even be appropriate to describe the 70s as the "wilderness years" in Solange's life in wine. Much of the background I've been able to lay my hands on skips that epoch.
Here Solange is captured with her mother, Yvonne, in the early 70s. I had guessed they were visiting a rural agricultural show or event that demanded some decorum. I covered the Royal Agricultural Show in Pietermaritzburg around that time and had to wear a suit and tie for a week while circumnavigating cattle, horse jumping and other farming type stuff. The ladies of the day had to be elegantly dressed to visit the members' enclosure behind the grandstand for tea and perhaps a glass of something more substantial. Turns out I was wide of the mark and our two ladies were at a wedding anniversary in Boston, KZN and caught on camera by the late Greig Stewart. No wonder it's such a great pic.
Wine becomes a thing
It is not clear how long it took Solange to accumulate her awe-inspiring knowledge of the wines of the world but it regularly happens that women, faced with a new life, absorb knowledge at a prodigious rate. The celebrated South African botanical artist, Cythna Letty came into her own when in her late 60s but the interest was almost certainly kindled a lot earlier.
There's an urban myth that Solange's new husband, Jean Raffray, whom she married late in 1977, was influential in her thirst for expertise in fine wines. There are also links to Solange's own father, who may have "initiated her at a very early age to the wines of St Emilion and St Julien" although she had been a 15-year-old before she had been allowed an undiluted Sauternes. Also, it appears that Jean had recognised his new wife's acute tasting abilities. His father had evidently had "one of the best wine cellars in Mauritius" and maybe that was how he recognised her knowledge of French wines and also had the connections for finding her a position at Rebel.
What we know with verifiable provenance is that Solange joined the Durban wine scene, at the latest in 1979, with a prodigious knowledge. Two years later she is described in the trade press as having "a great knowledge of French wines and not forgetting of course her interest and knowledge of the South African wine market".
The first picture above is of Solange and Jean. The middle describes Solange as a wine personality and the last recalls a wine festival of the day and gives some idea of the prices in 1981.
I mentioned at the beginning of this blog that she nurtured "wine-appies on the threshold of a life of appreciation". I cannot vouch that Russell Cleaver was ever an "appie" or whether he continues to swig to this day but his wine comment suggests that he was one of the earliest to discover Solange's mentorship:
"About time for recognition. Solange was a breath of fresh air in a sometimes snobby wine community. I often stopped in at Rebel in the morning, when she was not busy, for a chat. I think I was the youngest she would invite to tastings."
I agree with the snobby bit, too, Russell. Solange managed to avoid that even though she revered the "great and the good".
Recognition of the Raffrays' wine prowess definitely appears to have emerged from the time Solange spent at Rebel and given that the central Durban shop was the KZN centrepiece of a huge chain with wine writer and educator, Tinus van Niekerk at the helm of its vinous activities, it would certainly have helped put her on the map.
During that period, Solange and Jean lived just around the corner in the Gables on the Esplanade overlooking Durban Bay. This would have been convenient for Rebel and it seems some lucky patrons were invited to their home for soirées:
"During the early 1980’s, my husband at the time and I were invited to a party by Solange and Jean when they were living in an apartment on the Esplanade. They introduced me to the music of Joe Dassin, which I’ve loved ever since!" says Nicole Le Grange.
"I was very fond of Solange and of her dear husband, (Jean). Solange was so willing to share her knowledge, and all we members of Wino’s became deeply fond of her. I still have a photograph of myself, (hugely pregnant with my daughter), sitting beside Solange, at an early meeting of Wino’s in a penthouse on the Esplanade. The Raffrays also introduced me to French music and French culture generally, which has perpetuated itself in my son’s marrying a beautiful French girl, and now living in France." Joy Savage replies.
"I fondly remember Solange. She conducted the Inaugural meeting and tasting of Winos in March 1983. We kept in contact for a long while after that. I must add that Winos still meets monthly after close on 38 years - now Covid permitting!" confirms Liz Cluver.
While all this was going on, the Esplanade apartment was providing a Durban home for Mym to live and entertain her friends in. I mention this because Solange was fundamentally a human being. Much like fellow members of the worldwide French diaspora there was a more liberal attitude to so-called underage drinking. Wine was often consumed by all the family with meals even if the younger diners' glasses had been watered down a bit. A couple of Mym's friends agreed:
"Solange was an amazing lady. She was my bestie, Mym's, dearest Mom. I was 13 when I first met her. Loved her amazing character and how she loved her family. She put up with all our nonsense behaviour even when she found us jumping on her bed singing Abba songs. Always laughing with us even if we were naughty. Like tasting her wine collection even when we were under age. A special lady who deserves a tribute. Cheers Solange," recalls Gail Hicks.
"I agree, Solange was a legend, my best friend Michelle Sutherland’s mom, a wonderful soul. Solange was so knowledgeable in wine and whisky. Such fond memories of our times together. This is an amazing flashback and tribute to dear Solange," adds Caroline Rouillard Leclezio.
Mym, herself, confirmed this in a recollection: "One could walk the streets safely. I recall mom, myself, another lady and her daughter (who remains a great friend) walking to the Catholic cathedral on Saturdays for evening mass without any worries. I used to get so bored in church - only enjoyed the part when we received the holy sacrament (small round host bread)."
Maybe a bit of communion wine, too, Mym and Caroline?
By the end of her time at Rebel, Madame Raffray was hobnobbing with the great and the good from Stellenbosch, had a few qualifications to her name and was assisting wine author Tinus van Niekerk to develop and run courses in Durban under the umbrella of the Natal Mercury Wine Festival. At that time Rebel was touting her as its "International Specialist".
If, indeed, Solange's wine development had started around 1977, she had certainly grasped her professional career with the spirit of the converted
By the time she was readying herself to move on from Rebel, we can see from the pictures below that our Mauritian consultant hadn't lost sight of the developing wine industry in South Africa's Western Province.
In the first frame above Solange is standing next to Danie de Wet, who would be familiar to rugby fans and aficionados of de Wetshof wine alike; the towering dude on the left resembles my uncle but isn't and I'd really like to know who he could have been, dominating the foreground like that. In the second frame she's with Dr Julius Lazlo who was cellar master at Die Bergkelder and credited as a visionary in the upgrading of South Africa's vineyards at that time.
After her meteoric rise in the early 80s, it is not completely clear how Solange came to up stakes and move to Montana Cellars in December, 1983. Peter Hoyer was around at the time and he spoke glowingly of his wine-buying partner's "special way of finding the right wine for the right price."
This resonated with Shelley-ann and me, who were starting a new chapter in our wine journey but needed to drink the best plonk most of the time so we could occasionally splash out on something BIG. Both Peter and I have long since discovered some of the nectar emanating from the Swartland and it seems sad that Solange was not around to experience this.
Peter and Solange had both made forays to the Cape Winelands in the 80s and often focused on what was new and exciting.
Interestingly, some of the those wines like Allesveloren Tinta Barocca were showcasing relatively little known varieties that drifted out of favour and are now making a comeback more than 30 years later. Allesveloren, of course, is bang in the middle of the Swartland.
Pinotage was one of those varieties, too, and there may have been no greater exponent than Middelvlei's StilJan Momberg (pictured on the left), one of the top dogs in the Cape wine scene on the late 80s.
Solange must have carried out a deft balancing act between her prominent role in the sometimes snobby Durban Wine Society, many of whose members turned up their noses at any mention of Pinotage and had/have done for decades, and flogging Middelvlei Pinotage to the Berea appies who were grateful for something refined and approachable to drink.
This balancing act is the skill that also enabled her to curate wine strategies for the relatively impecunious. This piece by Durban Journalist Anne Stevens highlights the breadth of what Solange had to offer. Of course one has to put oneself into that timezone to imagine La Tâche or Lafite at R80. That same bottle today would set you back something like R100,000 but, then, oligarchs and hedge-fund managers weren't quite so thrusting in their escalating search for status symbols. I wonder what Mme Raffray would've made of that?
Meerlust Rubicon was then South Africa's answer to Lafite at something like R4 a bottle. Today you're looking at around R460.
With the move to Montana Cellars, the Raffray family moved on to the Berea, the hill overlooking the Indian Ocean and another short journey to work. Many of their acquaintances will recall interests in matters other than wine. I believe there was a dimension beyond wine, a sort of philosophy, maybe typically French, that Solange expressed in more sociable company.
At that time, living close by, Michael Green, the then Editor of the Daily News, was either thinking about or already writing his own autobiography and was contemplating the meaning of life. He recalls in Around and about: Memoirs of a South Africa Newspaperman"
"I lost several friends who died too young ... I mentioned this in sorrowful tones to Solange Raffray, who comes from France (sic) and became a wine consultant in Durban. She replied with a phrase in French. 'What does it mean?' I asked. 'The beautiful flowers die young, the weeds go on forever.'"
Montana and Solange lasted for a little over 5 years while great wine boffins came and went. A few of these are captured below.
In the first frame Solange is with Jeff Grier, who was cellarmaster at Villiera and went on to become a Cape Wine Master in 1987. And then there is the ubiquitous Tinus van Niekerk, under whom she had worked at Rebel and may or may not have had a different role by the time he showed up for this photo opportunity at Montana Cellars in 1985. I particularly liked the the last frame of Solange with Spatz Sperling because they had shared somewhat parallel journeys.
Spatz was a year younger than Solange and they had arrived in South Africa in the same year, from Germany and Mauritius respectively. He ended up as patriarch of Delheim, a widely-respected influence on the Cape wine industry, dying relatively recently in 2017.
Solange and Jean found time to travel at this time and visited Europe several times in the 80s and 90s. I cannot vouch for its being fact but I sincerely hope she got the chance to sip the Lafite and La Tâche on their home turfs in the Medoc and in the Côte de Nuits.
Montana Hypercellars came under new ownership in mid-1988. I have no way of knowing whether this was a cue for Solange to move on or whether she was wooed away to the glamorous new Cellar in the old railway workshop in Pine Street. Michael Green wrote in the Daily News of June 27, 1989 that she was already installed in the new emporium but there are pictures from the 1990 Nederburg Auction with her sitting alongside the owners of of Liberty Liquors, suggesting it must've been an amicable transition.
After all, why wouldn't it be. Solange may not have suffered fools but she was passionate about wine. I last visited her in the Cellar in 1992 when she was genuinely moved that we'd taken time out of a holiday to visit her.
In the four pictures above, the first is repeated from a more personal tribute as Solange's last gig capped a rich career and even became somewhat of a tourist attraction. Next she is with chef, Franco Burlando, in a February 7, 1996 Daily News cutting, opening a Durban women's club. Then comes a shot with her wine mentor and husband, Jean, who died in 1999. The last frame is a post-retirement shot of Solange looking chic with Mym in 2000.
With all her offspring and their father in 2000. In the front row, L-R: Marie-Anne, Solange, Marie-Claire and back row, L-R: Mym, Geoff and Martin. Mym was married the following year and the family is seen with new husband Andrew Sutherland, who sadly died of a stroke in 2011.
In the penultimate frame, from December 2004, La Grand Mère with her youngest grandchild, Brenna Sutherland. In the Last frame, still with a twinkle in her eye and do we, perhaps, sense a hint of mischief while posing for this 2007 photo with Mym.?
Solange died a year later in September 2008.
A votre santé madame, c'était un honneur de vous avoir connu.
I had always wanted to write a personal tribute to Solange based on Shelley-ann's and my personal recollections. It is relatively simple to string together a few anecdotes and come up with a piece of whimsy. Our first foray seems to have been enjoyed by those who knew her but I was irked by the nagging feeling that a follow-up with some concessions to chronology and fact checking might also be appropriate.
Exploring this idea with Marie Claire, Marie-Anne, Martin and Mym I was convinced that it would be worth having a go. They concurred with Mym volunteering to curate their input. I suppose I have used about a third of this. If there is a demand to catalogue all of the material in a blog archive, I would be happy to host this on my website after some time to catch my breath. Actually, an expanded afterword is a strong possibility as a few more details emerge from the snowball effect, such as some additional European adventures ...
In the meantime I hope you enjoyed this slightly more formal biographic account and hope it answers a few questions those of you who knew her fleetingly may have had
Before I go, I would like to explode a fiction: in some of the underlying material Solange is described as "one of the top wine consultants in Durban".
Zut alors! There was only one Solange. She built that bridge between the rich and famous and the eager entrants with a thirst for knowledge. Mme Raffray was much revered in Durban because she had time for everyone. She had had no reason to focus her attention on two young lovers in shorts and slops who were sponges for the knowledge she had to share, but she did. She also procured wine for the connoisseurs if KZN.
Twenty years in wine at the top her game, unsurpassed in what she did.
*Fuzzy Photos & Unreliable Tasting Notes
A few years ago, while cycling in a roughly Northerly direction from Chagny into the Côte-d'Or, I conceded to myself that I was in pursuit of the Holy Grail. This was a journey that had commenced more than 40 years previously.
The starting point had been subtropical Durban on the East Coast of South Africa.
The sunlit perfection of the Burgundian afternoon, combined with birdsong and the traffic-free roads of Montrachet, gave pause for thought. The clarity of commitment to reaching this milestone began to dawn.
So I like wine, OK? And Shan and I occasionally allow ourselves the luxury of a very special bottle of it. Not too frequently, mind. My dearly beloved has often to content herself with Chardonnay d'Collapso from Tesco's Aussie cellar. Philosophically, we convince ourselves that an ascetic life for most of the time makes the pleasure of a truly scrumptious bottle all the greater once we have assembled enough in the piggy bank for a fine Meursault or Montrachet.
At this point I should pause to salute our friend Joanna who confessed recently that, as a young person on a French holiday with her parents, she had saved her entire per diem allowance for the whole duration so she could buy herself one bottle of Montrachet. You have to know Joanna.
This is leading somewhere. There was one person in particular who fired the starting pistol, sending a couple of naïve Durbanites on their journey. Her name was Solange Raffray and she mentored us through our early strategy of famine and feast. Ascètes for a month in order to become Sybarites for a day.
Actually, thanks to Solange we didn't suffer too much for our ascetic ways.
I'll explain after I get to Le Montrachet.
Such was the allure of this fabled piece of terroir, set by Solange more than 4 decades previously, I had to get there under my own steam in 2017 and return with a fuzzy photo for Shan to improve immeasurably with her Fauvist interpretation above. And, no, they are not lavender fields. Fauvism allows some latitude with colour choices. I feel Solange would have understood.
Returning to our narrative: Shan's and mine started with a courtship that involved a lot of wine. We were young and I doubt we misbehaved any more than most of our contemporaries. A year or so after we married we managed to buy a small house with a small verandah facing the general direction of the Indian Ocean.
Add some hand-me-down patio furniture, a bottle of wine and, depending on the mood, Telemann or Talking Heads on the turntable, and we would talk the night away.
I think Solange might have lived a stone's throw from us but we intersected one Saturday morning just down the hill from our respective homes where a superstore had been erected and dedicated to Bacchus.
Shan and I dropped in to investigate, as you do when you're new in the neighbourhood. Being a sunny Durban morning, I'm pretty sure we were scruffily attired in t-shirts, rugby shorts and slops. It would have been the Summer of 1983/4.
The store was vast with its shiny shelves and fluorescent lighting under which shoppers scurried about, loading their trolleys with trays of Castle Lager, bottles of cane spirit and cases of mixers. It took us a moment before we became aware of a cosy nook complete with more subdued lighting and ambience. There was a woman sitting quietly at a desk. We glanced in her direction and she smiled back.
We were drawn to this haven surrounded by wine that seemed to increase in quality and gravitas as we approached the desk. Before we got there its occupant had arisen and come to greet us. She was immaculate, our scruffiness a foil for her presence.
"May I help you?" her voice was inviting; husky with a beguiling trace of a French accent.
"Actually, we just came in for a look," I replied.
"We've recently moved in to our new house 3 minutes up the road," Shan added and turned to me suggesting, "maybe a bottle of wine for this evening?"
At no point did we feel under pressure or rushed. In fact out new acquaintance seemed to be enjoying the company of the two vagabonds in front of her. After quite a while we were starting to feel embarrassed, taking up so much of her time, but she reassured us. It became obvious that she had already understood a fair bit about our requirements without even a suggestion that we should buy this or that wine.
We did eventually leave with a bottle of white wine to consume that evening. Nothing special but it hit the right spot. By this stage Solange had introduced herself. It was clear she knew more about her subject than anyone I'd encountered previously.
"I'm Shelley-ann and this is Mark," Shan volunteered.
"Enchantée," Solange nodded, "Shelleée and Marque."
Sadly we have never had any of our own pictures of encounters such as these but Solange's family came to the rescue with this one and some others. More about that in Part 2 of this blog. We didn't go home with the Champagne that day, but ...
Hobo Harrisons foraging for their veranda and Solange was not phased one little bit ... a well-trodden path developed between Montana and Montpelier Rd.
Solange did more than sell us the odd bottle of wine, she adopted us.
Saturday mornings became our oasis, something to relish after a week of work and study. I was finally completing my education under my own steam; IT job by day, Varsity in the evenings. It was a lonely life for Shan a lot of the time. She worked during the day but was a study widow by night.
It got to the stage where we'd pop in to Montana in the late morning, peer into the nook and be greeted with "Shelleée, Marque ..." and stories of the latest deliveries. Whenever there was another customer, usually with a lot more to spend than we did, we'd be greeted with the refrain: "Don't go, I'll help this customer first but I was thinking about you this week and I have a wine ..."
We'd wait, happily basking, and before long we'd leave with the latest "find" that our budget could accommodate. Maybe a Rooiberg Grand Cru for R0.99 a bottle. Or we'd push the boat out for something like a Weltevrede Privé for R1.49 ... skande!. My dear wife being solely a white-wine drinker, it didn't often extend to a red but I was occasionally rewarded with something like a Backsberg Dry Red for about R1.55. We seldom bought in bulk. There was no point, it was part of our pleasurable social discourse.
Solange was patient with us and we were learning. We must have crossed the Rubicon (sadly not Meerlust, that was still to come) after a few months. Solange took Sheleée aside and suggested we might like to join Durban's great and good (in wine terms, anyway) for a relatively informal mid-week evening wine tasting at Montana. The perspicacity of the woman was that she'd worked out (maybe with Shan's help) that I wouldn't have to trudge up to Varsity on that particular evening.
Well, it also meant my first outing to a wine gig where I was actually dressed properly. We duly arrived with me wearing my favourite tie. We stood in the aisles of this megastore while our host introduced us to doctors, directors, accountants and lawyers with one thing in common: a love of wine and plenty of spondulix to spend on it ...
Most of those guys knew what they were doing so Solange was our wine-tasting coach for the evening.
So there I was, letting a sip roll around my tongue. It all seemed to make sense. I communicated this with a nod to our hostess.
"But Marque, now you must let it move to the front of your mouth and get some air through it," Solange instructed, "purse your lips and imagine you are whistling backwards."
I think my brain understood the concept but forgot to communicate this to my lips. A fine stream of Backsberg Cabernet Sauvignon squirted out of my mouth and cascaded neatly all the way down my silk tie.
Red-wined and red-faced, I wanted crawl behind the closest row of shelves.
Sheleée and Solange weren't helping, either, now doubled over with giggles.
But Solange was always the consummate professional, constantly solicitous of her clientele as depicted in this delightful photo from a Royal Hotel wine function:
Solange is determined not to spill a drop of what looks like bubbly while she dances across the floor to the table in the foreground. Seated from l to r are Mystery Guest, Megan de Beyer, Gavin Jack and Peter Hoyer. A gold star for the reader who can name the mystery guest.
Our new strategy
Evidently I didn't disgrace myself terminally with the wine-streaked-tie incident. In fact it may even have hastened our progress into the inner circle. The final glass of the evening was a soupçon of Meursault. Shelleée's eyes glazed over. It was the first step in her journey to becoming renowned in concentric circles as "Chardonnay Shan".
Clearly we weren't going to be able to drink the Côte-d'Or's finest every day. Solange nodded, understanding. "This is where I come in. I will help you with a strategy," she winked.
When starting out with FP&UTN it was intended to describe a journey in which the notes became a little more reliable as time wore on. Initially a bit of random awareness had rubbed off from parental consumption during my late teens and early 20s but it was only when Solange came into our lives that we were introduced to the art of appreciating wine.
Our verandah played host (with occasional guests) to a classic blend; fine-upstanding budget (mostly white) wines for 27 days with something special on the last Saturday of a four week cycle. Solange was always careful to suggest, with accurate descriptions, rather than choose the list. Every two or three months our Saturday tipple would be something totally splendid, more often than not Chardonnay from the sainted vines of the Grand Cru plots of Burgundy.
As I mentioned at the outset of this tribute to Durban's doyenne of wine, we have more or less maintained this strategy over the intervening years and the result has been that fabulous wine remains a treat with which to celebrate occasions and milestones.
The names of individual wines from that time have been blurred by the decades but I do remember Solange introducing us to a delicious Colombard and to Allesveloren Tinta Barocca at the budget end of the spectrum. These were grape varieties much vilified during the intervening period but have achieved a Phoenix-like trendiness in the last few years with the new wave of South African winemakers. Our guide had vision.
There were a few of the slightly more affordable monthly-treat wines that spring to mind, viz. Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon, Meerlust Rubicon, L'Ormarins Blanc Fumé and, of course, Backsberg that were particular favourites. A little bit of irony because my dearly beloved "hates" Sauvignon Blanc these days.
The strategy survives in 2017. Evening sunshine with a "lowly" Bourgogne near Beaune and an anniversary Meursault later in the year. Solange would probably not have approved of the glasses and the Meursault was not a Grand Cru but these are the realities of living in a motorhome, especially in one's driveway while renovations are taking place.
We left Durban for the UK in 1987. One the last things we did was to bid farewell to Solange. We had already stashed a case of Meerlust Rubicon in our container, along with a car and all our furniture.
Our mentor was a little subdued at our parting although she was full of enthusiasm for the opportunities it would afford us to visit her beloved France. We said all those things about staying in touch but we were young and I don't think she altogether believed us.
What with the loss of my brother in Cape Town in 1988 and the birth of our cherished daughter in 1989, it was Christmas 1992 before I managed to get back to Durban. The three of us were staying with my parents in Mooi River and Shan and I used the excuse to go foraging for some decent wine.
"Do you know if Solange Raffray is still at Montana?" I asked my Mum.
"I don't think so," she replied. "I believe she has a new place in the Workshop. It's the old railway building that's been done up and all rather swish."
"Sheleée, Marque," Solange cried out as we walked into the Cellar, I thought you were in England now and Woodee lives in Mooi River?"
Solange had found her niche. The Cellar was truly befitting the gracious doyenne of the Durban wine scene.
"What are you doing in Durban?" she continued
"We couldn't possibly have come back to Natal without visiting our wine guru!" we exclaimed.
"You came down from Mooi River to see me?" there was a catch in her husky voice.
"Of course," we nodded, at which point her eyes welled up.
That was the last time we saw Solange. We chose a dozen of the best wines the Cape had to offer before wending our way back up to the KZN Midlands.
"I'm sure Woodee will enjoy those," our mentor waved us goodbye.
Woody did, but not as much as some of the Christmas guests.
"We didn't know you had such good taste in wine," one of the guests exclaimed to my Dad.
Dad accepted the compliment and then glanced at me and added: "Mark went to Durban to get them from Solange Raffray."
The guest nodded, knowingly. "Of course, Solange, where else?"
She had become a KZN institution.
To be continued ...
If there had been one person, other than Shan, I would have wanted to share my successful WSET formal qualification with, it would have been Solange. My original intention was to say a bit more about that in rounding off but recent research has encouraged me to continue into more of a biographical sequel (see below).
Not too many grand credentials I'm afraid: just love the stuff and have done for all my adult life. I also love writing about enjoyable moments and will admit to lighting the odd touch-paper to foment a little controversy.
OK, I'm a bit of an amateur when it comes to wine tasting. Here are some reasons:
In mitigation, here are a few justifications for having an opinion:
So here are a few random thoughts from Fuzzy Photos and Unreliable Tasting Notes (FB&UTN).
The purpose of wine tasting
A primary purpose of wine tasting for an individual would be to find out what that person likes and to set a course for future purchases or rejections, wouldn't it?
It would be extremely helpful if so-called "independent" tastings reflected that, so that our individuals would know, objectively, how to narrow down the choice for their own more focused attempts to single out a favourite.
If we introduce marketing into this equation it all becomes a bit subjective. Perhaps even an oxymoron? Especially if the tasting outcome is massaged for different audiences.
I recognise that it is almost impossible to achieve perfect disinterest but we can at least try. A simple lingo that avoids superlatives or irrelevant epithets wherever possible is probably about as close as we can get. A set of pre-defined, generally-accepted terms within a logical framework also works. WSET is not perfect put certainly the most appropriate I've come across for creating a level playing field.
Come to think of it, what is the point of a wine rating system that has scores from 0-100 when you only see 90-100. I've heard the argument that wine gurus just don't rate or mention those that deserve < 90. How many wines are there in the world, leaving us with an ocean-full of unmentionables and a helluva process to find out about them?
Then there are the badges (and potentially associated freebies). Why did I choose to buy these particular South African wines?
It certainly wasn't because of the gaudy labels. I probably consulted the Platter Wine Guide before hand, sure. I chose this DeMorgenzon Reserve Chardonnay 2016 for this illustration because of its otherwise unimpeachable pedigree. The Platter sticker was irrelevant but less so than the "Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show, Trophy". What does it even mean. And the "International Wine Challenge, Trophy Winner?" Goodness, what a pretentious title without a scintilla of provenance that I could identify.
The other two are wines that relied on nothing other than their own cognisances.
Choosing wine is a minefield. It can be a combination of consulting reputable guides, subscribing to respected publications and, certainly, one's personal tasting. At some point in this process, though, individuals are going to have to develop their own cornucopias of trusted individuals.
These can be knowledgable friends, acclaimed gurus or good old-fashioned tried-and-tested wine merchants. This household has one or two of the latter. As an example, I'll name one character who did more to start us on a devoted wine journey than any other.
At that time Shelley-ann and I lived in Durban in South Africa, hardly the nexus of the international wine world and looked down upon by the Cape wine "aristocracy".
Enter Solange Raffray. I'm not going to spill the beans here because I will soon be compiling a blog dedicated to this fine purveyor on wine. To her, her customers, however humble, were the complete focus. We learned to appreciate fine Meursault while supping humble Cape Colombard to save up for those occasional treats. As I said, more of this in a few weeks.
Varietal or variety?
Syrah and Sémillon are grape varieties. Wines claiming to be made exclusively from the Sémillon grape variety are just that. One would hope they also exhibit the varietal characteristics associated with the Sémillon grape. But these are hugely variable depending upon harvest options, choices of fermentation and maturation processes, age and, increasingly, the terroir.
It is therefore perfectly feasible for, for example, Riesling, or even Chenin Blanc, to exhibit the same varietal characteristics of Sémillon. As could Liquifruit Lemon and Apple flavour.
I'll just leave that thought out there ...
Is Orange (Natural) Wine an aperitif?
Don't get me wrong, I love most of it but it is often more akin to drinking a lovely dry (slightly lower alcohol) sherry. Now, there are some people who drink many white wines interchangeably with a crisp sherry. I could easily be converted.
One very fine example would be Fabien Jouves Orange Voilée from Cahors.
Sitting this Sunday morning listening to some Fleetwood Mac "1960-1970 Rare Live and Demo Sessions" ... Peter Green's death was announced yesterday and I wanted to marshal my thoughts of this extraordinary Man of the World. An iconic musician anecdotally described by his black contemporaries as the only white guitarist to GET the blues.
Paraphrasing Jimi and various other luminaries, blues guitar is less about the notes you play than about the gaps between the notes. In my opinion, it also needs to have that raw element that earns it the name "Blues". Yeah, yeah, I know purists may well argue but; do yourself a favour and catch some old live recordings. Try to imagine yourself in the audience and being transported by the emotional energy right there beside you.
I was lucky enough to see Peter Green in the New Theatre, Oxford 20 years ago. His Splinter Group was paired with John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers for the evening.
This was obviously post breakdown and PG was very much amongst friends, on the stage and in the audience. He was obviously struggling to concentrate for more than a couple of minutes so he and another supremely proficient guitarist would share a number. PG would start playing lead and at some point into the song would drift away. His fellow guitarist would sense what was happening and pick up the riff. I could say it was seamless but I'd be lying. Not that there was a discernible pause. The second guitarist was too good for that. Perhaps even technically better than Greeny himself. But it was as if the song had suddenly lost something.
To me that was what defined Peter Green. The playing came from somewhere deep inside.
I first heard Fleetwood Mac as a relative latecomer. I remember where it was. In the middle of the Transkei in South Africa in 1969. I was driving with Gorgs and Marshall to Cape Town and the song was Oh Well. I bought the single (Part 1 and 2) and still have it. In those days it was way out man, way out.
Any blues fan will know that Fleetwood Mac went on to become one of the most successful money making machines in pop after Greeny departed the group he had initiated only three years earlier. Mick Fleetwood described his friend and their parting with some reverence in a BBC interview in 2017 (see below for the link). Commercial success seemed irrelevant to Greeny to the extent that many music lovers may be surprised in this day and age that he wrote Black Magic Woman. I didn't know that when I was first blown away by Santana's Abraxas in 1970. He also wrote a good many other great songs that stir one's memory.
Sadly, for obvious reasons, none of the accounts I have read over the past 24 hours has consulted Gary Moore (1952-2011).
Moore may have been Greeny's number one fan. One of the all time must-have Blues Albums is GM's Blues For Greeny, released in 1995. This was played on PG's '59 Les Paul. Initially Greeny had loaned the guitar to Moore, his teenage protégé. Later, when PG was seriously out of pocket, he persuaded Gary to buy it from him.
I could swear I heard an interview* with Gary Moore on the car radio back in the 80s/90s in which he related a car journey with Peter Green.
"I won't be needing that guitar any more," Greeny said.
"Oh no," replied Gary, "what'll you do with it?"
"I'd like you to have it. Would you buy it from me?"
"It must be worth thousands," Gary responded, "I could never afford it."
"How much can you afford?" Greeny came back.
Gary came back with an amount much close to a hundred than thousands of pounds.
Always an admirer of Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac, this elevated the man to godlike status for me.
BBC link https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-53540860?fbclid=IwAR1d8CznofiYi3XBmZHWiRvkzRTVi_j4dbsfr7dDf4vzmixOzbT9HVPbYoA
* I have a pretty good memory for things like that but I could gave heard incorrectly. Please comment if you violently disagree ...
No fuzzy photos, shurely, ed?
Rule #1 for aspirant photographers: never mention the aspiration to Working Professional Light Monkeys (WPLMs). Rule #2: if your actual friends are WPLMs, they may concede that you can construct the occasional well-formed sentence but never a picture. Rule #3: If a WPLM gives you any praise, for whatever reason, ever, be very happy. There are some fairly legitimate reasons for this. I'll elaborate later.
In the meantime, I have always loved taking photographs, ever since my Gran, Molla, gave me a Kodak Brownie 127 when I was old enough to aim and press the shutter button. Most pics I took with it ended up in-frame. I took relatively few as film was strictly rationed. This was better than Molla, who contrived to miss with her own camera whenever possible. She singularly failed to capture an image of more than my late brother Paul’s hair.
I managed to get this full-length one of him, proudly protecting Dad's Alfa, with my Brownie that continued in service for quite a few years until I “inherited” a VIEW-MASTER Personal STEREO CAMERA from my Grandad, Cecil; the one not married to Molla. Wait a minute, are those wine boxes on the left of frame?
Actually, for Cecil, a great pioneer of photography, the stereo camera had been a trinket. He had wanted me to have his Leica M3 and lenses. My step gran wanted the Leica for herself and gave me the stereo job so she could claim she’d carried out his wishes. Initially the 35mm format and some adjusting knobs added an exciting level of sophistication. Sadly, however, the stereo meant that the slide images were ¼ of a frame. Extracting anything from those tiny slides these days turns out pretty fuzzy, as my attempts at portrait photography demonstrate.
I very much doubt that any one of Barbi, Jane, Sue, Viv or Carmela would have paid good money for these "portraits" from the tiny slides.
In 1972 I became a reporter on The Daily News in Durban. I bought myself my first “proper” camera, a used Pentax SLR, and started trying to become a WPLM. This never happened, despite achieving the front page with a full-frontal nude of a proper WPLM streaking on his motorbike. This led to some notoriety when the then pictures were rather less expurgated than hoped for. The pictures editor had “missed” with the appropriate black censoring cross. I have tried to recover the negs so that I can blackmail said WPLM but they have mysteriously disappeared.
It seems WPLMs just materialise suddenly from the ectoplasm and immediately close ranks. I did learn a bit from a famous photographer who ran a course at our local uni, though. He eyed up his students, dripping with Nikon kit, and ostentatiously pulled out Molla’s Instamatic when he took us out on a field trip. We processed the black and white film back in the labs that afternoon. Readers will already have guessed whose results turned out best. I did learn that it was all about eye and composition. The latter can be fairly easily doctored after the fact, and I’ve witnessed a few WPLMs doing that, but the raw material has to be in there somewhere. That is where the eye comes in.
As my recently acquired son-in-law (not a WPLM) sagely commented, while walking along a canal before lockdown and hearing me complain that I only had a smartphone with me, “the best camera is the one in your hand when you need it.” Do you know what? I got a cherished WPLM compliment that day: “nice pic Banj.” It was a closeup of a nicely lit piece of moss on some Victorian brickwork.
.A long standing buddy of mine, Gillian, used to be a WPLM (literally) until recently. Most of my other WPLM mates originated from print journalism, some of them moving on to other things. Gillian had a formal art education and she and I were an item for a while in the very early 70s. My cousin Jane of the earlier fuzzy photo was the catalyst. When we met up again, decades later, Gillian was Ligapie. She actually claimed recently to like fuzzy photos but I do not recall having received a compliment from her for my own work. Ever.
I do understand, really. WPLMs make a living from their photography and are constantly being squeezed by smartphone jockeys.
“There are game rangers out there with modern smartphones. They are in amongst the wildlife day in, day out and can take 1,000 snaps in a day. There is bound to be the odd decent one in there, somewhere,” explained Daryl (a.k.a. Bikey), a renowned wildlife photographer. Gillian, although a caring, gentle soul, would hold a similar view, having had to fund a couple of studios and heaps of expensive equipment.
And if you want to wind up JP just ask him why his Hasselblad, studio-crafted work is so expensive when one can “just do that on my smartphone”. His response would be more blunt than Gillian’s but the message is the same. If you want a reliable photoshoot you’re going to need someone with the experience. Imagine cocking up someone's wedding memories? Quelle Horreur!
I did sell an image on Adobe Stock a few years ago (above). Got paid £0.30 and jokingly suggested I might qualify to be a WPLM as a result. Well, this is a polite blog so I shan't report the responses to my suggestion.
I do have 22,000 digital images of my own and there are maybe a few halfway decent ones in there. The primary objective of this column is to record (mainly wine) drinking expeditions, exploits, capers and related japes.
Japes range from gentle perambulations with the wonderful, artistic Shelley-ann for dinner and wine in the back lanes of the Cinque Terre to staying around long enough to savour the puppy on the right in its prime.
Maybe the odd Slightly Less Fuzzy Photo (SLFP) could slip in to underline a point. That. Is. Not. The. Primary Objective. And Gillian graciously took a swathe of splendid photos to celebrate my 60th.
So that’s an explanation for the first half of the title of this series. If I get one to two “nice one Banj”s out of it I will carry a wine induced smile with me into the next world.
Coming next: A little undecided at this stage. Might try a bit of Back to the Future with a car filled with blank bottles or continue with the early days' potted history? Watch this space at a similar time next week ...
 Probably accounts for 22,000 fuzzy photos in my digital catalogue today and my reluctance to archive them.
 And inventor of a lot of other things including an electronic liquor cabinet … more about Cecil in a later chapter.
 Fake news alert but it WAS identical
 Her professional moniker was Ligapie (a Saffa take on Albert Einstein’s “Lichtaffen”) or Lightmonkey for quite some time.
Andrew Newby - an inspiration and true friend
Yesterday evening I received a lovely accolade from one of the most genuine and multi-talented people I know. I wouldn't normally write love letters to old mates via my newly established blog but he prompted me by apologising for correcting an endnote.
My dear friend, this was always intended to be a living biography. The clue is in my title stolen in part from Clive James. All of our generation's memories are beginning to falter and you (and other good ous) are positively invited to correct me when my memoirs stumble and I start speaking kak..
An all too short interlude in which these splendid ous treated me to a sumptuously fab lunch on the verandah of one of their favourite cheesemakers on the outskirts of Paternoster on the Weskus. Andrew and Heidi Newby. Outspoken when injustices occur. Kind and generous to their friends and those less fortunate than themselves.
It is difficult to keep track of the Newby menagerie but there are definitely horses, sheep and dogs that I saw with my own eyes in Hopefield, nearby on the Weskus. Certainly cows in the plan. When we sat looking at the distant sea, however, they were in the midst of moving to greener pastures. Literally. Not enough grass in Hopefield so they have long since removed themselves lock stock and barrel to Deneysville on the Vaal River.
I was a little nervous about meeting Heidi for the first time. Her reputation had preceded her as intolerant of fools, posers and Kafkaesque bureaucrats. She also speaks at least 4 languages (and probably many more besides) absolutely fluently. The 4 I can name with confidence are English, Afrikaans, Spanish and German. Every now and then, when they need to build a new barn or something, Heidi sets off to Spain or Germany to do some translation work. I am confident that Mila, their daughter whom I haven't met yet, is hewn from the same granite.
Señor Newbs and I like to waffle a bit and had already done so over a 4-hour coffee break in Riebeek Kasteel a few days before, which had turned into lunch. So we'd already had about 6 hours of talking kak by the time we met Heidi on the stoep of the Afsaal Padstal. She had travelled there separately so she could attend to some business in Hopefield.
Why did I worry? The nettle was grasped and we were all swearing about our mutual exasperation with all poseurs, exploiters and incompetents within minutes of being seated with this vista, looking all the way to the sea.
Andrew and I had had a mountain to catch up on. Cycling, photography, journalism (the state of), food, pretentiousness in that industry, cheese and exploits over our much interrupted more than 40 years of shared past.
Our friendship started out on the Daily News in Durban where we were petrol heads together. We must have worked that out of our respective systems because our residual interest was in the characters involved rather than the machines they and we rode, drove or crashed.
His culinary skills became evident to me very early on in our friendship. The sequence of things is lost in this mists of time but:
1. I recall asking his advice on cooking a proper evening meal for R1 (mid 70s prices). I believe this was probably as a result of a debate with my first wife, Carmela, as to whether I'd be up to the task.
"Banj," he came back immediately, "you must make chili con carne."
"You what?" I exclaimed. I'd never heard of it.
"I'll give you the recipe."
2. Larousse was reputed to be his bedtime reading
3. He was mightily pissed off that he needed two incisions to debone a duck and there was some famous chef who could do it with one (it may have been 3 and two but you get the gist)
4. From a very young age he has always ground his own spices with a pestle and mortar and is a complete fundi on a number of traditional curries.
Between then and now he helped me procure a motorbike, nearly killed me by letting me ride his competition scrambler while my wife, Shelley-ann, looked on in horror and has fed me more fabulous anecdotes than I can remember. Coincidentally some of these involved the fact that S-a's grandparents lived next door to his and were great mates.
We share an enjoyment of odd odes and human interest yarns. He is the master of recording these and has written at least one novel that includes some examples of his own life's experiences. Best to read these in the original. This is beginning to sound like a sneaky attempt at my friend's biography. That would be a completely nugatory exercise as his autobiography will always be a better read when he gets around to joining up all his stories. In the meantime readers have a wealth of material to be getting on with by following a few links I have provided.
In signing off from my brief tribute to one of life's genuinely remarkable human beings, I know he will be embarrassed at the unsolicited attention. But he needs to know how much his stories are appreciated. They are full of compassion, when appropriate, while not being afraid to poke a stick at an angry cobra when bullies and conmen cross his path. His acerbic wit is as sharp as a razor and full-on confrontation is never avoided when he deems it necessary.
Heidi is a more than able partner in making a difference in an uncaring world. Knowing this, I asked Andrew when we took our leave in the Cape last July, "don't you find it intensely frustrating trying to right society's wrongs?"
"We can't boil the ocean, Banj, but small things to improve others' lives do add up."
Eight months later, Heidi and Andrew were feeding hungry local people on the banks of the Vaal as South African lockdown commenced.
"The food must be nutritious," Heidi told Andrew as she sent him off with a specific list to procure provisions for the first banquet of curried dumplings.
I most strongly recommend reading the original stories. Inspiring, honest and told by a true storyteller.
PS: I have taken the liberty to insert Andrew's correction to the endnote, mentioned in the intro to this blog, in the comments to the appropriate blog. It relates to the accuracy of my recollections of the naming of one of Durban's most prominent hills.
 Good ou is a Seffrikkin expression for a good egg. Heidi and Andrew are unquestionable in this category
 Weskus is the local name for the Western Cape Atlantic Coast
 Andrew had been in the fine dining industry and hated the waste. I tried to persuade him that some of the restaurants in nearby Paternoster, Wolfgat in particular, shared his philosophy for humble beginnings and turning them into wonderful things to eat. I'm not sure I convinced him. You'll have to ask Andrew.
 Maybe even a fanatic.
 a) Some of his own words are part of his Facebook timeline; Andrew's contribution is filled with wonderfully eclectic headlines such as: "NO ROAST LAMB FOR MR JACKAL", "KATIE HOPKINS: FEAR, HATE AND OTHER THINGS", to name but a a couple.
b) There is also the website of the Newby Family Retreat, Heidi, Mila and Andrew's new venture with grass on the Vaal. .
c) He also has a current personal website that succeeds his earlier weskus site.
 Newbs, you will correct this quote, please? Readers who wish an accurate account would enjoy being redirected to the prime account. i.e. your own blog.
More than 50 years of drinking around the globe. Some of it louche. Some of it formal tasting. Most of it dodgy memory bytes recalling encounters with wine and the wonderful souls involved in making it, selling it and consuming it.
Dazed by a modern world that dismisses honest thought as “fake news”, Clive James’ recent demise spurred me to record some unreliable history while I was still able to recall any of it. Clive was an inspiration to many of us who wished to find the spot where literacy intersected with (often but not always hilarious) japes. Few have attained the heights of Unreliable Memoirs*, which crept up on us in the early 80s, gaining momentum as its author’s fame grew as a TV presenter.
Of course, I am not a TV presenter. Just a retired 70s reporter who looked up to a legend. When the Beeb re-ran the late legend’s Postcard from Sydney a few months ago and visited an old mate I found myself being reinvigorated. His friend was Len Evans, a winemaker in the Hunter Valley. I had dreamed of recording a few wine exploits when I retired. Some of Clive’s capers, albeit exquisitely drawn, had some parallels with my own.
Could I call it Unreliable Memoirs of Wine? I wouldn’t dare; I hope my current effort at a title doesn’t sail too close to that wind.
Returning to the “fake news”, it is my opinion that it is a liberally applied fake epithet used mostly by arseholes trying to wriggle off hooks of their own making. Sadly, if repeated enough by the biggest arseholes these things become adopted into our lexicon. Don’t get me started about “IMHO”. The H in that epithet is fake news itself in the vast majority of cases.
My anecdotes are mostly unsupported by fact. The opinions are my own and I consequently refuse to be humble about them. If anyone reading these texts is offended by this approach, please accept that they stem from the heart.
I may say I do/don’t like/approve of something/someone. It reflects a completely subjective but honest impression of my own. My friends, mostly those who call me “Banj/Banjo/Spook” etc. don’t do it to cause offence; well maybe just a little bit. I reserve the right to retaliate. Furthermore, if I opine that, for example, a wine/vista/plate of food/book was of less than 5-star quality, it has only been rated that way to leave room for creations that are perfect in every way.
Cheers Clive, a superb raconteur with a “colonial” dash of scepticism
Coming next: Early days. Humble beginnings and how digging around in the rapidly diminishing mental archives may or may not lead to some serious research into a thread linking cheap plonk with some truly splendid Chenin Blanc in the Cape today.
* © Clive James 1980
Health warning - RELIABLE notes.
It is an increasingly rare thing in current times to find people who genuinely care about their customers and who always go the extra mile. This week's blog celebrates two people, one of whom I have never met and one, perhaps the hero of this tale, who I met for about 60 seconds. I salute Aneen and Pieter Walser.
Writers I admire (perhaps they know each other)
Before I get started on my ode to this irreverent winemaker, and the woman who oils the wheels of the operation, I want to briefly touch on the latest endeavour of another couple I have never met but with whom there is a tangible synergy. I did promise that this "column" was about tasting notes, after all, and winemaking, and the people who make it have a great affection in my heart.
Julienne du Toit and Chris Marais literally literally inspired my first adventure into the Karoo Desert in Southern Africa. They publish these colourful books about their exploits in the region. They come in print and in online versions and are beautifully illustrated. I have quite a few now and every one makes me want to explore further. Now there's a tantalising new tome on the horizon: Karoo Roads which captures what true #Roaminations are all about. Yes there are destinations in between but it's the journey that is special to some of us. I didn't really get the Karoo until I went there. Chris brings a hint of Herman Charles Bosman to the storytelling and I hope my account of my first trip there reflects that.
And now for some Walser wine
In august company from left to right above, Pieter's wines occupy spots 3, 4, 5, and 7. More about this pic later in this article. Richard Kershaw and Craig Hawkins are also favourites and will appear in later stories in Unreliable Tasting Notes
I suspect Pieter may have crossed paths with Julie and Chris (even if unwittingly) during their treks of discovery around the Western Cape and beyond. Like Chris, Pieter has a great eye for a story and knows how to tell them. But as far as I know these stories only get told in his blog and occasionally on his beloved wine labels. There is insufficient space on a wine label to describe his ongoing quest for the perfect clay pots in which to mature his wines. These anecdotes tend to be reserved for his occasional letters to his subscribers and for intrepid visitors to his blog site. When one of his letters arrives, I put everything else to one side so I can enjoy some new revelation or the latest episode in a running saga. I'll draw on this source as I relate my own anecdote of meeting one of life's originals.
But first there is Aneen, mother of his children and, from where I stand, his greatest champion.
A little more than a year ago I was chatting to an old mate and wine connoisseur, Daryl (Bikey) Balfour, who mentioned some intriguing wine he'd just tried. He told a convincing story. "Get hold of Aneen," he said, giving me the email address.
Pieter and Aneen are people after my own heart. They grab life's adventures with all hands and their enthusiasm was immediately evident from the warm emails that went back and forth. It wasn't long before I felt like a welcome friend. I had committed to buy the wine for my Mum-in-law's 90th Family Gathering in Hermanus last June. A Kershaw case was already in my back pocket but I wanted something a little more outré for some of the guests I knew would appreciate such a thing. BLANKbottle Familiemoord (in the lineup above) seemed just the ticket. The story is inscribed on the label in all its glory.
During my initial contact with them, Pieter and Aneen were on a trade tasting expedition to London and Bruges. Ninety-nine percent of people would've used that as an excuse for taking a week or so to reply.
"Fantastic news that Daryl’s enjoying the wine! We’re in London at the moment ... would you like to do a tasting?" Aneen came back almost instantaneously. And then, as soon as they got back: "Arrived back in SA yesterday ... we were only there for 5 nights and it was madness as usual. Pieter is normally booked back to back for trade tastings from morning to late eve/early mornings. Not that we are complaining - it is wonderful! Our agent there is SWIG."
I need to go off on a spontaneous tangent at this stage. One on which I feel sure the Walsers would approve. We like to follow our noses and a healthy relationship with SWIG has ensued for me not only to procure BLANKbottle but also to make a frenzied order for stuff like a cheeky limited release of 2016 Barolo gold dust and rescuing a case of Craig Hawkins' wine that seemed to have "fallen off the back of a lorry" from one of SWIG's rivals. And the best wine-tasting ever in Soho ... the only F2F meeting I have had with a Walser and a whole bunch of others, including Adi Badenhorst. Pieter was doing everything on his own ... I wish I had his stamina.
Back to Aneen: "Pieter said you two were in contact," she continued after I rudely interrupted with my tangent, "and you’re going to let him know when you are coming back through Somerset West after your trip, for you to do a tasting with him at the cellar?" Sadly Pieter was out of town on my return trip, too, but Aneen's hospitality knew no bounds: "... unless you are anywhere near [our family holiday house] which is where we will be : ))." From our written correspondence I had no doubt the invitation was genuine and I was close by but these guys deserve a break with their family once in a blue moon.
After all family plays a big part in the naming and production of BLANKbottle wines as you can see below:
These are a couple of labels that demonstrate this better than I can. I've already introduced Familiemoord earlier in the story and will describe a brief adventure with that bottle to end off this chapter. Manon des Sources draws on Pieter's adventures in Marseilles and is inspired by a drawing done by his daughter. I would not presume to attempt a precis of the beautiful story that Pieter tells. Do yourself a favour and read it on Pieter's blog. Better still, listen to the audio. It moved this old git to tears.
My personal travels with BLANKbottle
I'm going to conclude this story with my own personal experiences with a case of wine in the back of my hire car. There are a few anecdotes along the way celebrating more than a few BLANKbottles.
It all started with Judy's 90th. Despite her protestations, a huge bash was planned in the garden of her little cottage in Hermanus. Actually her protestations were drowned out by those of the extended family (and friends) at the idea that the occasion should slip by without an appropriate selebrasie. Kate (my daughter and Judy's granddaughter, who had decided to surprise Granny with her attendance) and I flew out together from London to Cape Town and made two pitstops, in Somerset West and Grabouw, to collect the wine.
90th birthday celebration pics anticlockwise from top right: Packing the Kortpad Kaaptoe at Somerset West and I'm hoping my smile will be this big the next day; Kate smiling on the morning of the lunch; Judy with her first great-grandchild, Luna; Luna's Dad, Chris helped with serving and drinking the BLANKbottle ... this was the only white BB left.
We were excited for our friends and family to try the wine we had brought. We hadn't altogether reckoned with the challenge presented by many lunch parties that cross four generations i.e. that many guests bring their own booze and ask the waitron (in this case, moi) to keep their precious bottle(s) cool for them. Often this wine will be a generic Chardonnay or white blend, which is absolutely fair enough until the bar person offers:
"Would you like to try a glass of this superb white?" showing a specially selected bottle.
"Actually, could I just get some of the wine I brought?"
"Oh shit," the erstwhile waitron exclaims under his breath, wondering WTF this particular punter has asked him to put in the vast galvanised bath filled with ice, Windhoek and Castle.
"Was it this?"
"No, she only likes that ... we brought."
How naïve can one person be. I had had visions of guests coming back for more of what we had provided, possibly with a constructive comment here or there.
Thank heavens for Chris and the occasional brother-in-law/cousin in the younger contingent. Chris was super enthusiastic and mingled amongst the drinkers sussing out the likely customers. We both had "a bit" and time went so quickly that we couldn't remember which ones were which but were unanimous about the BLANKbottle whites ... I think there was only about half a bottle of white left by the end of the party. The reds were untouched
L to R: Kate with Luna's enthusiastic parents, Lane and Chris; the appropriately named Oppie Koppie being enjoyed two weeks later in the shadow of a rocky outcrop in the far eastern Karoo.
Cheese and wine (and maybe a jumper to warm a cold Karoo night)
And so it came to pass that I departed Hermanus on a second Karoo Road Trip with substantial padkos! First stop Riebeek Kasteel for almost a week, where I spent an inordinate amount of time in the Wine Kollective sharing some of my bottles with the backroom guys. Most of them knew Pieter but so much had been, and was being, consumed that I didn't really get a sensible opinion from them.
On the last leg of my journey I had been hoping to acquire some fresh pecorino to take to Mario in Joburg to show off a Milanese dessert with honey drizzled over the newly-cut fresh cheese, washed down, of course, by the remaining BLANKbottles.
Another friend, Andy, a cheesemaker from Hopefield, and the kind of bloke who reads Larousse for fun, had told me that I needed to go to Smithfield if I wanted proper pecorino. He confirmed this with a nod of great portent while treating me to a splendid lunch on a fellow cheesemaker's Padstal stoep, overlooking Tietiesbaai.
"Yes Banj, they have grass for their sheep there," he nodded, gesturing expansively in the general direction 1000 km of semi-desert to the North East.
"Yussus Meneer, this is blerrie lekker! Uitstekend!" my fellow diner enthused, passing his glass over for a refill. This was two days later in Buckley's Restaurant and Bar in Kerk Straat, Smithfield. I was enjoying a bottle of Oppie Koppie with a stonkingly good steak and needed to share my wine to save me from falling over.
The next day I got my cheese, and before heading off to Clarens for my last stop before Johannesburg, I had an hour or so to kill in the morning and thought I'd try to find some runny honey for the drizzling bit. No luck in Smithfield:
"You'll be sure to find it in Clarens, Meneer," I was reassured.
I had also been on a mission to get myself a woollen pullover while in SA. The real deal with not too much intervention between sheep and the knitted article. After all, Karoo lamb is a big thing but evidently not Karoo wool. Then, in Smithfield, I found this French bloke who hand knits these things. Problem was, he still had to start knitting and I had to head on up the road. So I bought a natural wool beanie from him as a consolation prize. Ironically, I found the beanie's complement in London, knitted from Scottish sheep's wool ... a missed opportunity, perhaps?
L to R: Lunchtime "pukka" tasting to decide; Proper wino accoutrements; a welcome partner; paired with Calamari
Next on to Clarens in time for a sundowner on the terrace of my gorgeous accommodation for two nights. It was still warm enough in the winter sun to sit outside and I pulled out a bottle of My Koffer and poured a glass while luxuriating in the mountain setting. Next thing a Durban couple, en route to visit relatives in Bloemfontein, joined me on the terrace. It would've been churlish not to have offered them a glass. They absolutely loved it and we shared a few anecdotes until it became too cold to remain outside and we had finished the bottle. They were effusive in their gratitude.
The next morning the gentleman approached me and asked if they could buy my last bottle as a gift for their relatives in "Bloem". They would be blown away my new friend assured me.
I would have loved to have fulfilled his request but had to explain that the last of my My Koffer was a designated gift for Mario and I had specially selected it because of its associations with the Tassies of yore. Pieter would understand.
I had a little formal wine-tasting at lunch-time all by myself. Decided to take the "Familie" on a walkabout. We preserved modesty with a brown paper bag during the stroll into town and while enjoying a late afternoon craft beer at the Clarens Brewery I did get some funny looks but I generally get those anyway so nothing to be too perturbed about. What a wonderful day, topped off with a fine Portuguese meal with a view over the Malutis.
No runny honey anywhere in Clarens, though. Tried everywhere.
Anyway, enough about the wine and back to the lovely Walsers to conclude my sojourn.
I feel I could compile a book from Pieter's stories. I just love his spontaneity and derring do. He even turned his own epilepsy into an opportunity. I would never attempt to precis or paraphrase his anecdotes. You really need to read them in the original for yourselves. I've provided some links in . I can't believe that anyone who ventures down that route won't follow other forks in the road, just as I did. I do so hope I eventually get to meet the Walser family.
Maybe somewhere in the Klein Karoo sharing a glass with Julie and Chris. Who knows, maybe Shelley-ann too? Stranger things have happened to all of us.
Coming up: Honeymoon with wine attached.
 More info about South Africa's legendary short story writer here.
 More legible label supplied or else read the full text
 Reading list: Epileptic Inspiration ; Little William ; Manon des Sources ; Familiemoord ; A personal favourite about finding the perfect amphora
 To be the subject of an upcoming blog of its own ... I'm keeping this one for wine related anecdotes (and maybe a little cheese - after all they go so well together)
 Gosh sir, this is bloody marvellous! Outstanding!
*Fuzzy Photos and Unreliable Tasting Notes
There are few benefits to Covid lockdown but one of them is doing stuff like attempting to archive ancient transparencies and then getting completely sidetracked.
Some of these fuzzy photos have some creative merit and many are pure nostalgia. Most of them require some level of verification by digging around for provenance. Provenance often comes in dribs and drabs and then the dam breaks. I already have a tribute to a Durban legend, Solange Raffray, in the starting blocks.
Now while furtling around in my paddling pics I have been saddened to uncover the death of another Durban legend, Graeme Pope-Ellis. I must have been the only avid 70s paddler not to have known. He died in a tractor accident in 2010, aged 62.
For those who are unaware of the Dusi Canoe Marathon, it is a three-day race between the two Kwa-Zulu Natal (KZN) cities of Pietermaritzburg and Durban and has been described as one of the toughest events in the world. It is essentially a Kayak event but there are certain sections that require portaging up the steep sides of the uMsundusi and uMngeni rivers.
Graeme won it 15 times in 18 years. Three of the victories were in a K1.
When I returned from London in 1976 he had already won the Dusi 5 times. He continued to win in the two following years, events in which I also participated albeit at a much more modest level. Graeme spurred us on with veteran advice (he was not yet 30) in pre-Dusi briefings at our Kingfisher Canoe Club (KCC).
Most of us plodded doggedly over the portage sections. The following is photographic evidence that Graeme, and his then partner Peter Peacock, did not plod. They didn't even run, they levitated. The white kayak is easily spotted with its number 1, earned from winning the previous year's event.
The low flying Pope-Ellis/Peacock combo inspired me to scan a bunch of other transparencies in a box in our Oxfordshire attic and publish them as an adjunct to this mini-blog for fellow enthusiasts (sufferers) to enjoy if they are so inclined.
There are a few shots from Hella Hella on the Umkomaas. Others are taken at random events around KZN in 77/78, culminating in the Dusi in that February. There are also a few nostalgic moments from the "Dice", the weekly time trial run by KCC at Durban's Blue Lagoon.
While the transparencies happen to be in my possession, I have no idea who took the originals except for the Umkomaas shots that were taken by yours truly. Given that quite a few of the others have me in them there must have been at least one other photographer involved. Prime suspects would be Carmela (pictured in the collection dangling a Pentax around her neck) and my late brother Paul, who I cannot consult for obvious reasons.
I suspect he took the one of me below, though. He supported me in that event, aged 12. I had been hoping that one day we'd be able to do it together.
Feel free to dip into the library on this site for a little bit of history. Maybe you took one or two of the pics or have a little more information to add? Feedback is always appreciated.
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