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.
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