Yesterday I visited a winery in South Africa I had been thinking about for seven years. Usually I don’t think about wineries between visits – much less seven years between visits – but this one was special.
Back in 1998, Vergelegen was just a few years old. Its owners had prepared me for a temperamental enfant terrible of a winemaker named André van Rensberg. But he didn’t seem crazy to me. He was just totally, completely determined that nothing would compromise the integrity of his winemaking. He did make the occasional crack about the “suits” running the wine business, but otherwise he was cool.
And his wine was killer. I had already tasted one, a Semillon dessert wine, the night before I met him. It was one of the best things I ever put in my mouth. The owners of the winery asked me what I thought they should sell it for. Maybe it was the wine talking, but I blurted out, “Don’t sell it at all. Keep it to pour for special guests, wine writers, celebrities. It will make you far money that way than if you sell it, even at a ridiculous price.
This answer surprised them, and the conversation soon wandered on.
Now, seven years later, I was going back to Vergelegen as an incognito visitor. A local brochure extolled Vergelegen’s reserve Sauvignon Blanc and its Semillon, made as both still wine and dessert wine. I smiled to myself. I was going to taste that heavenly elixir once again.
The first surprise was the gated entry where my companion, Viva, and I had to pay merely enter the premises, never mind taste wine or take a tour. Only when we had paid to get in were we told that all the tours were sold out for the day.
To get to the tasting room, we had to pass through a gift shop. Viva looked at me over her sunglasses. I shrugged back, and we pushed through the gift shop and its throng of camera-toting tourists to get to the tasting room.
Once there, we were given a menu of wines we could taste – and pay for, a la carte, for every single taste. A laminated “tasting guide” described the wines, but it had no vintages printed on it, meaning that either the descriptions were generic or the winery was making wine according to pat recipes.
I picked five wines off the list and a server brought them over: tiny pours in tiny glasses for the equivalent of ten bucks per person. They were all disappointing: thin, over-oaked, ordinary. I could not believe André van Rensberg had made them.
When the server came back I asked why I didn’t see a reserve Sauvignon Blanc on the list. “Oh,” she said, “that’s only available at the end of the month.” Why? She had no idea. What about the dry Semillon? “You can’t get that until January.” And then only on alternate Thursdays? I joked. But the server didn’t smile. “Something like that,” she said.
It appeared that the whole operation was designed to lure in tourists and shake them down with the crassest kind of commercialism.
Finally I asked about the Semillon dessert wine, the bottling Vergelegen was supposedly famous for. “You can’t taste that,” the server said. I asked if I could buy some, then. She shook her head. “It’s not for sale.”
I stared at her, stunned. So who got to drink it? “Special guests, wine writers, people like that,” she said, and took away the tray of tiny glasses.
I sat speechless. Viva slipped on her sunglasses. “I guess the suits won in the end,” she said.
Apparently. But apparently I helped them. Writing this on the plane home, I’m still shaking my head.
What happened, André?
- Thom Elkjer
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