- Flagstone a South African Wine Story
Chief Winemaker Bruce Jack
A Capetonian whose curiosity and palate has taken him the length and breadth of the globe. Bruce completed his undergrad in Political Science and Literature at UCT and then read his Masters in Literature at St Andrew’s in Scotland. His subsequent winemaking degree came from the Roseworthy Campus at the University of Adelaide, Australia. Bruce is a pioneer, and in many respects a maverick, and what he brings to winemaking is an articulate opinion about his greatest passion.
Food Alchemist & Kitchen Cowboy Peter Goffe-Wood
Peter is on the judging panel for the San Pellegrino 50 Best Restaurants in the World, as well as the Diners Club Wine list of the year. Born in London, he trained in South Africa and returned to work with some of Britain's top chefs in several award-winning London restaurants.
Back in South Africa, he helped to open the La Couronne Hotel & Winery (now Mont Rochelle) in Franschhoek. Conde Nast Traveller named it as one of the fifty most exciting restaurants in the world.
Peter has worked to develop some of the Cape’s best and busiest restaurants, including Blues, 95 Keerom Str, Balducci’s & Salt. GQ magazine took him on as food editor for eight years and he is a regular contributor to Men’s Health. Peter is author of Kitchen Cowboys and Blues Restaurant – the essence of Cape Town.
He featured alongside Ainsley Harriot on BBC Food’s Off the Menu and now appears as a judge on MasterChef SA.
Editor Andrew Arnott
Andrew studied Literature and Sociology at UCT before setting off on a global trek that saw him working under the seas of the Caribbean, on the snow covered slopes of the Canadian Rockies and writing for a variety of financial and travel institutions. Now at home in Cape Town, Andrew’s passions for wine and writing are married on this blog.
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Flagstone a South African Wine Story Posted on September 04 2012 by
The Flagstone Story... you’ve got to be kidding. This is a book in itself! Maybe with the title: “A Life of Late Nights”.
A potted history, a few half-baked philosophies and some tales of travelling misadventure follows
The first few Flagstone vintages in the late 1990s were characterised by a fanatical drive, very little sleep, much wine and back-breaking work.
I have always been fired up to do things differently, even though now, my experience tells me this is often the harder route. In those early years of Flagstone my team and I went at our chosen passion with an almost manic, unbridled zeal. Half the industry thought we were mad, and looking back perhaps we were a little off-the-wall in our methodology. But, beneath the chaotic exterior, everything was solidly underpinned by a winemaking philosophy based on hard scientific fact and winemaking techniques intricately and obsessively designed to get the best out of the vineyards we worked with.
The Flagstone winemaking operation started in a run-down shell of an old depot in Cape Town harbour – it was South Africa’s first urban winery. All the winemaking happened outside, under a high roof, but open on three sides. The laboratory and office were crammed into the old, rickety building, which we shared with the seagulls.
The primary reason for choosing this location was the cheap rental. For security, I put up a razorwire fence around the yard, and adopted a huge Boxer from the SPCA called Malolactic, or Malo for sort. Malo and I had some cool adventures together.
This makeshift winery was close to the ice-cold warehouses utilized by the export fruit and vegetable industries, so we could cool our grapes down before processing – this step in the winemaking process was unheard of back then and looking back seems to have revolutionised how wine was made in South Africa. Now every new winery wants a grape chilling room.
I was hopelessly under-funded, having borrowed from the bank to start up the dream. Almost all my tanks were second or third hand, as was my ancient press, forklift and crusher. The only machinery still going is the forklift, which was bought second hand with a No.13 emblazoned on the side – my lucky number. Because of all the old machinery and our exposed setting, things continually broke down, but it is amazing how long you can keep a winery going with duct tape, wire and a pair of good quality pliers.
Logistics were tricky as I didn’t have the budget for a large team. I would often work all day, then load a truck of empty crates at around midnight and head off into the hinterland, stopping at 4am outside the farmers gate for a quick power nap, before picking with the team.
After a quick breakfast, I’d drive back to the winery with a truckload of grapes in time for lunch and a restorative glass of wine.
Thus recharged, the afternoon winemaking activities would kick-off. Eighteen and Twenty-hour days were the norm, and everyone on the team worked until they dropped, often crashing on the floor of the office or lab on a mattress.
The energy and creativity was infectious. People visiting said Flagstone felt more like a cross between an advertising agency and a Greenpeace operation, than a winery.
Most importantly we really had fun. There were lots of parties. Of course, we couldn’t have pulled it off if we hadn’t managed to make delicious wine as well. Luckily people just love to drink our wine.
But beyond the soft tannins and delicious flavours, there was an x-factor to Flagstone from the beginning. Initially, I couldn’t put my finger on it. Then, a few vintages into the adventure, I sent some unlabelled wines off to Jancis Robinson for her comments. She wrote back and nailed it by saying all the wines shared a sense of joyfulness for her. She said they were really good, but what made an impression was that they were “happy wines”. That was it! I remember walking around the room with a big smile on my face as I realised it was as simple as that.
Joyfulness is an essence I have strived to retain in all the wines I make. The vineyards need to be loved and happy to begin with. In the wine I think you get this partly through the balance of all elements, and of course through the clarity and cleanness of aromas and flavours. But you also contribute to this x-factor by how you treat the land and the people you work with. Most importantly, perhaps, is the energy you yourself plough into the creative process of winemaking.
To me a sense of joy in a wine is more important than anything else. The wines I most enjoy drinking are inevitably exuberant expressions of fun and joy. Nothing has changed – it is still the mantra here.
I have always travelled extensively in an attempt to spread the good news about South Africa, our land, our people and our wines. This international market, while tough, is resilient and loyal once you’ve proved yourself through your wines and your commitment to marketing support.
A few years ago during January I was on such a sales support trip in Germany. January in Germany is cold. Snow speckled the windscreen as we swooped out of the dark forest and onto the glistening Autobahn.
Markus Eser, my sales contact in this neck of the woods, and I, had just re-launched Flagstone in Germany with new distributors. Three gruelling 18 hour days of agency meetings, press conferences, sales team presentations and heavy dinners were behind us. Luckily for me I enjoy all of those things, but even I was getting a bit weary.
If you want any chance of succeeding in this crazy global marketplace, you have to get out there and jump onto that international treadmill with a passionate smile on your face.
We’re an odd band, us travelling winemakers and wine sales people. You can spot us in airports, furiously tapping away on our laptops while swirling a glass of wine. We learn to pack light. Two weeks of clothes fits into the baggage compartment above our economy class seat, because we’ve all lost luggage in transit. We can sleep sitting bolt upright; and often do so before the flight takes off. But perhaps the most easily discernible characteristic is that we can hold our booze.
This isn’t a boast, it’s a survival necessity. Those of our tribe who can’t, disappear after a few seasons. Either they get lost in snowdrifts in Russia after too many vodkas or screw-up that crucial 7.30am sales meeting with a Scandinavian Monopoly buyer because they couldn’t say “no” to another bottle of champagne the night before. In an industry soaked in alcohol the irony is that alcoholic soaks vanish.
There can’t be too many industries with such a claustrophobically competitive environment – an environment that demands the farmer and production manager to get on a ‘plane and travel two or three months of the year to cut deals. Besides the obvious fact that they don’t teach you that stuff at Agricultural College, it makes for a pretty tough life.
Yet, against all odds, we have grown our exports with staggering success over the years since Mandela made it OK to drink South African wine again. I think we have done this by doing the thing South African’s do naturally – spreading our enthusiasm for this country and making friends naturally.
Back to that bleak Autobahn in Germany. It was not only cold, it was late. We were both tired. We were listening to Stevie Nicks on the radio and arguing about the origins of Fleetwood Mac, when I heard a disconcerting shudder coming from the engine of Markus’s brand new Audi A5.
“That’s coming from your engine, buddy!” I said.
“No way, man! Must be that French car next to us,” came Markus’s reply. He had barely finished sniggering when his car started lurching violently as the engine bucked and choked. Markus pulled it hard over to the slow lane, narrowly missing the car next to us.
Seconds later it ground to a sick, screeching halt; the engine sounding like it was eating itself. Immediately smoke poured out of the front wheel hubs, followed hungrily by the first licks of flame - small at first, like the hot, orange tongues of snakes eagerly smelling the snow.
“Out! Out!” I screamed. I grabbed my laptop and my sports jacket. Markus only managed to retrieve his cell phone and mine, but had no time to retrieve his jacket or laptop, never mind all the wine samples in the boot. The car was immediately full of black, acrid chemical-smelling smoke. Seconds later, as we jogged away from the car, it became an expensive and very impressive bonfire.
“A bit like James Bond”, I remarked, my words wrapped in condensation against the biting cold.
Standing somewhere deep in the German gamadoolas, with one jacket to share against the snow, we took bets on how quickly the fire truck would arrive. Eight minutes. Now that’s German efficiency for you. We swapped other wine industry war stories on the way home in a hired (French) car. I remember thinking it was odd neither of us was particularly shaken by the incident. It just seemed like another day in the wine trade, selling South Africa.
Wine, more than any other agricultural product is a living narrative. Within the bottle rests a story of challenges and triumphs – each bottle a unique account stretching back hundreds of millions of years to how the soil was formed, when great continents smashed into each other. It is a tale which reflects how the grapes suffered in the summer heat and the leaves were battered by the drying wind. Each sip will reveal details of how conscientiously and lovingly the wine was crafted, and how well it has survived the journey to your lips.
Not long after my German exploding car adventure, I found myself on the edge of the New Forest near Bournemouth in the UK with a few hours of free time.In 1079 William The Conqueror named this area his ‘new hunting forest'. It’s a vast, ancient, magical landscape that has been preserved and continually renewed down the generations.
Legend has it that William tore down numerous Parishes in the area to make his hunting forest, and because of this dastardly dead, his offspring suffered horrible fates in the forest. Two of his sons died there while hunting. Prince Richard in 1081 was blasted to death “with a pestilent air” and King William II (William Rufus) was “shot through by an errant arrow” in 1100. His grandson, Henry, was “hanged among the boughs” while pursuing deer and died a gruesome death. One can imagine the various witches responsible wringing their hands in glee.
I had just arrived at the famous wine-themed hotel, Terravina, and needed a robust ramble to rid my limbs of long-haul flight stiffness, so I walked over the road and straight into the twinkling luxuriance of the forest - sodden and springy underfoot while all around each leaf danced in dappled light, and sparkled from the earlier rain showers. It was unbelievably lush and quiet and green. The only sounds were the crisp ratchet of cicadas and the song of doves and woodlark. It smelt simultaneously of wet earth full of potential, faintly rotting leaves and that charged verdant freshness that follows rain. There was moss and there were mushrooms and towering oaks, birches and beach trees. As I ventured deeper in and further away from the road, I kept expecting to come across Robin Hood braaing pheasant and tapping into a barrel of illicit cider.
I decided to walk in the same direction as the clouds skirting overhead, which I could spot now and again past the tops of huge old trees, or when I walked unexpectedly into a clearing obviously inhabited by gnomes.
I ignored the paths, just following the clouds. I startled the odd fallow and red deer in the undergrowth and revelled in that wandering headspace you slip into when walking in beautiful places.
I was thinking how it amazes me that people can sell ordinary wine at hugely over-inflated prices, way beyond reason. A diatribe of exclusivity characterizes the marketing. Everything is better from such producers. “My terrior is superior to anyone else’s, so is my tradition/culture, etc…”
I believe you can taste integrity and joy in wine no matter its origin. This wasn't always that obvious in South African wine. Not because we are liars by culture, but because, for a while after sanctions were lifted, we were still learning how to do this wine business thing from the rest of the world.
We hadn't figured out what was a good lesson to learn and what behaviors to avoid copying. It's difficult to work out what not to copy, when you don't know what the real deal is. And the international wine industry is full of make-believe.
For South African winemakers to start finding our way as a winemaking community, we had to first work out that our path begins at our own farm gate and heads, not into the world, but backwards to our own vineyards, our own soils and climate and ultimately our own folklore. We needed to look inward at the stark reality of what it means to be a winemaker crafting in this often difficult South African context. That's a hard thing to do, and perhaps only necessary, or indeed possible, in specific circumstances like ours.
We work in a unique socio-political context, and with unusually differentiated, difficult soils for starters. Only by grappling with these and other elements of our situation can we start to measure our responses and resourcefulness to each challenge. But it takes fearlessness and an exposing abandonment to pursue the truth, and once we’ve found it, to reflect this in our passion, our work. I don't see many winemaking communities elsewhere doing this soul searching with the same candid, collective recklessness.
I had walked for about two hours without meeting another soul. The sky was turning a darker blue as evening approached. I turned and headed confidently back in the direction I had come.
Soon into a nice walking rhythm, I was lost again in thought. What's happened in our community has been necessary, because for years we mimicked other winemaking communities, believing if they could get away with the smoke and mirrors, so could we. But, the successes felt hollow, the wines seemed to lack something, falling short of their potential.
In all our lives there comes a time we have to either stare back at that face in the mirror or turn away, disheartened, if not embarrassed by what we see. I think our community is working through that process of self awareness now. We are less entranced by the winemaking slight-of-hand and snake-oil-salesman patter we saw other countries use. We even used to envy this when we first got back into international markets. Perhaps now we've been around long enough to have seen behind the circus curtain and I don't think many of us like what we've seen. That just isn’t who we are.
I am starting to see a determination and desire to present a South African truth in our bottles, unaffected by what others say or do. Other winemaking communities found success in different ways, informed by their own circumstances, but no longer do these paths feel comfortable for us to follow upon. It’s slowly dawning on us that to make world class wine, we only have to make authentic South African wine, and tell our South African stories.
The new, confident poise in our best wines is coming from this stand of believing in our own truth; one that journeys through our own mysterious jungle - and somehow knowing it will be OK. That confidence is more solid and sustainable than the bloom of arrogance which accompanies commercial success. It's born from an understanding of our own situation, from the soil up, and a belief in the authentic story of our land – all encased in our peculiar South African ambition, tainted as it is by us being human. The best South African wines are starting to demonstrate something we haven’t seen for decades – a confidence, a wow factor, integrity and authenticity that’s powerful and authoritative.
It took another hour of walking until I realised I was totally lost. Eventually I found a stone path and headed down it, in the hope of finding someone who could point me in the right directing. After a further hour, I recognised a small bridge I had crossed once before and realised I had walked in a big circle. This was embarrassing – especially for a South African farmer, who is quite confident in the bush. So I looked sheepishly around and then clicked on the Google maps icon on my mobile ‘phone. I was miles away from where I should have been.
I started walking, following my slow progress on the little screen. It was now quite dark under the canopy of trees and, except for the call of owls, the forest was eerily quiet.
The most direct route back to the road also seemed to be through the thickest part of the forest. I pushed around a small tree, and with my eyes glued to the little screen I didn’t see a very big, brown pony. The New Forest, I was about to discover, is also famous for its rather wild, and sometimes unfriendly, ponies.
This one must have been sleeping, because I walked straight into it – or more accurately straight into its right bum cheek. I am not sure who got the bigger fright, but this huge pony jumped straight up into the air and did a violent about turn, before charging at me, wide-eyed, with snorting, flared nostrils.
In clumsy retreat, my only weapon was an umbrella, which opened with a pathetic ‘pop’ as I swung it in the general direction of this fiendish forest beast. Momentarily taken aback, the pony halted. I turned and ran and did what all sensible African primates do when about to be killed – I scrambled up the nearest tree.
And there I sat, while the blackness closed in around me and an irate pony crashing around the tree in the darkness below.
What a funny way to die, I thought – trampled to death by a pissed-off pony in the most remote corner of a spooky forest in England. I am not sure why, but I started signing “My Sarie Marais” to it. Bizarrely, this calmed it down and it soon headed off in a state of pony bewilderment. When I thought the coast was clear, I climbed cautiously down and continued on my tentative trek homeward.