Friday, February 12, 2010

Update 1

I type this from the passenger seat of Kris’ Toyota Tazz, en route from Paarl to George, a South African town on the Garden Route. Google lists it as a five hour trip heading east, though we’re hoping to do it in four and change to get to a meeting with a wine shop in George that wants to be the Noble Hill distributor in the area. It is a hot and winding drive through lots of valleys – a mix of dead-seeming plains, the occasional ostrich farm, and rows of grape vines. Kris points out that the vines are generally poorly kept – we suspect they are owned by some of the large-volume wine producers who sacrifice care and quality for the ability to have a ton of land and produce a ton of wine. We’ll get to George in a few hours and hopefully get to check out the Garden Route a little bit tonight and tomorrow morning before trying to get back to Paarl tomorrow mid-afternoon.

I couldn’t find my digital camera before I left for South Africa, so most of my early adventures have gone unrecorded. I’ve taken possession of Kris’ camera, though, so my hope is to do a better job of recording my time here with words and pictures (I’m not secure enough/disciplined enough in my writing to do it with words alone). I’ll do my best to spend this road trip getting up to speed.

I arrived exhausted and jetlagged from my Etihad Airways flights (NY – Abu Dhabi – Jo’burg – Cape Town) early on a Friday morning. Kris picked me up and we ate some breakfast in Paarl before heading back to the farm, where I started to get settled in. They have me staying at the guest cottage on the farm, which is where Kris had lived until I arrived. He’s now moved back into the main house with his mom, Kathleen. I felt bad for giving him the boot, but he is in the process of having a house built for him at the very top of the farm; it will be ready in May.

The cottage is great. It has a nice-sized bedroom, a living room/kitchen and a bathroom. The only thing missing is a stove in the kitchen, but I’ve been getting along easily without that. Here's a bad picture of the view from the porch:

The farm itself is stunning. Having been there for three weeks now, I note myself starting to take the views and scenery of it for granted from time to time. I try to remind myself to look around and appreciate its beauty as much as possible. No matter where you are on the farm, there are views of the (well-manicured) rows of vines, hills of Paarl and Simondium, and mountains in the background.

The cellar, tasting room, and restaurant area is also beautiful. Kris and Kathleen take pride in their attention to detail, and the result is a really great place for customers to come to taste the wine, have a picnic, or eat breakfast/lunch at Cosecha, the restaurant (Latin American cuisine, very tasty).

As Kris had predicted, I’ve been working on a wide variety of tasks since I’ve been here. I’ve spent a few days working in the cellar with Rodney (the cellar manager) and his crew. We’d mostly been getting ready for harvest, which started just a few days ago. This involved lots of cleaning and organizing things. They just built a bunch of cold storage buildings for keeping crates of wine, barrels, and other stock for the restaurant and winery, so we spent a while getting the loose crap out of the cellar and into its proper place so that there would be lots of room for harvest to go smoothly.

On the slightly more lawyerly front, I’ve taken on a project of improving our compliance with IPW, an overseer of wine farms in South Africa. They audited the farm last September and we got an acceptable score with room for improvement. This has involved checking out our operations and making sure that we’re using proper practices to make good wine, keep full and appropriate records during the process, and minimize/eliminate the cellar’s negative impact on the environment. This is and will be an ongoing project – most recently, with the start of harvest, I’ve got us keeping relatively detailed records of the status of the grapes that we harvest (temperature, weight, time, etc).

I’ve also done a small amount of work around the tasting room. Kris and Kathleen have decided to start alternating weekends of work, with Kris and I working the tasting room every other weekend. I can’t say that my skills at talking about wine are any good just yet, but I’m at least starting to get a better handle of the wines that we are currently tasting (Sav Blanc, Merlot, Cab, Shiraz-Mourverdre, the 1674 – a Bordeaux-style blend, and the recently bottled Chardonnay ’09). The plan is to try to do a bunch of tastings while I’m here since there are so many nearby farms and get my taste buds up to speed without becoming a “wine douche” (as Erin has delicately termed it).

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’ve been going on deliveries around Paarl, Stellenbosch, and Cape Town. I went with Kris for the first few days while I got used to the protocol and the city, then went on my first solo set of deliveries on Tuesday. This has given me a nice opportunity to see and get to know our clients (restaurants, hotels, and liquor stores mostly), and also figure out my way around Cape Town. The plan on delivery days is usually to head into town around midday once rush hour has ended, make the deliveries for a few hours, then go to one of the Virgin Active gyms in Cape Town to wait out the rush hour traffic going back out to Paarl.

Harvest got started on Monday, when we harvested the Chardonnay. Monday was a long day – we didn’t start harvesting until around 8 or 9 a.m. after cleaning all the equipment. We were also somewhat understaffed on the grape sorting tables, so we worked through until around 10:15 p.m.. My only meal that day was breakfast at around 10 a.m., so I was pretty grumpy by the end. Worse, pretty much everything in Paarl was closed by the time we got done – a drive-thru McDonalds finally saved the day, though. The Chardonnay harvest continued on Tuesday, though I was gone for deliveries. When I got back, things were pretty crazy because Solly, one of the cellar workers and a good dude as far as I could tell from the lots of work we had done together and small amount we’d been able to communicate with each other, had gotten his hand stuck in the big press machine. Apparently it was very bad – broken bones and severed tendons. He had surgery that evening and has another one scheduled for Saturday. Hopefully he comes out alright. It was a sobering reminder to everyone that enormous farm equipment is dangerous.

Harvest continued today with Viognier this morning, which was only about 1.5 tons. Merlot harvest was about to start as Kris and I left for George. The harvest period in all should continue for about another month.

My plans for entertainment while I’m here were to check out the Ultimate scene in Cape Town, and also to learn how to kitesurf. Both have gone pretty well so far.

For Frisbee, I got in contact with the powers that be in the CT community and found my way onto a team called Chilli – apparently they’ve won the last couple of national championships here. I went out to one day of summer league to play with them against the University of Cape Town (UCT) team. The quality of play was certainly lower than in the states – my 2009 WUDI summer league team would give Chilli a tight game -- but it was nice to get out there and throw around. The Ultimate community is a great tool for travel; it’s just big enough that there is a place to play pretty much anywhere you go, but small enough that it is easy to get involved. At summer league there was one Dartmouth dude that I hadn’t met before and an Oregon dude that I’d played against a zillion times in college.

I’m pretty excited about kitesurfing right now. I resolved to learn it while I was in the Bahamas and saw that it is possible on both the ocean side and the bay side there and heard that it is popular in Cape Town. I found a place in Muizenberg that will give you lessons and then deduct the cost of those lessons if you decide to buy the equipment – pretty perfect for me, since I’d been planning to learn and then buy the equipment anyway if I liked it and was decent at it. Only questionable part of the operation is the fact that one of the instructors, who now just works at the shop, has a broken ankle from kitesurfing. Doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, especially for someone who already has mush for ankles. I’ve taken two lessons now with this Polish girl Patty. The first was on an extremely gusty day. I just learned about the kiting part of things on that day, and practiced kiting on the beach with the training kites and then a very small kitesurfing kite. Kris joined me for that lesson, though he couldn’t make the second – he isn’t quite as enthusiastic as me about it, but I might get him to come out again. In the second lesson, I got out into the water and did some body dragging – using the kite to pull me through the water while I lie on my stomach. I got decent at that and had a bit of time left in the lesson so tried to add the board to things. That didn’t go so well. My hope is that by my next lesson (sometime next week?) I’ll have the whole thing down and will be able to get out there on my own. I think it’s going to be really fun, and is something that I’ll be able to do in lots of places.

Aside from those ongoing fun activities, we’ve had a few other noteworthy adventures. On the Tuesday after I got here, there was a beginning-of-the-year management meeting, followed by a sail on a large boat out in the harbour leaving from the V&W Waterfront. The view from the water was great. It was my first time seeing Cape Town, and I got to see the whole city on a beautiful day with big-ole Table Mountain in the background. The plan had been to sail around Robben Island (where Mandela was imprisoned), but we saw that there were whales around, which was rare for so late – usually they aren’t in so close past November. We saw 6ish whales, and got within around 50 meters. While on a cool sailboat, eating delicious snacks and drinking wine. Then we all went out for dinner in Cape Town. Here's a view from the bay that I stole from the internet:

The stadium in the foreground is Green Point Stadium, built for the upcoming World Cup 2010.

Last weekend, on our first weekend off, Kris and I took a trip down to Cape Point. On the way there, we went on this great scenic route along the water – Chapman’s Peak. We stopped once because the view overlooking Hout Bay was too great to drive by. We went and parked at the Cape of Good Hope, the “southwesternmost point of Africa.” From there we the hiking path and went along a ridge overlooking the water. Views were great. We saw Diaz Beach from the path on the mountain, and decided to climb down to it because it looked so nice. Bad idea. The wind picked up the sand and launched it at us – tiny little particle bullets stinging every bit of exposed skin. The only escape was down by the water, which was freezing-ass cold. Once we escaped from Diaz we hiked over to Cape Point (which informed me that I’m ~15,000 km from New York) and down to the lighthouse point. Good views all around. Wish I had a camera then – oh well. We saw some baboons on the drive back. There was a mother and some really cute little ones in the road in front of us, which we admired. Then this huge alpha male baboon stood up from the side of the road looked at us, and started walking towards us in a way that seemed angry to me, though it probably is just the way he walks anywhere. “Don’t make eye contact!” I said. We didn’t, and he passed on by as we high-tailed it back to Cape Town for dinner and then on to Paarl.

Here's a picture of the painful Diaz beach, probably taken from around Cape Point, with the ridge overlooking the Cape of Good Hope behind it:

Also found on the internet using the same google image search, here are two pictures of Cameron Diaz on a beach:

Here are some Cape Point baboons lifted from someone else's blog (I'll start to create my own pictures now that I have a camera):


  1. sick sa blog jmm. very enjoyable reading.

  2. cecil, gave birth to jackFebruary 13, 2010 at 1:46 PM

    wow. excellent blog and writing. lots i did not yet know about what you are doing...and i would like to join the liked the beach adventure.

  3. "Wine Douche" would make a good spin-off blog.