Accountant tallies up cost of wine farm career change

I had my head in an unputdownable book last Sunday as we drove by bus to a wine tasting on Helshoogte Pass.

As the struggling engine alerted us that we were nearly there, I pulled back the curtain and was bowled over by the sight of the most beautiful farm of the many beautiful farms we have in the Western Cape.

Framed by a long hedge of azure blue plumbago and the Helshoogte Mountains behind, were multiple rows of dark green vines parallel to those of a lighter hue. We’d arrived at Thelema Mountain Vineyards.

Gyles Webb, the owner, looked more like the modest desk-bound Durban accountant he was in the 1980s before a glass of Burgundy Puligny-Montrachet convinced him to lay down his calculator, study oenology at Stellenbosch University and turn a charming rundown fruit farm into an acclaimed estate.

It not only has won just about every viticulture award there is but is still rated among the top 20 by critics, journalists, local sommeliers, retailers and British Wine Masters today.

Gyles told us how in 1983 he bought Thelema with help from his wife Barbara’s family, plus a spot of guile of his own. He was working at Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery when his boss told him about a “terrific vineyard site” but was cagey about any details.

“One day the boss lunched at the Oude Libertas restaurant, where a couple of glasses of wine with the meal was almost compulsory. On his return I thought his defences might be down, so I asked him the name of the farm and he replied ‘Thelema’.

“I then phoned the farm and became friendly with the owner, John Kitson, and this resulted in us buying the property about two years later.”

He promptly pulled out the fruit orchards and planted vines there for the first time. In 1988 he released the first wines under the Thelema label.

Starting up and maintaining a top-quality wine farm is a most expensive adventure. So he was interested to meet a Russian who told him he wanted to buy a wine farm although he knew nothing either about wine or farming.

“When I asked him why, he replied (in guttural tones) ‘Cause I gota lot of money.’ “I thought it a very good answer. You don’t buy a wine farm ‘to make a lot of money’.”


Ironically my unputdownable book was one which for years I could not get into. It was a present from an Armenian friend and I wrongly thought that Elif Shafak’s book The Bastard of Istanbul was about the Hitler equivalent in the Turkish government who, in 1915, had set the plan in motion to expel and massacre Armenians in the Ottoman Empire.

Recently I came across the book again and noting that it was a “vivid and entertaining novel”, I decided to try one complete chapter… and was hooked.

The story is about three families: an amusing and complex all-female household of Turkish aunts in Istanbul, an Armenian family in San Francisco and a beautiful young woman named Armanoush in Arizona who is “half and half”. With an Armenian mother and father Turkish father she’s unsure of herself culturally so decides secretly to visit her father’s Turkish aunts in Istanbul to find out her own “Armenianness”.

There she meets 19-year-old Asya, the bastard daughter of “Aunt” Zeliha who has never revealed the name of the girl’s father.

Author Shafak’s funny, warm, complex and engaging characters really draw you into their respective worlds in a positive and absorbing way. I want to re-read parts just to better understand the atmosphere, secrets and intriguing cuisine of the three different households.

Enviro enquiry

Consumer columnist Wendy Knowler’s exposure in the Sunday Times on April 9 that “millions of branded plastic supermarket carrier bags were not recyclable” was a slap in the face to consumers doing their bit to save our landfills. According to Wendy the addition of cheaper filler had made the plastic shopping bags unacceptable to recyclers, “yet the supermarkets implore their customers to recycle the bags”. Only Checkers, she wrote, used recyclable bags.

Wendy’s article made me question the huge truck piled high with clear plastic bags of recyclables at the Constantia Village depot. Was it heading straight for the landfill? Or, as I had been told, going to be sorted?

A friendly chat with Deidre Paul-Diemont, manager of the Constantia Shopping Centre, proved reassuring.

She told me that the volumes of recyclables were now too high for the on-site staff to handle, so the bags were taken away in a truck to be sorted elsewhere.

The most recent monthly figures received were that 90% of the contents had been recycled and 10% gone to the landfill. This was a far better ratio than the previous company which is why a change had been made.

What’s disappointing is that two popular supermarket packaging materials – polystyrene and clear food punnets – are not accepted at Constantia Village. Both can be recycled but as yet there is no market for them. So don’t take them there. Not until some bright entrepreneur dreams up a future use for them.

Tight night

With Hamlet in town, a pal thought I should know that in Shakespeare’s time, mattresses were secured on bed frames by ropes. When you pulled on the ropes, the mattress tightened, making the bed firmer to sleep on. Hence, the phrase “Goodnight, sleep tight.”

Eggcitement awaits

One of the nice things about getting old is that you can hide your own Easter eggs.