Interview: Mike Dobrovic of Havana Hills

By , 7 July 2014



Dobrovic at leisure.

Dobrovic at leisure.

From the July issue of Business Day WANTED: Mike Dobrovic, 57, was winemaker at Mulderbosch for nearly two decades before departing in 2009 and now holds a consultancy position with Philidelphia winery Havana Hills. One of the great eccentrics of the wine industry, he is well read in not only in science but philosophy and psychology as well and an interview with him is never an ordinary affair. He currently lives with veterinarian Marie Potgieter in Stellenbosch along with four dogs, two ducks and one blind Khoi.

Havana Hills is situated between Melkbosstrand and Philadelphia, a relatively new area for wine production. What makes it special?
The variation in soils is extensive and we’re only 10km from the Atlantic so there’s a strong maritime influence on the vines. Also, there’s a hill known as Olifantskop in the area which allows us to plant as high as 250m above sea level. Daytime temperatures are on average four degrees cooler than Stellenbosch which facilitates optimal ripening but it’s the cold nights which are really the great gift of this place ensuring reds with deep colour and great fruit expression. I can’t mention names but some of the greatest reds are made from grapes coming from Philadelphia.

What has been your most memorable wine experience?
When I was working with the late Graham Reid from Anchor Yeast. It was at a time when literally thousands of wines used to undergo stuck and sluggish fermentation and he allowed me some input on developing a yeast nutrient – he had the ability to understand fermentation like few other yeast producers and would listen rather than dictate. His nutrient has saved the industry many millions of rand and at the same time improved quality.

You’re a keen amateur carpenter – what’s your preferred wood to work with?
Less than 0.5% of indigenous forest remains in Southern Africa so it would be criminal to use wood from the remaining trees. However, over the years, people have planted indigenous trees in their gardens and occasionally one will fall over during a storm – if I’m lucky, I get some of that wood. Normally, however, the wood I use is alien – blue gums and blackwood.  Both these species were introduced from Australia and even if they are aliens, it’s sad to cut one down. However I assuage my guilt by planting an indigenous tree in its place. My favourite tree to plant in the Cape is the Olinia Ventosa (Hard Pear) as so few of these trees remain – the wood is exceptionally hard and has a light pink grain so was highly prized. I’ll never get to make anything from the trees I’ve planted as they are around 80 years old before they start to fall but some lucky carpenter will hopefully create something beautiful in the future.

You’re into botany and trying to keep the bulbs of the Cape from extinction. What have you planted recently that you’re excited about?
Botany has always been my greatest love – the mystery of planting something and watching it grow is my way of grounding myself.  The Cape Floral Kingdom is tiny yet is the most diverse for its size in the world – only the Amazon basin has more plant species.  Many of our plants are now extinct and it is imperative that we try to save what remains. Recently I managed to buy two bulbs of the Watsonia Alba (extinct in the wild) and some Ixia Dubia and Ixia Viridiflora. Marie is luckily very supportive of my hobby as her stoep, garden, and every plantable inch are gradually being overtaken with indigenous plants.

One of your favourite thinkers is Jung. What fundamental insights have you gained from reading him?
“Perfection is death.” Nothing is perfect in this life and if we get too trapped in striving for perfection, we miss the moment. We miss the opportunity to grow. We have the paradox that we must strive and also we must accept, so for me it is trying to find that balance. A very simple example would be that I love plants, Marie as a vet loves animals. As we cultivate more indigenous species of plant in the garden, more and more birds and animals are visiting us. Somehow there is no conflict, we both win, as neither demands perfection.

Dogs have always played a big role in your life. Which one of them do you remember most fondly? Small Change! He came to me on Valentine’s Day 2000 and crept into the hearts of everyone. He looked vicious and was as strong as an ox yet he had a heart of pure gold. The thing I remember most, was if I picked up hitchhikers, they would be often frightened of getting into the car because of him. Once they did, however, Small Change would welcome them with a lick and promptly lay his head on their laps. He simply did not have one ounce of aggression in him.

Finally, you’re known as a bit of a comedian. Tell us a joke that’s not too filthy.
Two men were fighting over a piece of land. They eventually went to see Nasrudin the Fool to adjudicate. After hearing the arguments, Nasrudin asked to hear what the land had to say. So they took him to the place in question and Nasrudin lay down and put his ear to the ground. After a while he got up and the two men were laughing at him. “So, Nasrudin,” they asked, “What does the land say?” Nasrudin answered “It says you both belong to me.”


5 comment(s)

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    Chris Williams | 7 July 2014

    I met mike just as he started Mulderbosch. I had discovered his Blanc Fume that he made at Delaire and was a convert from day 1. I remember skipping classes and pracs at Elseburg to go hang out with him during the 1993 Vintage. Thinking back I was probably a pain in the a$% and in the way, but Mike would spend time explaining wine chemistry, philosophy, religion and throw in the odd off colour joke. Mike was the master of Sauvignon at the time and probably the authority of applied wine chemistry in South Africa. I remember a couple of years later buying a South African edition of Playboy and the centrefold shoot was shot in a barrel cellar which looked remarkably familiar…It was Mulderbosch and Larry and Mike had rented it out for a nudie shoot to make some much needed cash in the early days of the business. Stuff like that just doesn’t happen anymore…

      Grant | 8 July 2014

      Gold. In the same way that there is very little recorded history ( or bottled wines for that matter) of the SA industry in the late 1800’s/ early to mid 1900’s, there is no chronicle of this sort of stuff either. I remember attending a ‘Legends of the Vine’ lecture in Sydney 15 years ago, with Len Evans, Sir James Hardy and Chris Hancock. Great stories were told…an admirer of Hancock’s wines opined that the modern day wines were a pale imitation of his from 40 years prior, and he was a genius for making wines of such balance and low alcohol. He then told the whole room that his secret to low alcohol wines was huge blocks of ice used to cool the ferments! Guess what I’m saying is that I’d love to hear/read these sort of stories from the pioneers of the SA wine industry. They’re out there to be told.

    Christian | 7 July 2014

    Hi Grant, Glad you like it and big ups to WANTED for running the series – as we all know, there aren’t many wine-related writing gigs out there. Interviews from the year to date loaded under “Opinion & Analysis”.

      Grant | 7 July 2014

      What about you seeking them out independently for this site? Can remember Geoff Merrill, one of the real characters of Australian wine, telling me about working with Duimpie Bayly (sp?) at vintage more than 30 years ago and there were great stories. Fun stories. Wine needs more fun. And characters. This would be a great platform for that. GD

    Grant | 7 July 2014

    More of this sort of stuff mate. Would love to hear the stories of the characters of SA wine. There must be a treasure trove of good stuff out there.

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