Melvyn Minnaar: The Art of Trophies

By , 4 November 2020

One of the horrors of my young life as a wine snob was the close-up view of a Grand Prix race winner taking a slug from a double magnum of champagne, giving the grand bottle a good shake and then spraying the closest and nearest. In a manner more suited to junior schoolyard action, he is messing with a liquid that, theoretically, took a talented cellar master plenty of skill and patience (and investment) to create. I suppose boys will be boys – bubbles gone to the dogs.

(It’s more or less the same thing in the throbbing, dim ambience of celeb nightclubs where the Louis Roederer Cristal – retail if you’re lucky, R4 000 – competes with the blue bottle shooters.)

I once had the temerity to ask a chap at a champagne house in Rheims whether it was the real stuff inside the bottle or just carbonated whatever. At that stage, this spraying of bottles with large branded labels was the rage for everything from egg races to the F1. He gave me a horror look and kept the trade secret to himself.

He reminded me that ships were launched with the breaking of bottles of bubbly at the naming ceremony – a British tradition encourages by the brave French.

Besides the large branded bottle of either real champagne or fake, the winner of the Formula One gets a trophy. In fact, the winners of all fancy grands prix sporting events get trophies. (That ace, Lewis Hamilton, who now, after the Portuguese F1, has at least 93, even got two for winning the British Grand Prix in August.)

Trophies are so solidly part of all sports – of which I argue wine races or competitions are certainly part – that the look and design of these could be a serious subject for a post-grad art degree.

There are the classics: old, colonial, gold/silver and sometimes gorgeously and romantically beautiful (like the two Lewis got for the British). Then there are the moderns: often hyper designed (like the Portuguese one), brushed steel, aluminium, paint, wood, in awkward shapes and forms, and many, many in glass. (Golf especially specialises in the latter.)

In the numerous races for top spots in the goodness-me-how-many? South African wine competitions, the range is a parallel collection of the strange, the good, the bad and, yes, the very ugly.

Johan Ehlers, CEO of Agri-Expo, Willie Burger, cellar master of Badsberg Wine Cellar, with the General Smuts trophy for the best wine of 2020, a wooded Ruby Cabernet, and Christo Pienaar, chairman of the SA Young Wine Show.

Every year, with the young wine shows, the oldies come out. And the grandest dad of them all is, of course, that enormous one they call The General Smuts. What a beauty he (can’t be a ‘she’, can it?) is. And what a pleasure the General ignites in the eyes of the young (or not so) winemaker who made the very best wine of that harvest season? (That there can, in reality, be a best single wine in the entire South African wine-producing world, is, of course, the same fantasy that is captured in the glorious imagery of that vast trophy into which at least 25 bottles can be poured.)

While I still have to trace the talented smith and or company that knocked out this fine show-off monster in sterling silver and its wonderful, expressive filigreed design, it certainly has pride of place in local wine culture. Introduced in 1952 and named by the Cape of Good Hope Agricultural Society in honour of the Union’s Prime Minister Jan Christiaan Smuts for his support of the wine industry (the wine broeders of the time in action).

Bennie Howard, who knows a lot about these things as vice chair of the South African National Wine Show Association tells me that besides the overall champions cup (I did say, it parallels sport), the Pietman Hugo is awarded to the top five scored producer, while there are another 17 in silver and gold that goes to best category winners – all most sought after.

Trophies in our other wine sports events take on all kinds of shapes and manner. (A real glass joker is annually handed over at Groot Constantia as the 1659 “medal” of honour. Winemaker of the Year’s trophy is another odd bod.

Perhaps the wittiest in terms of commenting on the cup tradition, are those used in Michael Fridjhon’s Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show competition. The originals were designed by jeweller sculptor John Skotness in 2002. These have a delightful ‘African’ theatrical quality, poking fun at the colonial past.

Absa Top 10 Pinotage Trophy.

But to my mind, the jolliest trophies are those given to the annual winners of the Absa Top Ten Pinotages. Handed over since 1997, when the organisers had a great idea, recipients get a rather delicate hand-blown “wineglass” modelled in the style of what would have been used 300 years ago.

The fragility of the object is a lovely irony to the pompousness of some others, and, of course, it cleverly refers directly to history and what it is awarded for. Each winner also gets to keep, forever, the pretty little thing, made these days by the Red Hot Glass people at Spice Route.

(I was going to include the gorgeous pure gold Curry Cup in this story, but the sad recent history of that once great rugby event is enough to make me cry in my champagne.)

  • Melvyn Minnaar has written about art and wine for various local and international publications over the years. The creativity that underpins these subjects is an enduring personal passion. He has served on a few “cultural committees”.

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