SA wine history: Selective memory – Part One: GS Cabernet
By Joanne Gibson, 1 September 2021
Following the passing of wine industry legend Duimpie Bayly last month, Tim James wrote: ‘There is stuff gone with Duimpie that, when anyone bothers to look for it in the future, we shall never know.’
Tim was referring to ‘the murky reaches of the 20th century about which there is remarkably little written down’ and he mentioned in particular ‘the great red blends of the mid 20th century […] about which frustratingly little is known for certain and will probably never be known.’
Having started his illustrious career in the laboratory at Stellenbosch Farmers Winery (SFW) in 1962, eventually retiring from the company as Group Operations Director in 1995 but continuing to serve as a Distell board member until 2013, Duimpie knew ‘stuff’.
Yet, when I asked him back in 2008 for more information on the wine historically regarded as South Africa’s greatest red, the legendary GS Cabernet 1966 which was grown and vinified in Durbanville, then sold to Monis, the Paarl producer acquired by SFW that same year, he said: ‘Unfortunately all the records have been lost.’
Things got even murkier when the winemaker who worked under Monis cellarmaster George Spies (whose initials grace those distinctive old labels) refused to talk to me: ‘Whatever I say won’t be what you want to hear,’ insisted Hans Losch in 2008.
Needless to say, when I met with Losch ahead of last month’s article on Monis Regina sparkling wine, I couldn’t resist asking: ‘Isn’t it finally time to tell the true story about GS Cabernet?’
‘Get out!’ he roared.
He was joking. (I think. The meeting ended very amicably.) But from the few things that Losch did say, I’m convinced that he was far more personally involved in bottling the GS 1966 (and its slightly less highly esteemed successor, the GS 1968) than he’s ever been given credit for.
‘We took in the wine [from Phil Walker at Morgenster and the Parkers at Altydgedacht],’ he said. ‘The ’66 was in [large wooden] stukvate, but the ’68 was just in [concrete] tanks.’
Was it Spies who bottled the wines? Losch laughed at this suggestion.
If not Spies, then who? Losch pointed at himself.
‘But the wine wasn’t certified so we couldn’t sell it,’ he said. ‘Someone at SFW had the idea to put “GS” on the label. It was dished out to SFW directors, and some of them gave it to family and friends. We had to mark it as “experimental” to get it out of the gates. One day Spies saw it on the winelist at a restaurant in Sea Point. He came to me and accused me of selling it, which of course I never did. It had become almost like a narcotics business – we heard people were paying R500/600 for a bottle! After Spies died [in 1997], his son-in-law came along with a lorry and said he was here to pick up Mr Spies’s wine. We said, you can’t take it, it’s not Spies’s wine, it’s Monis’ wine!’
An uncertified and unsellable Monis wine that became highly sought after and ultimately iconic, GS Cabernet probably isn’t what George Spies should be remembered for. But there are many other good reasons: ‘He was considered an excellent winemaker,’ says Romi Boom, author of a book commissioned by and about Monis. ‘His red and white Chianti and a selection of dessert wines, solera sherries and Italian vermouths became Monis specialities.’
She reveals that Spies had an exceptionally close relationship with Monis founder Roberto Moni: ‘Spies and his wife, Rita, had a standing weekly date to dine with the lonely, childless Roberto Moni in Sea Point. When Roberto was overseas, it was Spies’s task to put flowers on [Roberto’s late wife] Yolanda’s grave in a chapel that Roberto had erected in the Catholic Cemetery, Gate No 1, Woltemade. Roberto formally expressed the wish in his will that Mr and Mrs George Spies also be buried in his chapel, on the top portion immediately above where he and Yolanda would rest.’
When Moni died in 1972, Spies inherited almost one third of the estate: ‘His share came to just over R30 000 […] after the most important legatee, Benito Moni, son of Roberto’s brother, Giacomo, and the widow, Annita, who inherited R35 000. Another brother, Fausto, and his son, Robert, each inherited R2 500. The first choice of Roberto’s two valuable Oriental carpets went to George Spies. So it seems that he was a son to Roberto and that may explain in part why he was held in such esteem,’ concludes Boom.
Spies is widely remembered as a flamboyant character – a ‘terrific’ dancer and horseman who rode ‘Spanish-style, in full garb’ – in short, precisely the legendary sort of winemaker that any marketing department would want behind a legendary wine. However, when the origins of the wine are as pedestrian as they really do appear to be in the case of the GS Cabernet, then perhaps it’s not surprising that nobody wanted to talk about it, and records were ‘lost’.
A very different sort of selective memory applies to the legendary old wine I’ll be writing about next time…
- Joanne Gibson has been a journalist, specialising in wine, for over two decades. She holds a Level 4 Diploma from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust and has won both the Du Toitskloof and Franschhoek Literary Festival Wine Writer of the Year awards, not to mention being shortlisted four times in the Louis Roederer International Wine Writers’ Awards. As a sought-after freelance writer and copy editor, her passion is digging up nuggets of SA wine history.
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