Tim James: On lawsuits served and survived
By Christian Eedes, 11 July 2016
Taking up the theme of lawyers in wine that I introduced last week (see here): I’ve been served lawsuits three times (none got to court) resulting from my comparatively youthful days when there was a gossip column in Grape magazine called “The Widow’s sour grapes”. Somehow I tended to get blamed for the old bag’s indiscretions. There were probably a few other close calls, and even more recently, I heard of an intention to sue me by a producer who didn’t like what I wrote about a wine of his and the way it was marketed – but I’ve heard nothing as yet and would be delighted to defend that one.
One lawsuit came from a wine and travel journalist who didn’t like the admittedly rather rough way the column criticised his practice of writing advertorials; eventually, I think, both sides realised how expensive it was getting, so a bit of compromise wording resolved that. Another was from the KWV (via cellarmaster Sterik de Wet, now cellarmaster at Ashton Kelder) after I’d suggested that their winemaking chief should take some responsibility for the notorious adulteration of sauvignon blanc in 2004 by a few KWV winemakers (who themselves somehow escaped prosecution for breaking the law) – or at least for the corporate culture that allowed them to act illegally.
That matter was resolved when, effectively, KWV were helped by an honest broker to realise that the publicity involved in suing a journalist over this particular case wouldn’t do them much good. As an aside, can you imagine the bad old days when producers were dead keen to get MORE pyrazine greenness into their sauvignon?
The third lawsuit was the silliest, but the story around it is the best. Johan was der Berg was a Senior Counsel involved from the mid 1990s in defending a German swindler, Jurgen Harksen, whose extradition to Germany was delayed for years while he was living here. Later, Harksen wrote that he “was a cow for the South African legal community to milk”, while van der Berg was struck off the rolls as a result of some of his actions in defending him. Not for his fees – the final Appeal Court judgement against him absolved him of that, given insufficient evidence, though the sums cited were stupendous. Apart from the magnificent fees, then, he was declared an “advocate who is not fit to continue in practice”.
The wine connection is that lawyer Johan was also the owner of a large farm in Darling called Groene Cloof, originally a sheep-place, but producing its first wines in 1998 (don’t ask Jurgen about the fees that allowed him all this, unless you want to observe apoplexy). Then Groene Cloof became the Cloof that we all know and love, though as far as I’m aware there’s no lawyerly involvement any more – van der Berg apparently sold the farm and wine brand to what the 2004 Platter Guide called “foreign investors”.
The Widow mentioned in a 2001 column the recent occasion when van den Berg insisted on embarrassing his hosts by inviting the already infamous Harksen as his partner to the presentation of a pinotage award to Groene Cloof – perhaps he was fond of his cash cow or just wanted to reward him for his financial support and for his determination to stay in our lovely Cape rather than face deportation to chilly Germany. Trouble is, the Widow referred to the eminent jurist as “Vark” van der Berg – innocently accepting that this was his established nickname amongst those who frequent the more salubrious corridors of the High Court.
Well! How wrong could the silly old thing have been! Of course the porcine allusion was malicious and untrue gossip, and Mr vdB blamed me for the Widow’s dreadful mistake in repeating it. He threatened a R500 000 defamation suit. (And he wouldn’t even have had to pay outrageous legal fees in doing so!) Of course, being devoted solely to truth and justice, I was only too happy to apologise, and so was the Widow. For her own reasons. But I dare say she soon thereafter felt just a touch of schadenfreude when Johan, if I may call him that, got into his spot of bother with his legal confrères.
Googling doesn’t help me find out what Johan is doing now (nor could I find a picture of him anywhere). I do wonder where he is, and what wine he drinks – surely not Cloof’s The Dark Side?
I hadn’t realised quite how much there was to write about lawyers and wine. Regrettably, there’s no space left for the tales of the hanging judge and the Judge President. Winemag permitting, they must wait for next week.
- Tim James is founder of Grape.co.za and contributes to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.
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