Tim James: Three great wines – but what of their presentation?

By , 26 July 2021

Comment

27

Let’s take the quality of the wines discussed below as unassailable. Is the aesthetic judgement – and in one case, the political one – merely a matter of taste (or conviction)? Well, they’re at least questionable.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen a public reference to Sadie Columella’s comprehensive use of Latin on its elegantly designed display label (“Liberatus in Castro Bonae Spei”, etc), apart from Christian Eedes referring to it, apparently approving of its originality, in his introduction to the second Wine Label Design awards. Otherwise, I suppose it’s either an elephant-in-the-room thing which embarrasses commentators, or else no-one apart from me finds it odd enough to be worth mentioning. De Toren uses a Roman numeral for the “five” part of the name of Fusion V, and there is the occasional label using them for the date – such as Steenberg Magna Carta, where the practice is perhaps saved from silliness, if not pretension, by relating to the Latin name, I suppose. Sadie, however, inverts this latter process, so that it is in fact ONLY the number which is not Latinate; it’s in standard Arabic numerals. The Latin link to the name is, of course, that Columella was an ancient Roman agronomist (so too was Palladius, but that label is in English, like the “back”, official, label of Columella….)

Eben Sadie told me many years back that he was so in love with his maiden wine that he thought neither English nor Afrikaans good enough for its label – hence the Latin. Some time later I asked him (and I suspect he sensed my own doubts) if he regretted having done something so unusual, and he emphatically denied that. Myself, I think the later choice of Afrikaans for the Ou Wingerdreeks/Old Vineyard Series entirely more appropriate than Latin. Incidentally, I wonder if Sadie is the only producer in the world to use three different languages (unmixed) on his labels, as well as the only producer with one of those languages being Latin?

*

The foreign language on Klein Constantia’s Vin de Constance label is, of course, French – though limited to the name. I don’t find that pretentious, but I fear the whole effect of the packaging is rather kitsch, which is perhaps even worse. Using a bottle manufactured by modern techniques to imitate a wonky 18th century hand-blown one (and repeated as a magnum) – well, it’s rather like those electric heaters that have a moulded plastic cover electrically illuminated from behind and painted to supposedly resemble glowing coals. I believe they found the bottle in Italy and subsequently patented the design; the rather ugly label is designed to match. Groot Constantia’s Grand Constance, another wine inspired by the old Constantias, also alludes directly to an antique-style bottle but doesn’t pretend that the allusion is more than that, so it ends up that much less vulgar. A pity that Vin de Constance, one of the Cape’s few indisputably iconic wines, and one of its most expensive, should be packaged like this, so self-consciously coy.

*

The problem with the public presentation of Kanonkop Paul Sauer is rather more serious and more fundamental: the problem is the name itself. I guess if the wine were named after Hendrik Verwoerd, more people might notice the problem and, I hope, join me in objecting. But I suppose few international admirers, and maybe not all that many local ones, realise that Paul Sauer was more than just another run-of-the-mill National Party minister in the apartheid era – even if the overwhelmingly white (mostly right-wing?) local constituency for fine wine perhaps realises it and doesn’t much care. The Kanonkop website says that Paul Sauer was a politician most famous for serving “in the South African parliament for forty-one consecutive years”. It doesn’t mention that, very importantly, he chaired the Sauer Commission, established in 1947, to formulate an alternative new policy for traditional racial segregation, and whose work has been seen as the theoretical basis for the apartheid system that Sauer’s party was to soon start enforcing.

The only other Cape wine producer I can think of that honours a famous racist is the KWV, with what was Abraham Perold Tributum and now appears to be The Mentors Perold. A.I. Perold was, of course, an important local viticulturist and no doubt his achievement (particularly his creation of pinotage) is what the KWV wants to honour. But he was also, inescapably (it’s not often mentioned by the Pinotage Association or others), a Nazi supporter and member of the Ossewa Brandwag before his premature death in 1941. (Incidentally, Sadie Columella also mentions ‘tributum” on its label – but the tribute is to someone who died two millennia back, distant enough for use to ignore that he was, apparently, a supporter of slavery.)

History is history. It happened. But it doesn’t need to be insisted upon when that history is offensive to so many people. No one admires Kanonkop as a wine producer more than I do. But is it really acceptable that one of South Africa’s finest, best-known wines are still named after a person so deeply implicated in establishing the policies of grand apartheid? The names of streets, airports, cities etc deemed offensive to most South Africans have been changed in the last few decades, statues have toppled…. Shouldn’t the name of the Kanonkop flagship have also discreetly changed – to PS, perhaps (the suggestion made to me by Jancis Robinson, when I asked her opinion of this)? Its persistence seems to me one more measure of how little the wine industry has shifted since 1994 to reflect – let alone to help build – a successful post-apartheid society.

Dragging Perold with it, Paul Sauer Should Fall! Not the wine, of course (let’s not be radical here), just the name.

  • Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing 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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Comments

27 comment(s)

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  • Roland Peens2 August 2021

    Couple people asking if the Roland commenting here is me. It’s not, but the Roland comments are very well considered.

    Good debate all round, I see both sides. Rudolf Steiner is another very questionable hero for many, but you can’t doubt that much of his thinking morphed into something good.

  • Brad29 July 2021

    Agree with your words Roland. There is no need to give such negative attention to these iconic wine labels that have been around for ages.

    I have to ask, why now? Why has nothing been mentioned in the last 2 or 3 decades? Does it really matter? We are not talking about Joseph Stalin or Adolf Hitler here. Politics aside, it was about 80 years ago & these so called ‘white’ males did play an important part in the wine industry back then.

    Currently, we have so much political nonsense to deal with in this country & we have just come out of another lockdown, let’s just be grateful & enjoy the wine!

  • Carl29 July 2021

    Well statues have toppled that have stood for centuries amid the cancel and wokeness “culture” enforced by a small minority. We have even seen churches burned in Canada with little reporting. We know the Crusades are also a great issue of contention. The murder and mayhem unleashed on innocent citizens, some of it in the name of St Peter. Infamous namesake of that estate in Pomerol, I wonder whether they are fretting about an impeding name change.

    I’m sure you are aware that a branding name change such as the one you propose is a very expensive exercise which will require more thought and Rands than a simple PS (“What does PS stand for? “O that was my grandfather Paul Sauer’s initials”….cancel cancel all over. ) In these times of alcohol bans, export bans and Transnet harbour closures I believe those funds are not much readily available. If for example the Kriges rather spend that on the further upliftment of their workers, what would be a better legacy?

  • Roland29 July 2021

    Maybe I’m way off the mark, but I suspect there is a sharp generational divide on this topic. I’m guessing that most of the readers and commenters are north of 40 or even 50+ years old, and it may be too difficult to imagine the optics of the wine industry through the eyes of a 20-something. Think back in your own lifetime and consider, what did your parents’ generation make of your own politics, pop music, fashion, sexlife? How many times have you observed a fearful older population railing and shouting against a change that seems inevitable in hindsight?

    It should be understood that these people are disillusioned, cynical, and very angry at the world and culture that has been bequeathed to them (and, I’m speaking globally, not just talking about South Africa and mismanagement by successive apartheid&democractic governments). To write them off as snowflakes, or a woke brigade, is to miss the point and to repeat exactly the same generational pattern, again and again.

    Understand that these angry young voices (many of them your children) are your consumers of the future.
    Why fight them? It’s easier and more profitable to listen to them and learn how to sell to them. Provide solutions to their problems, sell products which aim to meet their demands – THAT’S what the market does!

    • Gary29 July 2021

      I’m in my 30s so perhaps fall into the generational gap you speak of. I usually steer clear of any of these kinds of discussions for fear of being branded what ever term is the flavour of the month. But here is my take:

      1. The power, recognition and trust of a brand name almost can’t be quantified. Paul Sauer in particular is one such brand name that has done a lot of good for the overall perception of SA wine around the globe. This in turn has allowed the market to increase prices of premium offerings and enable such producers to pour a little more into upliftment projects … which I think we can all agree is a good thing.

      2. This is perhaps the more important point regarding this particular issue. I truly believe that these wines have not been named because of anybodies beliefs or politics, but instead for their contribution to the wine industry. Perold for his legacy of Pinotage and PS for his work on Kanonkop, having owned and worked the land, and his ancestors still owning it and doing a wonderful job of creating wines all South Africans can be proud of.

      Maybe I’m just choosing to see the best in people’s intensions, but I feel that is what humanity needs in general to stop the endless cycles of division. While bullying a family to remove their founding ancestor off their wine at immense cost, doesn’t in my view at least do much for unity.

    • Annemarie Beckett15 August 2021

      Allow the new generation to start their own wine farms and name it appropriately for their generation. Making their own mark on the wine industry.
      Changing names only leads to confusion. Nobody knows where the new towns/roads are. Travellers nightmare.

  • Schalk Burger28 July 2021

    Hi Tim, not sure whether I should be flattered by your misattribution, but believe it or not there are other Schalk Burgers around, not only the famous rugby-playing/wine-making ones. For the record, I am neither the elder nor the younger of those.

    It would be a lot of fun to see you try, but I’m pretty sure that “Antichrist Red”, or “Kill the Boer White” would not sell sufficient quantities to pay for your next thesaurus, thereby proving my point about the (eventually) rational workings of the free market. You’ve also reiterated the point I’ve made, more than once now and hopefully for the final time, that rational, informed decisions are needed to make Mr Market work his magic (in this particular case, your question was whether the foreign market knows enough about PS’s history to make that decision), and I therefore encourage (again) the readers to go and do their own research, and then make those decisions.

    At any rate, a thoroughly enjoyable debate. Keep them coming.

    • Roland29 July 2021

      Oom Schalk, if we recognise something as offensive or objectionable or irrelevant, do we always have to wait for the market to accept or reject it? Never mind whether or not the buyers in Europe are aware of the history of Paul Sauer – the point is that now WE know, and we don’t have to accept it or wait until the market rejects it. I’ll go a step further and say that there are plenty of opportunities for industry to show leadership and to establish new values rather than cling to the old.

      Anyway, you can change the name to “Kanonkop PS” or “WokeWarrior” or “RedsUnderTheBedBlend”, but if Tim Atkins gives a 100-pt score to the contents of the bottle, it’s going to sell as well as it always has.

      • Schalk Burger29 July 2021

        Roland, I take your point, and find myself wanting to agree with it in spite of myself. But therein lies danger. If not via the workings of the market, then how else do we “enforce” change? Through unilateral decision-making by some self-identified elite that forces through what it deems to be the “right thing to do”? That type of thinking always leads to totalitarianism and we’ve seen how that pans out in the real world. By the way, the democratic system works the same way – you don’t get to impose your sense of right or wrong on others autocratically, you enable change by casting your vote responsibly and after informing yourself on the issues that matter. I’m asking you to cast your monetary vote in the same way, by either buying or withholding your cash. We can’t march up to Kanonkop’s cellar doors and demand that all the Paul Sauer labels be burnt in public with the ashes scattered over False Bay. But each person can exercise their right to buy, or not to buy, and if enough people decide not to buy, the “offensive” name will disappear. That is, unless the estate decides to voluntarily remove the label, which is of course its prerogative. But then our entire debate is moot and the issue disappears.

        • Roland30 July 2021

          Dear Schalk, 

          Thanks for your comments (and, for always debating like a gentleman!). Important for me to note that at +-R700 a bottle – they can call it Paul Simon, Pall Mall, Pol Pot, it’s not the name that prevents me from buying it!       
          Of course, you must see that there is a circular argument here:   the people who can afford Paul Sauer are probably not the ones who are offended (or, traumatised) by an association with an apartheid-era politician. I expect that those who can afford Paul Sauer are not particularly troubled or traumatised by ANYTHING – it’s hard to imagine a more privileged, isolated, exclusive, out-of-touch part of society.

          I see your comment that you’d like to agree with me, despite yourself – a good start. We agree that there is a danger to “enforcing” a unilateral decision or change, and you have concerns that this must inevitably lead to totalitarianism. Perhaps you picture a totalitarian government telling us what brands are acceptable, or which pictures can or can’t be hung on the wall, or which movies are moral enough for the public. This is a rational fear in some ways – we lived it, not that long ago!  

          (and think how far away that time seems now. we can think, read, write, watch, listen to, travel to, and purchase whatever we want!    Steve Hofmeyr to Carl Niehaus to FOKOFPOLISIEKAR is permitted a platform. Let us relax a little bit and remember that, for all of our flaws, we live in a fantastically permissive and progressive constitution and we are all more free than we have ever been)   

          But, nobody here has called for a boycott, and the comments here can hardly be summarised as outrage (nobody needs to burn anything down to ash).  It’s just… discomfort.

          Sometimes we do have top-down imposition of unpopular laws from above, especially where there are health&safety implications (smoking on aeroplanes, seatbelts, preventing drinking & driving).  Sometimes a practice gradually becomes unfashionable and then unacceptable by an unspoken popular understanding.  Like breaking wind in an elevator – we don’t have to rely on a law or a dictatorship to limit this unfashionable practice!  

          Take a look at James Bond – he drank, smoked, shagged and shilled his way through many, many tasteless adventures. He was casually racist, he treated women with little respect (he slapped a lady or two), he would be riddled with a host of STDs, and he would have needed a new liver by the age of 50.
          That is simply not what a hero looks like anymore. 

          Maybe the same could be said for our divisive historical figures. They don’t have to live on the wall forever. To take their picture or their statue down is not a revision of history, but just the opposite – we are simply signifying that an object has moved even further from the present, and closer towards the other relics of the past.

          • Dion Martin30 July 2021

            The truth is this is a great opportunity for Kanonkop. Drop the name Paul Sauer and replace it Taanie Krige (whatever name the like) and at the same time dramatically increase the price of the wine. Almost every fine wine lover will agree that South African top end wines are underpriced. At USD50-70 per bottle Paul Sauer as an icon wine is certainly way underpriced. Price the new wine at over USD100 per bottle and be done with it. Great for revenue, great PR move and great for the image of fine South African wine.

    • Hennie31 July 2021

      May I point out, purely from a statistical point, that I know at least 8 different Schalk Burgers. Not necessarily personally, but of them at least.

      Can you Burgers be a bit more original? Perhaps do the Durbanville/Pretoria East thing of combining mother and father’s names? Some options :

      Schalk and Kim – Schim Burger
      Schalk and Elize – Schize Burger
      Schalk and Amy – Schamy Burger
      Schalk and Karen – Schare Burger – you have to drop the n from Karen for that one
      Schalk and Ann – Schann Burger.

      Really I could go on. Use it, don’t use it.

      • Tim James31 July 2021

        Hennie, I’m relieved you’re also confused about the Schalk Burgers. I suppose a distinguishing portmanteau version from Schalk Attie would be Schattie? That would be rather nice.

  • Tim James28 July 2021

    Thanks to most for the comments – though not to Jaco, who thinks it OK to make gratuitous personal insults instead of constructive points. A quick response to Schalk Burger, regarding his advocacy of the market as the solution to all problems and questions. I’m presuming that Schalk is the older of the rugby-playing ones, and would have expected him to come from a tradition which recognised the desirability of invoking morality in public affairs, and allowing for other influences on one’s choice when it comes to questions of political decency, potential offensiveness to large sections of society, etc. Could his position perhaps be influenced by the particularities of the Paul Sauer case, though? I’d be happy to assure him, wearing my liberal hat if not my Marxist one (I’m not sure Schalk would recognise actual Marxism if it kicked a ball through his goalposts, but still), that if someone brought out a wine called, oh, let’s say “Antichrist”, or “Kill the Boer!”), I would also object to those names. While Schalk would presumably want to wait to see if the names appealed to a large enough sector of the population to make the wines viable. Incidentally, I don’t think my faltering faith in humanity makes me exaggerate when I suggest that, if large sections of the foreign market for Paul Sauer knew that the wine was named after a major apartheid ideologue, they might think twice before putting it on their dinner table.

    • Jaco Johan28 July 2021

      “even if the overwhelmingly white (mostly right-wing?) local constituency for fine wine perhaps realises it and doesn’t much care.”
      Quite a few broad strokes.. and very personal, Tim.
      I’m just wondering, given your involvement (and enjoyment) with the local (overwhelmingly white) fine wine industry over many, many years – why now? Did you not get an invite to the latest media release and tasting experience at Kanonkop perhaps? Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned..

      • Tim James28 July 2021

        Hmm. I’d take you a touch more seriously, “Jaco”, if your published name coincided a little more closely to your email address. But, anyway, again I’m a touch bewildered why you can’t accept that I might have an honest point of view, one not dictated by minor personal experiences. Does this say more about me or about you, I wonder? You may rest assured (or discomforted, as you will) that I was indeed, as usual, invited to the latest Kanonkop release. (Unfortunately, at the last minute, I was unable to attend because I had some – fortunately shortlived – Covid-ish symptoms.) And you may be interested to know that the invitation, like others, had come despite Johann Krige, the owner of Kanonkop, having known for over a year about my opinions about the name of his great wine – because I told him of them.

  • Donald28 July 2021

    The problem with all this retrospective introspection is where do you draw the line? Go far enough back in our wine producing history and you will find something that the woke brigade find dissatisfactory with just about every producer. The fact that many of them were (and still are) land owners during apartheid is enough to trigger the most sensitive of snowflakes with righteous and virtuous indignation. That’s not to say we shouldn’t recognise past injustices, learn from them and try and not repeat them but to exact retribution now on people and things that happened long ago leads us down a very dark path indeed. History is littered with examples of where this leads to absolute disaster. And as for the commercial impact of the negative connotations the author places on the above wines in particular the PS ( sorry Jancis a terrible substitute) it has and will have very little impact at all I suspect. Like Oom Schalk says the market is sole arbiter and will decide. Most people very quickly favour personal preferences over collective principles. It’s the main reason why Marxism and the post modernist’s Marxist based ideological principles get compromised. Just ask the champagne swilling , Louis Vuitton wearing and private jet a travelling leaders of the EFF.

  • Julien Boulard MW28 July 2021

    I agree with Tim: if a person makes a large population feel uncomfortable, there is no need to put his/her name on a label. And to Schalk: the reason why many people don’t find Paul Sauer’s name on a label offensive may well be because they aren’t aware of his background (I wasn’t till now. I just spent a few minutes on Wikipedia and will need to dig a bit more before having a definite opinion). To Klein Constantia: Tim’s comment is total non-sense!! I love the bottle and the label!! Don’t change it!! 😉

    • Schalk Burger28 July 2021

      Julien, I applaud your efforts to do your due diligence and make up your own mind on the issue. This was the point I made, and which Chris failed to grasp. I offered no opinion as to whether old PS was politically acceptable to our modern sensibilities or not, but simply stated that the market must decide. That’s the correct way to bring about change, if in fact change is necessary in a given situation – through a sufficient number of rational, intelligent and importantly, informed people making a decision and then implementing it through their collective purchasing actions. No higher power appointed any of us as the enforcers upon others of our own (possibly arbitrary) moral standards – the market must decide!

      • Dion Martin28 July 2021

        ” if enough people find Paul Sauer’s name on the label offensive Kanonkop won’t sell the brand and be forced to change it. This is patently not the case”

        You are correct Oom Schalk. But what you fail to realize or perhaps acknowledge is that not enough people know the true history of people like Paul Sauer to make an informed decision. And that is exactly what Tim is doing, informing the buying public.

        My question to Oom Schalk and Hennie, do you both at least acknowledge the historical fact that Paul Sauer isn’t someone that should be celebrated? I notice that neither of you once made this point. Rather telling.

        Cheers

  • Chris28 July 2021

    Am with you here Tim, and hard not to feel – at the very least – distaste for Messrs Taljaard and Burger who apparently reveal far more about themselves than they realise.

  • Markus27 July 2021

    wow thanks for enlightening us as to who Paul Sauer was! the sentimental value of my few bottles has just plummeted. I honestly thought it was the name of the first winemaker or owner. Does the current marketing team or management staff know this? If not, it shows a lack of insight into their own brand and if they do, well…

    Perold is a tougher debate as his professional output has been a great positive for the South African wine industry (see the coming wave of epic, cool climate Pinotage). No one has ever heard of Perolds political alignment yet his work as a professor has been invaluable.

    While Sauer seems to have no other redeeming qualities or contributions mentioned in this post, sometimes people need to be celebrated for the good work they have done before we end up in a Fahrenheit 451 situation.

  • Hennie Taljaard26 July 2021

    Tim, you have to see the historical figures in the context of their time. There were politics then same as there are politics now. But these men are long gone. If you would like to argue along these lines then we should completely do away with Pinotage (Perold’s creation anyway). I really doubt anybody finds the names on labels offensive. I think South Africans are more grown-up than that.

    • Schalk Burger27 July 2021

      Agreed Hennie. In a free market society (which we’re still a part of, thankfully, despite many of our countrymen’s and politicians’ Marxist leanings) the market will be the final arbiter – if enough people find Paul Sauer’s name on the label offensive Kanonkop won’t sell the brand and be forced to change it. This is patently not the case, and I doubt Oom Sauer’s current offspring lie awake at night worrying about the rate of sales of SA’s best wine.

      If we want to be consistent, and appease the cancel-culture junkies, we should ban all of Wagner’s music, because of his anti-Semitism and his subsequent influence on Hitler and Nazism. Plato likewise should be excised from the history books, given his unconscionable support of slavery and infanticide. And so we can go on until the entire edifice of Western civilization has been dismantled.

      In the meantime, I have some 2009 Paul Sauers lying around in the cellar. I think I’ll dispose of them in the best way I know how, before the Woke gestapo breaks down the door to confiscate them.

      • Duncan28 July 2021

        You can appreciate Wagner’s work and still think twice about, for example, calling your new soft drink Wagner Cola.

        I bet more than a few people complaining about the ‘woke Gestapo’ would take to the streets if Meerlust released a flagship blend called Stalin.

    • Roland28 July 2021

      @ Hennie, I want to offer you an alternative take – these men are long gone, you’re correct. Their time and relevance has passed. These people are not relevant as figures to put on a pedestal, or on a platform.

      So, why do we feel the need to defend and preserve them, even if they make someone else uncomfortable?

      In all cultures, we tend to keep the things which are relevant and discard those which are no longer a good fit. There is no need to discard Perold’s inventions – but, it is questionable whether we need to put a picture of him above the fireplace.

      (and really – sometimes I hear the argument that “oh if apartheid & colonialism was so bad, maybe we should destroy all the roads & hospitals that were built along the way”. I don’t think this is what you’re saying, but, I hope that you can see the parallels.
      We’re lucky to have hospitals, roads AND pinotage – but, the awesome thing is, you can enjoy all of these benefits AND simultaneously reject the ideologies that created them. )

    • Jaco Johan28 July 2021

      Hennie, I think Tim is desperately trying to make up for missing out on the Rhodes-must-fall movement.. even name dropping credible wine critics for “support”. Pathetic.

      While I’m patiently waiting for my latest stock of Paul Sauer wine delivery, I’m wondering why, if trying to write something possibly sensationalist (look at me!), why not give a score of 100 points for a worthy wine – much better support for the industry as a whole coming out of another disastrous lockdown than this piece of drivel.

      Do better, Tim (read, Winemag)

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