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I Direct You To A Great Wine Story, And Then I Ask You To Indulge Me

2011 August 29
by Mike

It is not often that a wine story lands on the front page of The New York Times, but then, it is not often that the wine world yields a story quite as compelling as Ntsiki Biyela’s. She is a 33-year-old black South African winemaker—one of the few blacks working as a winemaker in South Africa. The article, which was published in Saturday’s Times, doesn’t say if she is the country’s only black female vintner; I’m guessing that if she isn’t, she’s probably one of but two or three. The daughter of a maid, Biyela grew up in a hardscrabble part of eastern South Africa, where wine was empathically not part of day life.  In fact, she knew nothing about wine—had never even tasted the stuff—when she won a scholarship in 1998 to study winemaking at Stellenbosch University. Little more than a decade later, her wines were winning medals in competitions, and she was being lauded as South Africa’s Woman Winemaker of the Year.

It is a fascinating story, and the reporter, Barry Bearak, did a good job of underscoring both its improbability and its symbolic resonance. The history of winemaking in South Africa is inextricably linked to the history of racial discrimination. Slave labor was integral to the production of wine during the 18th and 19th centuries, and the abuses continued long after emancipation. Up until the end of Apartheid, it was customary for wineries to compensate workers partly with alcohol; the so-called dop system caused havoc in the communities in which those workers lived, including the highest rates of fetal alcohol syndrome in the world. Although Bearak didn’t mention it, the wine industry is still seen by many black South Africans as an emblem of white privilege and racial segregation (and labor exploitation by South African wineries remains a big problem, according to a report issued just last week by Human Rights Watch).  Biyela has feet in what remain two alien cultures. I thought the quote at the end of the piece was especially poignant. She recalled attending a tasting in which some people claimed to detect a truffle note in a wine. She said she smelled cow dung. As she explained to Bearak, “It’s a smell I grew up with. I didn’t grow up with truffles.”

What I particularly loved about Biyela’s story is that it casts winemaking in such a different light. Most of the viticultural regions that command our attention are located in the rich world, and nowadays, winemaking is generally pursued by people who grew up in fairly comfortable circumstances. We see it as a fun career, even a glamorous one; in places like Napa and Sonoma, there is clearly a strong element of agrarian chic. But we almost never have reason to think of winemaking as a way of escaping poverty, as a means of social mobility. I suppose it was to be expected that winemaking would serve this function in post-Apartheid South Africa, where thousands of people from impoverished backgrounds work in the vineyards and cellars. But that doesn’t make Biyela’s tale any less remarkable. Anyway, you should read the Times piece; it is a great reminder (not that any of you needed one) that wine is about so much more than just what’s in the glass.

*****

Now for something a little different. In addition to being a wine enthusiast, I am an avid tennis fan. In fact, I used to write about tennis for the Financial Times, and would love to write about it again (perhaps Slate needs a tennis correspondent?) As you may know, the U.S. Open is underway today, which means two weeks of multitasking for me—one eye on the computer screen, the other on the television screen. If you don’t mind me mixing a little tennis with wine—and, hey, it is my blog—I thought I would cough up a few predictions. On the women’s side, Serena Williams is seeded a lowly 28th, but my money is on her in any tournament she enters, and given the generally abysmal state of the women’s game at the moment, I think Williams is going to leave New York with her 14th career grand slam singles title. I know a lot of people don’t love her attitude, but she is unquestionably one of the all-time greats.

As for the men, I could be entirely predictable and say Novak Djokovic , who is an astonishing 57-2 this year and on the cusp of completing one of the greatest seasons in tennis history. But why be predictable? Instead, I’m going to risk humiliation by picking Andy Murray. Murray has been in three grand slam finals in his career; he lost each time, and while he faced tough opponents (Roger Federer twice, Djokovic once), he did not handle the pressure well. It seems clear now that if the mercurial Scot is ever going to win a major, he needs help. Help could take a variety of forms—Federer slipping on one of his kids’ toys, Djokovic wrenching his back doing his Maria Sharapova imitation, Rafael Nadal burning his fingers on a hot plate (oops, that already happened). I think Murray will get some help this year, not in the form of a freakish mishap but rather, on account of the Open’s unique structure. The Open is the only one of the four grand slam events to hold the semifinals and finals on consecutive days, and this format is the tournament’s true wild card.

Assuming the seeds hold through the semis, Murray will meet Nadal a week from Saturday, and Djokovic will get Federer. Nadal is clearly struggling at the moment, and I think Murray, who looked sharp in Cincinnati last week, will efficiently put him out of his misery. Here is where the format comes into play. Djokovic may or may not be nursing a shoulder injury; we do know that he showed signs of burnout in Cincinnati, where he quit in the final against Murray. Last year, Djokovic beat Federer in the Open semis in a five-set, four-hour marathon. If they end up in another war this year, is Djokovic going to be able to come back 24 hours later and beat Murray? His title match last year against Nadal was delayed for a day by rain, and Djokovic was still gassed 48 hours later (though he put up a valiant fight against the Spaniard); I know this is the new and improved Djokovic, but based on what we saw in Cincinnati, I now have some doubts about how far his fitness can carry him. And if Federer beats Djokovic and reaches the final? In that case, I like Murray’s chances even more: the Saturday/Sunday thing is particularly brutal on the oldsters (Sampras in 2000, 2001, Agassi in 2005), and at 30 years old, Federer is officially now an oldster. So against my better judgment, I am picking Murray to finally win a major, which means he probably won’t even make it out of the first week. Feel free to mock me when he wilts again, and thank you for indulging me here.

5 Responses leave one →
  1. August 31, 2011

    Congratulations to Ntsiki! It is such a pity that so few black wine makers exist in our country due to the economic racial segregation, brought on from the Apartheid days. It’s wonderful to someone rise above such hardships! I would love to taste some of her wines :)

  2. August 31, 2011

    Mike,

    I like the Serena pick, but Murray? That’s a bold choice. The man hasn’t just lost in all three majors finals, he’s folded like a card table. Hasn’t won a set in any of them. Roger’s getting old by tennis standards, but I think he’s more of the Agassi mold in terms of over-30 fitness than say, the Boris Becker mold. And more importantly, like Nadal, he’s got the ridiculous discipline and mental toughness that’s required to win anything in the modern men’s game; traits that Murray’s never been able to demonstrate consistently. I think Roger’s got one more major left in him, and I’d like to see him go out like Sampras circa 2002.

    Cheers,

    Bill

  3. Kent Benson permalink
    August 29, 2011

    I may be the only one the few who can appreciate your US Open picks. I haven’t met any tennis fans in the wine world, except for my friend Luiz Alberto of thewinehub.com. Unlike you, I think the women’s game is in great shape. The overall talent level has increased to the point where any of 10 or 12 women have a shot to win any given tournament.

    Other than the recently hot Marty Fish, the men’s game is entirely predictable. Barring injuries, Nadal, Djokovic, Federer, and the ocasional Murray are about all we see in finals. I can’t agree with your Murray pick. When Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer step it up, he seems unable to answer. He’s just unlucky to have two of the greatest players of all time playing during his career.

    As one of the most physically durable players since Borg, I doubt very seriously that a long Saturday match will be a factor for Federer, regardless of his age.

  4. August 29, 2011

    It’s a nice story and the type we need to hear more of and not just from a racial perspective, but also a gender one as it’s most typically the case that some of the most interesting wines being made these days have women at the helm of production.

    The case of South African wine is a screwy one with wine and politics mixing in really bad ways. I was there last year and the landscape around Stellenbosch has to be one of the most beautiful that I’ve ever seen. Definitely a gorgeous wine region worth the visit. But, both winery owners and workers would tell me off the record that things are quite stressed and while the old wineries are pretty stable, any newer ones are in for a rough ride.

    That said, the black-owned M’Hudi is producing very nice wines, some of the best in the Bottlelary Hills area of Stellenbosch. But again, I was told off the record that the actual winemaker was down the road, at Villiera if I remember correctly.

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