Even though we are studying olives, not grapes, here we are in the premier wine country of South Africa – surrounded by vineyards, and now at the beginning of the harvest, the wonderful aroma of fermenting grape juice. Each morning, we share the roads to work with farm vehicles like the one below hauling the early mornings pickings off to the wine press. As the trailers bump along, the mounds of grapes jump with them. I feel that I can almost reach out the window of the car and grab a bunch. We are told the harvesters start in the dead of night to take advantage of the natural “refrigeration” of the cool nights. By mid-morning, the more fragile grapes have been harvested and the pickers move on to the heartier cultivars. The larger vineyards work nearly 24/7 to bring this most bountiful harvest in. The valley bustles with the activity. We are told 2015 will be a very good year for the vintners.
On Wednesday, we visited Fairview Vineyard – owned by Charles Back, cousin of Robin Back, a UMass Professor we met at a South African wine tasting event last spring. The Fairview Winery is close to Stellenbosch, in the nearby town of Paarl (Dutch “Paarl” = “Pearl” in English – named for two round white granite outcrops that project 1000 feet above the surrounding farmlands.) In the US, many may be familiar with the delicious “Goats do Roam” red wine made on this vineyard and responsible for the largest proportion of Fairview’s International Market. Despite his incredibly busy schedule, Charles gave us a tour of the vineyard while it was in full swing harvest time – with pickers in the field, workers unloading crates of grapes into the press, others handpicking out stems of the more expensive grapes before pressing, welders fixing new holding tanks, bottlers making labels and packaging up the products, and wine stewards guiding tasters in the tasting room. Charles’s grapes are his first agricultural priority– and the largest part of his 1600 hectares (4,000 acres) farm. Yet social equity issues, carbon neutral agricultural practices, and ecological restoration share space in his brain with promoting local artisanal productions (chocolate, beer, cheese, bread, preserves). It was only afterwards that we learned this man is an international wine celebrity – with lifetime achievement awards from International Wine Growers Associations and a listing as the second most influential person (after Nelson Mandela) to promote South African wine business. We were so grateful that he spent 2 hours of his time with us personally before writing his phone number down on a piece of paper and telling us to call him if there is ANYTHING we need. We will certainly return for a more luxurious visit at a less hectic time.
Meanwhile, we are making slow but sure progress in contacting local olive farmers, and setting up a tour of six or seven groves while we re-locate to Franschhoek (French Corner) for two weeks. In the gaps inherent in setting up transcontinental housing arrangements, our Cottage in Stellenbosch was inadvertently rented to another couple for the two weeks starting Feb 19th. So we decided to take advantage and pick ourselves up and move to the next valley just 30 minutes away for those two weeks. We will still be able to get in to the University but we will start each day with an exploration of that valley’s olive groves. This is pre-harvest, but we thought it would be a good time to begin conversations there. Also, our Franschhoek rental has a pool!
For Valentine’s Day, we are taking it slow, having a lovely lazy start to the day (complete with a load-shedding (planned power outage) that shared our morning with us from 10:00-12:00.) We have heart shaped chocolate truffles to enjoy from the Spice Route shop we visited on Wednesday. We visited Spier Winery – just a few minutes from us down the R310 for a late afternoon tasting, picked up a picnic dinner, and have tickets for a Delft Big Band concert under the African skies at the Oulde Libertas amphitheater for tonight.
We wanted to expand on the Delft Big Band, after having heard the concert. We went to the concert without knowing the back story, and were very impressed with the music. We did notice that the band was very young (most looked about 20), under the direction of a older (read, our age) director who also played the trumpet, sang and generally joked around introducing people. There were two extremely talented vocalists, and several of the band members soloed well. After we had heard a bit of the story, and found the link to the band’s website, we realized that the music, as good as it was, fades in significance against their origin. The band leader had said that 5 years ago, none of the members of this group had touched an instrument, much less had lessons. They learned to play at band rehearsals, in a school classroom at night. Even more significantly, they did this in Delft, a rough township plagued with gang violence and drugs. This is a ticket to some respect, a job and a future, and they worked incredibly hard for it. It will be worth checking out the link above.
All our traveling finally caught up with an unexpected complication to Rich’s digestive system. His intestinal flora set up a work action – refusing to process foods but rather just sending them along. We are sympathetic to the work demands of his bacterial microbiome – it is difficult moving into new territories where you don’t speak the local dialect and work conditions are challenging and stressful (read the heavy focus on red meats, boerwurst, and delicious Cape Malay spices). We think they have finally acclimatized, but we are taking it slow and easy. We picked up some delicious locally made yogurt at Fairview and are hoping the addressing his biomic needs with first class probiotics will prove sufficient.
We have put together our initial impressions of the olive production landscape in our first World Olive Press newsletter from Africa. It features the visits we had with John Scrimgeour, Arend and Brigitta Hofmeyr’s Olive Grove “Portion 36”, and the info we have gleaned from a multitude of on-line books and resources. Those interested can follow that aspect of our journey by checking out our Olive Odyssey at http://worldolivepress.blogspot.com.tr