Winemakers – especially those who are not simply managing a factory which transforms grapes into an alcoholic beverage – live lives somewhat reminiscent of combat troops (“long periods of boredom punctuated by short periods of excitement”). For large stretches of the year they have time on their hands, even if they are also viticulturists and spend time managing their vineyards. There are no real pressures while the vines are in dormancy, and while there is much to be done over the growing season, it’s no more than a properly directed, reasonably efficient team could be expected to achieve.
Come the vintage however, the nature of their activities changes dramatically. Many live at their wineries, setting up a camp bed so they can be available all night to monitor the fermentations. Most confess to losing several kilograms over the period, a combination of stress, no time to eat – and possibly no interest in food.
For many the harvest season is relatively short. If you’re working with only a few varieties and you are not making a range of styles, the crunch time may be no more than a few weeks. If you are employed at one of those cellars which produces everything from Cap Classique (where the fruit must be harvested very early to have the appropriate acidity) to dessert wine, you could have a five month vintage. True, not all of this will be high-stress time at the office. Nevertheless much of it can be, especially if varieties which don’t always ripen at the same time suddenly do, and arrive at the cellar when there are no tanks available to process the fruit.
Beyond these obvious constraints and points of stress however, the real pressure on serious winemakers is the simple fact that each vintage is different, and every producer only has a finite number of harvests in his lifetime. Since the vintage only comes round once a year, every opportunity not taken to the limit is a chance lost forever.
In this sense winemakers are like golfers – they perform in an ever-changing natural environment at a particular moment in time. Although nominally they are up against everyone else in the game, they really compete against themselves, asking the question “could I have done it better?” And like golfers, they know that better is always possible. You can go round 18 holes and get 17 holes-in-one, but that simply means that, on another occasion, you might have made it a round of 18.
I have yet to meet a winemaker who is entirely satisfied with every litre produced in a vintage. However sure he was at the time that he could not have done a better job, a year or two later, when the wine has aged and his own experience has been enhanced by what he has learnt since then, he knows how he might have handled things differently. But unlike the golfer, who can go out the next morning and give it a bash, he has must wait a full twelve months for his next chance to out-perform himself.
There are probably fifty winemakers in South Africa who think like this, and who have the opportunity of applying this kind of reflective strategy to the vineyards they work with, and the fruit that comes into their cellars. By definition they are operating in small to medium volume wineries. They may be cherry-picking their best fruit to make their statement wines, and doing the best they can with the rest.
Not everything they make is worth drinking, because, like even the best golfers, they bogey a few. Generally their wines are not cheap: there has been too much emotional investment (and generally not enough volume through the cellar) for this to be otherwise. But we need them to maintain their quest for perfection, even at the expense of over-paying for their failed experiments: that’s how we get better wines, often from the least likely places.