With the Good Value Guru roadtrip about to hit the Sunday Times tomorrow, time for a mission statement.
On the road is the place to taste wine. Not waiting for a delivery of samples from a brown naugahyde La-Z-Boy recliner in the bar of the Devon Valley Protea Hotel. The road has history: Jack Kerouack and Neal Cassady writing Bo-Ho road novels on a single roll of teletype paper 40m long, Che Guevara and Alberto Granado on their bikes, diaries in rucksacks and Hunter S. Thompson inventing a whole new genre of journalism called Gonzo from a red convertible.
Thelma and Louise and Easy Rider famously ended with a crash, but we’re aiming more for a Little Miss Sunshine denouement. Not that the Good Value Guru is your run-of-the-mill bon vivant. In fact, he doesn’t even own a bowtie. GVG prefers black PT shorts, gardening T-shirts and floppy fishing hats while his Boswell, Neil, plumps for day-glo orange crocs, Mr. Price jeans and Kobus Wiese Size-Up cotton shirts from Edgars (on sale, preferably). More Vernon Koekemoer than Dr. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Lutzville. Accidental connoisseurs, perhaps. Anoraques, never. Which is why GVG ferociously defends his anonymity.
The restaurants of London famously have photos of the town’s reviewers discretely posted so the Maître d’ can prevent any CIPs (that’s even grander than a VIP – a commercially important personage) from getting standard service or fare. When the London Sunday Times’ reviewer AA Gill, fronted up, he announced “Oxford, party of two.” To which the response was “actually, Mr. Gill, you booked under the name Cambridge.” Wine tasting has more than a bit of this too, with discretion rarely part of an anoraque armory.
On the subject of restaurants and their ratings, if they are sampled in situ, rather than from Mr. Delivery take-aways sent to Caxton head office on Jan Smuts avenue, it’s a bit of a stretch to expect wineries to ship bottles (at their expense) to Devon Valley or Tasting HQs in Pinelands and expect to get a result. As the producer cheerfully admitted after being questioned about possible green peppers in the Sauvignon, “no, you’ve got it wrong. Only the show tank was adulterated.”
Show tanks, review barrels, suspicions of ongoing Wither Hills scenarios – where the wine that wins the medal may not be the one on the supermarket shelf (Wither Hills is a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc where this was the case) – are rife. Just ask a Constantia winemaker. So it’s back in the Honda, arriving unannounced to taste public bottles in the tasting room. No special treatment, no special drops.
GVG has been doing the road thing twice a year for as long as I’ve known him. It started back in 1983 – 25 years ago – when tasting wine was a more leisurely activity. The number of wineries was a third the tally of today but the 80 Km/hr speed limit and curfew petrol station hours (on account of countrywide fuel restrictions) limited the number of cellars reachable in a day. Today that wheel has come full circle with electricity rather than fuel the limiting factor, although with the petrol price screaming into the stratosphere, the sheiks are still applying the brakes.
A week is spent on the road, sipping and spitting the way from Aan de Doorns to Ziggurat Vineyards, buying the odd case here and there as value for money indicates. Volumes have grown from a boot load to a container per trip – that’s 30 or 40 cubic metres of vino, eagerly awaited by legions of colleagues, friends and those who want a good deal and are heartily sick of gushing stories about labels they’ve never seen and brands they didn’t even know existed.
Orders are placed on the GVG’s recommendation and the container arrives the next month. Emptying it is like that episode of Little House on the Prairie where the community builds a barn. From upcountry, SA wine distribution looks like it is managed by the people who couldn’t get jobs at Eskom. GVG is the antidote.
GVG has serious wine amateur credentials: a stockbroker father dragged him kicking and screaming through the Michelin starred restaurants of France at an early age. A self-taught sommelier, GVG was part of the downtown Johannesburg gastronomic scene in the eighties, moving out to the burbs in the nineties, along with the dining crowd. A cricket fanatic, GVG has the memory of a small elephant. He is a walking wine guide of vinous information, without the usual conflicts of interest.
This time round, I thought I’d hitch a ride with the GVG and as the Aussies would say, explore the wines and wineries Beyond the Black Stump. I’d done it a decade ago and still can’t drink a liqueur after Danie Grundlingh opened his entire range one unforgettable Tuesday afternoon at Grundheim, outside Oudtshoorn.
Over the next few weeks the Sunday Times will feature excerpts from the travel diary of a late June tasting expedition: one week, 75 wineries, 700 wines tasted, 4000Km – the distance from New York to Napa – traveled. You won’t find the “immaculate” Vergelegen V or “a delicately poised” Waterford Jem – too pricey. Nor will you stumble over too many alcoholic blockbusters or fruit bombs – too boring. What you will find are decent wines of character at a decent price.
GVG is unashamedly opinionated, outrageously prejudiced but honest, with no kickbacks solicited or accepted (or offered, if truth be told). And not a single wine is starred or scored. After all, wine writing should be about language, not arithmetic.