Winemaking Philosophy

At the Guggenheim in New York, my wife and I visited a wonderfully engaging Picasso exhibition – enhanced by Frank Lloyd Wright’s numinous building.

Picasso’s enigmatic, edginess reverberated through the clever staging. He seems to have had a few midlife crises himself, but his art still ignites something and we left rather elated.

On the walk back to my sister’s apartment, we chatted about how great art – whatever the medium, can make you feel differently about yourself, the world, even life and death. Great art can stir something deep inside the computer that is the human brain. It affects those inner worlds we call our heart and our soul – realms we often visit, but can never cognitively grasp.

Could this deep, pre-cognitive resonance be related to those ancient rock paintings and markings we created and celebrated during our collective development as a species? Like a lever of early, overriding instinct? By ensnaring life’s energy in art, we controlled something of it. We wrapped our curiosity around it and altered it into a form we could emotionally digest. Life was never the same.

For me, the artist becomes a conduit of an energetic experience that science can’t fully explain. By prizing open a gap in the shroud of our confusing universe, great art gifts us a glimpse behind the curtain of chaos – well beyond risk and reward – those things we are hardwired to calculate continuously.

For my wife, this glimpse illuminates a spiritual element that emboldens us, while offering peacefulness.

The opportunity to experience art is a privilege. And it is required of us to be open to its influence.

If subjugated in the scramble for survival, great art doesn’t die – it lingers defiantly in the melodies and symbols, but it hides in the shadows of existence. Without art’s obvious influence life is forlorn, but not meaningless.

And as the world is cleaved between the Haves and the Have-Nots, that growing lack of embracing art by the privileged on the one hand, and lack of opportunity to easily do so on the other, contributes to our collective unease.

We know instinctively that great art softens our prejudices, makes us kinder. In a way, it heals. It is desperately needed – a role it has always played.

Of course it also inspires and agitates us. Great art tickles the very extremities of our nervous system and it feels good. Great art can ignite positive action and sparkling thought. It demands consideration; it requires our emotion to process it.

The American poet, Theodore Roethke, said: “Art is the means we have of undoing the damage of haste. It’s what everything else isn’t.”

I love this quote. In our world of rushed irrelevance, we seem to have lost the ability to just be comfortable in the now, in the present. Haste steals foresight and so we neglect to build in transition time. The more accurate our timekeeping machinery, the less time we seem to have. The more precise our global positioning systems, the less we know of our origin.

Similarly, haste disconnects so many of us from the accumulation of seasons – those annual layerings of life’s experience that define our natural decay. If we fall out of sync with seasons, it’s easier to ignore our dying. And so we forget to live.

Art can undo some of this spiritual self-destruction by offering insight and perspective, and I believe, on rare occasions, this is what great wine can also do. This is the only way winemaking can be compared with art.

It was obvious on my second or third visit to the farm (while gathering climatic data here in the mid 1990s) that sorrow and hardship were entwined into the bluegum branches like tree snakes. Back then this farm felt forlorn. Even the songbirds were a bit self-conscious.

But below the surface, the land was welcoming. Despite fields that looked unloved and the decaying farm buildings, we were drawn to this corner of the universe. Like the guarded embrace of last night’s embers, the warmth was waiting patiently just below, demonstrating extraordinary resilience – I guess, like the human equivalent of hope or perhaps bravery. Sometimes, you actually feel the warmth through your shoes on long walks. I know that sounds weird, but I am not the only one who feels it.

Our neighbour, Oom Thys de Villiers, believes that farms have a soul.

“Sure they need to look smart on the surface, Bruce,” he says, in his measured way, “But farms need to be productive and proud.”

When we cross a boundary – throwing the first punch, a kiss, an apology, an investment, a vow – life changes. Sometimes for the better, sometimes not; but it’s never the same again. We’ve learnt to be wary of boundaries.

When man (or woman, of course) expose(s) life below the surface of land by farming, he or she crosses a boundary by disturbing the soil, by trying to control something of it. Nothing can be the same for a long, long time afterwards.

Untouched land is just land. This, in itself, is inevitably more beautiful. But land that is worked, that supports lives and dreams – that’s what we call a farm. And farms have a different energy that can also be captivating and invigorating.

Farms develop different souls once the soil is prized open. Unattainable, natural splendour is progressively and inextricably intertwined with the ambitions, however flawed, of man. Massive responsibility and exhilaration follow like a gathering storm.

Farming is like playing God when you’ve been handed incorrect lines for the creation play you are performing. At some point you need to get off the stage, or improvise. And because it is backbreaking and relentless it can crumble in on itself both physically and emotionally.

Farmers who forget or cannot interpret the soul of the land, do horrendous harm – not only to the land, and themselves, but to the plants and animals they farm, and the people who consume them. Factory farming of animals and excessive use of chemicals on crops is not only wrong on a spiritual level, but it harms those it is designed to sustain.

Real farmers can immediately sense if a farm’s soul is proud or discomfited by how the land is being utilised.

The Drift Farm was purchased and developed by my father during his retirement. He allowed me to plant some vineyards amongst his olive groves, his dam building projects, his organic vegetables and various other farming experimentations. Most importantly, it was a sanctuary and inspiration for my mother.

Many years ago I planted the first vineyard with a small team on a hot, windy day, far too late in the season for recommended planting. It was the first vineyard I had planted and I made a lot of mistakes. A few months before, a bulldozer had ripped into the soil with brutal efficiency, exposing a million years of sedimentation and melodic decomposition in a week of disconsolate diesel fumes.

We etched out the first vineyard in this wheat and sheep country and now it producers the most magnificent Malbec grapes I have ever had the privilege of working with.

In 2006 a wild fire, fanned by a windstorm, raged over our mountain from the Stanford side. It roared through forests, burning tortoises and any other animal that failed to escape. It crackled through fynbos like snapping bones. It blistered past our tree windbreaks and fences. And it destroyed most of our vineyards. Such was my inexperience that at one point during the fight my jeans caught fire around my boots.

My friend Dirk Human, owner of Black Oystercatcher wines, drove his bakkie through a wall of flame to save the Pinot Noir block. We fought it with all we had. There were neighbours who helped, and there were those that stood on adjacent hills and watched. At the end, it looked like we had lost

The land was a lunar grey when we awoke two days later. The wind had died, but every night for a week I coughed up black phlegm.

During that firefight we had been servants, willing to risk our lives for the land we had embraced and altered. The entwinement with the farm deepened and I started to realise there were stories I needed to tell.

Being a winemaker my canvases and words, my music and movements, are all wine. And like farming, I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to tell these stories through the wine. I wasn’t sure it was even possible.

The Drift has extraordinary stories to tell. There are stories of the mountains: how they were formed hundreds of millions of years ago and how they have come to be weathered into hills and strata – so beguiling to the eye, it hurts to turn away from them.

The first inhabitants of this ancient valley, ancestors of us all – the unhappy family called the human species – farmed with endemic sheep, created art and died here. On a high, north-facing mountain slope, I’ve walked among the ancient graves after the fire exposed them. They bred huge dogs to guard their flocks from leopards. These dogs had a distinct ridge of hair on their backs and are believed to be the forerunners of the Rhodesian Ridgeback. I’ve marvelled at a long, winding, dry-stone wall above the vineyards that’s believed to be older than Stonehenge.

There are stories of the first ex-European farm owners who brought Angora goats, steel ploughs and Merino sheep. The Australian sheep industry started with Merino sheep bred in this valley. And many of the horses involved in the infamous and heralded “Charge of the Light Brigade” in the Crimean War originated here.

There are more recent stories of life on The Drift and how this was once a famous farm for growing delicious onions. And there are new stories all the time.

The stories I want to share are set in this intriguing amphitheatre of living history. However, my skills and my medium can’t hope to encompass this vastness.

Instead, I must home in on individual aspects of slope and other influences of geography I can grasp – sometimes only with my hands, and not my mind. I call this the energy of memory.

Mostly ungraspable, however, is climate. This element translates itself into a colourful, irrepressible soundtrack booming from the glass. I can weave millennia into a single sniff by simply exposing the soil, but the torque of tannin, the grip of climate, is always a surprise.

And the exuberance of flavour mesmerizes me, to the point where I know deeply that I am only a very small part of the work.

The wines end up telling cyclical stories of resolution in the face of nature’s ever-changing mood-swings – the seasons and their teasing aberations. And they tell stories that cannot be told anywhere else, because there is nowhere else on earth like The Drift Farm. In this way they are unique and authentic.

On a fundamental level, they reflect both the successes and the failures of our farming interference. They expose the heartbreak and the joy and reveal our frustrations, love, hesitations and our pride.

On a spiritual level, the wines made from this farm merge the perfection of the natural world with the imperfection, however noble, of a farmer’s ambition and a winemaker’s obsession. And so, in the same way the wind-still surface of a dam reflects the sky, these wines reflect the soul of the farm.

Thus, these wines connect a farm to a consumer, land to a questioning mind and nature to a fellow human being. And in so doing, they have the ability to undo the damage done by haste.