Monday, September 6, 2010

DJ Bacchus rocks Soweto Wine Festival




Bacchus style ... The red wine flowed in the VIP area which was sponsored by a different company each night.

Soweto has a different vibe from the rest of Johannesburg. Driving into this famous township there is a palpable heartbeat which thumps louder as one approaches from the south of the inner city. I am on my way to the sixth annual Soweto Wine Festival, which is about to transcend any wine festival I have ever been to in terms of sheer festivity.



New tastes and sensations ... in Soweto.

I'd been to a race day at Turffontein ealier in the day and drove past the Calabash (aka Soccer City, aka FNB Stadium), scene of the World Cup final, a moment of goosebumps. Although the racetrack was a stone's throw from Soweto a minibus seemed the most sensible way to get there, as I did not want to drink so much I could not find my way home again! So I drive to Sandton and there at Grayston Drive's Town Lodge pile into a small bus with several exhibitors who are going in early in readiness for the 3000-strong crowd which is expected. A young American couple comes on later.

We take the road south out of Sandton. A bling-bling momma in sunglasses and a Hummer surges past us, as I stare at the yellow-and-tan minedumps of the south, those honest reminder of the city's origins, adorned with the odd tree and a sparse tuft of grass. We pass the factories and the enormous billboards next to the highway which still celebrated the World Cup. The closer we get the louder and more insistent the music in the taxi grows, beating in time to the heart of this enormous city which has nurtured so many of South Africa's most famous folk. Am I in unfamiliar territory? No, I am a South African, of no particular colour. After the World Cup many of the invisible walls which tore South Africans apart came crashing down and I feel neither out of place nor unwelcome.

Entering Chris Hani Drive and the huge sign which read "Welcome to Soweto" I am struck by the energy of this city, its hustle and bustle, and apparent affluence unlike so many other townships. The taxis buzz up and down in their natural element, the roadside car-washes are doing great trade and the roads are choked with traffic. Soweto has become a destination for those who live in the leafy suburbs of the north to come and party at the weekend. Do the tourists see the huddled, motionless figure at the side of the road, covered in tattered rags? Is he dead, or sleeping off the night before?

Baragwanath Hospital, one of the scenes of what the papers are calling "the most bruising strike in South African history", looms up on both sides of the road. It is crowded and busy, no sign of protesters beating up nurses and doctors who dare to arrive for work.

And then suddenly we are at the University of Johanneburg campus. DJ for the three-nights Bacchus, who is also the Roman god of wine, had not yet started his shift and the revellers have yet to arrive. Later on it will get so packed you cannot turn around but for now I have time to look around outside and inside.

I talk to Marilyn Cooper from the Cape Wine Academy about the kind of wine drinkers the festival is attracting. Her three daughters and husband are running around getting everything done with super-efficiency so she has a bit of time to sit with me in a big green sofa outside, near the boerewors rolls stand, although she still fends off calls and sends someone off to deal with the DJ who is being a little over zealous a little early on (Bacchus at work again).

Marilyn tells me that this festival was "the face of the future", which thrills her as she is "an educator". The Soweto wine drinkers are becoming much more discerning and knowledgeable and ask for a specific vintage which they have encountered. Some are there just for the jol, like my delightful new friend "Angel" Palesa who wears a frilled, violet-coloured dress to match her mauve Blackberry. "What have you tried so far?" I ask her. "Oh everything," she waves, "the whites, the reds, the creams, the sherries ..."

"You must come out and listen to these guys from Savika playing old-style Soweto jazz," Marilyn says, pointing her head at two oldsters with swanker, two-tone shoes. "They're about 80 in the shade but they're amazing." The jazz oldies are spryly moving the beanbags around to make space. They later get the party moving outside as the saxophones flood through the night air.

"You'll meet my co-founder member Mnikelo Mangciphu later," Marilyn tells me. "He comes in at around 8 - dressed to the hilt!"

Besides the well known estates like Boschendal, Dalla Cia, Douglas Green, Rupert and Rothschild, Saronsberg, Spier, Nederburg and many others there are 12 BEE farms who are participating in this year's festival. Tukulu is 51 percent owned by black shebeen owners, I am told, and M'hudi Wines is the first black-owned wine farm to produce wines in South Africa.



Greetings ... from a pourer from Vendange.

I set off to talk to some of the owners. First up is Vivian Kleynhans from Seven Sisters whose Bukettraube Odelia NS won a Double Gold in America. Thanks to Heritage Link Brands CEO Selena Cuffe, who distributes South African wines in the States, Vivian's Sauvignon Blanc Vivian 2009 is the only South African wine served on Atlantic Airlines. Despite her wines being sold in 41 states in America Vivian still needs to get her wines onto local shelves and is negotiations with Checkers to that end.

I look all over for Hannes Myburgh from Meerlust, who never misses a Soweto Wine Festival. "Look out for a tall handsome man with grey hair,"" his assistant from Meridian, Annie van der Bijl, tells me. She gets the tall and handsome part right, but Hannes is more on the bald side (unless his hair is really, really short). Turns out he is sitting right behind me in the VIP section under the Sowetan stars while the snacks (crumbed chicken strips, spring rolls and mini vetkoek with mince) are going around. We search for a quiet spot as the visitors are by now flooding inside in an unstoppable tide and find some chairs upstairs. Some curious stares from fellow wine drinkers who perhaps think that Hannes and I are up to no good behind the curtains ...

Hannes has started up a BEE wine store on Meerlust with shares owned by the workers who also own the land. The farm which has been in his family since the eighteenth century is close to Stellenbosch off Baden Powell Drive (yeah, the Boy Scout guy). The wine store forms a storage facility and other estates are coming with their wines. "It's pretty groundbreaking. Some BEE ventures are not that successful but this looks like a winner.

"I love coming to Soweto," he says, "the enthusiasm is so infectious. There is a consciousness about drinking wine too which defines an evolving society. This is such an occasion ... all the girls dress up. I also like the fact that the lights keep going on and off. It gives me what you call in Afrikaans 'n riem onder die hart".



Pretty packaging ... inside the arena.

Inside the arena the stands are looking gorgeous. The usually barebrick walls with banks of plastic chairs for the students upstairs are tonight transformed by different decor in each area. The JC le Roux wine lounge is pimped out for the night with a stuffed cream couch as high as an elephant's eye and stools, and a cute bartender behind a bar featuring enticingly up-lit bottles encased upright in ice. I stop and linger over the Naughty Girl roses, charmingly bottled with pink polka-dot necks. I have a choice of stickers to put on my jacket and choose: "I'm Naughtier Than My Daughter". The roses are everywhere, including at the 4th St Stand ... is that to be the tipple of choice? KayaFM and City Press also have stands, as does DStv with an upstairs VIP section full of their clients. The technological side is not neglected and the latest Samsung mobiles are on display. At the far side of the hall is located a satellite branch of Norman Goodfellows as the visitors like to buy bottles and take them with them immediately.



There are also "saints" and angels from The Saints wine lounge circulating with pink fluffy haloes which they distribute to visitors. Looking down from the VIP area all I can see is a sea of bobbing pink fluff with sparkly bits.



In seventh heaven ... nothing wrong with a few saints and angels at a wine festival!

Inside again I bump into my young American couple whose teeth are stained with the tannins from South African reds. They are starting to weave slightly. They are not alone, one oldie jazzster is staggering merrily through the throng and great peals of laughter are coming from the crowd. It's packed to the rafters and visitors constantly Facebook themselves and their friends.

The "Platinum Arena" features some of the bigger names of the wine world. Marilyn tells me that she installed this to create more space as the visitors are now outgrowing the venue. She nods at a Turbine Hall lookalike building across the road and says she wants to hold the festival there next year.

But it's time for me to pay a visit to the Pick n Pay Taste Theatre where Erick Sikhosana, the sommelier of the Hyatt Hotel were earlier presenting with Jacob Pea from Jacob's Quest winery. I queue with Angel and her friends for the next experience, charismatic chef Citrum Khumalo from Asidle Gourmet Catering who takes us through the marriage of food and wine, and South Africa's first black winemaker Ntsiki BIyela from Stellekaya who shares her passion and knowledge.

The bursts of merriment from behind the white curtain reach fever-pitch, interrupting the talk, and Citrum jokes: "Are they doing a strip tease back there?" It;s a far cry from many wine festivals of the past where everyone dresses like they were off to Dullstroom for a flyfishing weekend, and looks super-important while they tell the winemakers that they have over-oaked their Chardonnay. Like snobbish hippos huddled together in a pool, those kind of festivals constitute an ever-shrinking market.

In between learning about which foods go best with the Pick 'n Pay wines provided Angel adeptly loads UberTwitter on my phone and sorts out my Blackberry messenger. They should clone her...

Marilyn is worried that her crowd will not leave but the four burly bouncers at the door have the situation under control. "Monitoring the situation,"" they bark into walkie talkies. A tidal wave of visitors suddenly pours out through the doors, en route to their cars. One reveller weaves his way down the path, and meets a tree. He very politely tries to negotiate its branches which refuse to get out of the way. There is great joie de vivre in the air although the Metro cops are waiting just around the corner, dying to pounce."I love you!" someone shouts out of their window at me as the music pumps out over the campus. The party animals at the braai area outside (not Marilyn's problem) are only just getting started. "WE WANT MORE!WE WANT MORE!" they begin chanting.

Bacchus would have been in seventh heaven, this is the stuff that his festivals were made of ...



Party Central ... the pink halo chicks get their groove on.

ALL PICTURES BY HEATHER McCANN PHOTOGRAPHY

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