The fundamental physicality and mechanics of winemaking have eluded me until now. Raised in the uniformity of America’s Midwestern suburbs, and seeking their antithesis for the last fifteen years living and working in New York City, neither locale has afforded any opportunity for immersion in vineyard life.
As a wine journalist, I’ve often wondered if it’s fair to producers of this highly romanticized elixir, to proffer opinions, particularly harsh criticism, without having learnt in situ how it’s made. I’ve studied books, and taken courses in viticulture and vinification (and earned my WSET Diploma doing so); I’ve traveled to vineyards as close to home as Long Island and far-flung as New Zealand and Namibia. The countless tank and barrel room tours, and long repasts with winemakers discussing the trials of a particularly tough vintage, have been illuminating, but knowing and doing sit on two different planes of experience. I’ve never beheld firsthand the hand-wringing over picking in the face of inclement weather, or witnessed the minutiae of decisions, as they occur, that lead to a wine’s final expression in the bottle; decisions that culminate with the consumer’s delight or dissatisfaction, and a critic’s reputation-making or -breaking score.
A deeper understanding of a subject always leads to a greater appreciation of it (e.g., oft bewildering modern art, with context, can become less so), so should participation in a harvest, then, be a prerequisite for a wine writer? What about a wine critic who calculates scores? Will knowing firsthand, for example, the struggle to grow healthy, sustainable grapes, while fighting pests and a changing climate, cultivate greater compassion, forgiveness even, towards the end product, especially a wine that might otherwise be determined unremarkable? Could it abrade objectivity? Conversely, a behind the scenes experience might dispense with part of the “backstory” illusion employed as a marketing tool (sometimes genuine, sometimes deceptive), and result in a more informed, and thus critical eye at tastings.
My internship at Paul Cluver Winery came about after I learned of a global search for female interns by the PIWOSA group (Premium Independent Wineries of South Africa). In an effort to encourage women to explore careers in the wine industry, the member wineries accepted applicants holding either a winemaking or WSET Diploma certification. The Cluvers, including longtime winemaker Andries Burger (married into the family) selected my application, and invited me to their winery and into their homes.
Prior to departing, I emailed a few questions about the farm, the region, and South Africa in general, to Paul Cluver, the managing director of the family business. To read that interview, click here.
I hope the culmination of my time at the farm will conclude with clarity on the winemaking process, and lend a deeper respect for the people who get grapes from the vine, into a bottle, and to our tables. But as is often the case with learning, it rarely settles curiosity and questions, but rather drives deeper inquiry.