These names might not ring a bell just yet, but in the years to come, they might be responsible for a lot of the wine you know and love. These three winemaking students, along with classmates Albert, Attie, Ronald, Choppie, Pieter and Vusi make up the group completing their final year at Elsenburg. The fact that they’ve made it this far suggests that they will all go the distance. And when they do, there’s someone they’ll want to thank:
Lorraine Geldenhuys is the winemaker, cellar manager and lecturer at Elsenburg. She’s the one responsible for this motley crew, and the way that they talk about her, it is clear that she commands John Keating-esque respect. She is invariably the first one in in morning, the last one to leave at night, and if a tank needs scrubbing, well you guessed it, that chore will be done by the woman in charge and anyone who forgot to take sugar readings the night before.
It’s hard to say if Lorraine ever goes full Dead Poet’s Society, but she certainly produces the goods. Much of this has to do with the incredible help that Elsenburg receives from the wine industry. When your part-time support staff include the likes of Ian Naude, Bruwer Raats, David Niewoudt and Reenen Borman, the students can’t help but be inspired. It’s like doing a business degree and being lectured by Warren Buffet. Or arriving at your golf lesson to find Tiger Woods holding a camcorder.
The morning we spent there, we bumped into Beyers Truter from Beyerskloof. The week before it was Abri Beeslaar from Kanonkop. If Prof. Perold himself had walked in the week after, the students would have have given him a lesson in Pinotage.
And it’s not just winemakers and wine farms that are getting involved. Elsenburg receives support from about 150 prominent industry players. They all give generously of their time and resources to contribute to the next generation of winemaking. Since arriving here at the end of 2011, Lorraine has been tirelessly improving the student experience. Of her many successes, the greatest one seems to have been engaging the industry. Another, I’m guessing, comes down to work ethic. They all spend as much time cleaning the cellar as they do breathing, or laughing at Choppie.
Elsenburg naturally has a very strong practical focus. So each year, the final year students are given a grape varietal that they are responsible for. They inherit a block of vineyards in the Stellenbosch Hills, and this becomes their baby. They manage the harvest. They make the wine. They accept the praise or take the fall, as they can expect to do in the future.
This year Albert van Niekerk is in charge of the Cinsaut block. So in February, we took a drive out to go and see how it was doing. Of course Lorraine didn’t arrive alone. It turns out Ian Naude and Duncan Savage were around as happens at harvest time, and both are more than happy to play mentors to Albert. It’s like he’s gone to a concert to see Beyoncé, and she’s invited Keith Richards and Eddie Vedder to join her on stage.
So here’s Albert. He’s got a beautiful block of grapes that are ripening nicely, he has a committed lecturer who wants nothing more than for him succeed. He has two of South Africa’s best winemakers advising him on his harvest and he’s about to start actually producing his first wine. It’s no wonder that he and his classmates are excited about the direction their lives are taking.
Of course it’s not all Rolling Stones and lazy lunches for these future winemakers. Under Lorraine’s guidance, they are up every morning before 5am, and they don’t stop until they collapse in a heap that night. Don’t take it from me, Albert has written this blog about an average day in the life of a wine student, and it makes for good reading.
Last year, the final year students went on a huge tour of the great wine regions of France. The trip obviously cost a small fortune, but it was paid for by the hard work of the students and the generosity of the wine industry. Throughout the year they canvassed for donations, visiting wineries all over the cape, requesting wine and whatever else they could get their hands on. At the end of the year they hosted two events, in Joburg and Cape Town, to auction everything off. The proceeds then made up the tour kitty.
They ended up with an impressive budget, approximately 100% of which went towards great wines. All the rest went to essentials, like escargot, béchamel and whatever “accommodation” is in French.
The 2017 class are going to do something similar. They have already received very generous donations from the likes of Boekenhoutskloof, Kaapzicht, Blank Bottle and Chamonix. There will surely be many more before it all goes under the hammer.
It’s worth mentioning, as much as le grande tour de France sounds like a party, it is also invaluable work experience for these students, and therefore an investment in our wines of tomorrow. The amount of research they do into each estate before getting on the plane is obscene. And by tasting the best of Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Loire, the future of South African wine will be so much better for it. Don't begrudge them a taste of DRC, because ultimately we all get a kickback.
Next year, each of these students will walk into a placement at a respected wine farm. They will all begin their careers with a job, and very exciting career prospects. They will all arrive with humility, ambition and an impressive work ethic. But this hasn’t happened by accident. It is because of an education owed largely to the dedication and application of one person.
So in five years time, when you’re enjoying Albert’s Cinsaut, Choppie’s Chardonnay or Vusi’s Mourvedre, raise a glass to Lorraine Geldenhuys and her selfless team of supporting superstars.
*I’ll be reminding you about the Elsenburg Wine Auction nearer the time. It’s just about the best way to buy great wine. If you want to follow what’s happening at Elsenburg in more detail, follow Albert’s twitter feed. https://twitter.com/AlbertNiekerk