The 34th Diners Club Winemaker of the Year Awards, held at La Residence last night, was a slick affair, even if the weather did not play along, it being a wintry evening in Franschhoek. Quite apt was the beautiful classical music played during two-thirds of the evening, Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons‘ in particular, in describing the variable weather during the day. The Diners Club Winemaker of the Year Awards are the most prestigious in the industry.
At stake were the awards for Diners Club Winemaker of the Year, and Young Winemaker of the Year, recognised with two sculptures, the artist not revealed. The awards are highly desired, and are the only ones recognising the winemaker and not the wines themselves, even though the nominees had to submit wines they had made, Dry White Wine Blends in the Winemaker of Year category, and Red Wines Unfortified in the Young Winemaker of the Year category.
We met outside the La Residence function venue, enjoying sparkling wines, as well as canapés of roast beef; gorgonzola with pear and basil set in a pastry case; and tikka chicken and vegetable sticks. The rain held off until we were seated. It was good to catch up with Reg Lascaris again, a director of Standard Bank, which owns the franchise for Diners Club in sub-Saharan Africa. We knew each other from our mutual background in the advertising industry in Johannesburg. I met Diners Club MD Ebrahim Matthews, a good listener when I shared some experiences with him. Less successful was my chat to Diners Club Marketing Manager Lee-Ann Shepherd, who arrogantly told me that her office did not have to contact me about the disastrous Cape Town ‘launch’ of the Diners Club Rossouw’s Restaurant Guide, despite leaving two messages for her at her office in Johannesburg. I had left messages with Jean-Pierre Rossouw too, new publisher of the Diners Club Platter’s Wine Guide as well as the Rossouw’s Restaurant Guide, and at the function I asked him if he too does not return calls and respond to e-mails. He proudly agreed, telling me arrogantly that his wife only sees him once a week, and that he needs some time for himself!
WOSA Chairman Michael Jordaan was the last to arrive at 19h00, and we were seated thereafter, just as the stage was delivered too! The function venue at La Residence can comfortably seat 150 guests, and the long tables were beautifully dressed with different coloured wine glasses. Big posies of red roses were hung from above.
Our table consisted of writers, as did one parallel to us, and it was shocking to see that half the seats were unoccupied no-shows. Last year writers were seated at tables with Award nominees and other wine-related guests, which was far more informative, even though we had fun at our table, at which Kalinka Lombard of WineStyle, event organiser Aleit Swanepoel, and Top Billing presenter Jonathan Boyton-Lee were also seated.
We were subjected to endless videos about Diners Club, after a number of technical hitches to get the videos to be played, and the ones about the latest Platter’s Wine Guide and Rossouw’s Restaurant Guide went on and on, being hard-sell, and not being the focus of the evening. MC Jeannie D of Top Billing did not seem to be in control of her role, and may have been rattled by the technical hitches. We had to request to have the volume of the video presentations toned down, it being so loud. When the wonderful classical music, including the Vivaldi, Mozart, and particularly festive Handel, was played, we were happy to have the volume turned up again.
Ebrahim Matthews made a joke about enjoying wine and the wine industry, but not drinking its product for religious reasons. The flow of the evening was fast without feeling rushed, and the announcements of the winners were linked to the first two courses, as they were paired with the wines of the two Awards winners. The judges were introduced by video, and judging chairman Dave Hughes was congratulated for having been honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the International Wine and Spirits Competition in London earlier this week. Everyone stood up and applauded Hughes. Other members of his judging panel included Christine Rudman, Margaret Fry, and Carrie Adams. Chris Sweeney of Standard Bank, from the UK originally, brought the house down (just after the rugby victory by the Springboks against England) when he said that our South Africans are better than their (UK) South Africans!
The Young Winemaker of the Year nominees were introduced via video. JD Pretorius of Steenberg was recognised for his Steenberg Merlot 2011 and 2012, as well as his Steenberg Echo 2012. He said that he grew up in a household involved in the agricultural industry, and he decided to ‘farm with wine‘. Louis van der Riet of De Krans Wines (recognised for his De Krans Tinta Roriz) said that he is willing to learn, and is willing to accept criticism, and to interact with others. Reenen Borman of Boschkloof (recognised for his Boschkloof Syrah 2012 and Boschkloof Epilogue 2012) said that he grew up on a wine farm in Franschhoek, and liked drinking the leftovers in the opened wine bottles, and that he has never looked back, which created a laugh. JD Pretorius was named the Young Winemaker of the Year, recognising up and coming winemakers up to the age of 30 years, winning tickets for two to fly to San Francisco, accommodation, and R25000 spending money, enabling him to visit Napa Valley. JD admitted that he had entered the competition a number of times, and hoped to enter the Winemaker of the Year competition in future. He recognised his ‘AAA’ team who work with him at Steenberg, and dedicated the award to them.
Given that the Young Winemaker of the Year was announced, we were served JD’s Merlot to pair with Chef Lennard Marais’ beautifully presented crispy seared quail duck breasts, field greens, candy beets, radish, toasted pine nuts, and spiced blueberry jus.
Christiaan Groenewald of New Cape Wines, last year’s Diners Club Winemaker of the Year, shared how the award has changed his life. He traveled to Napa with his sons last year, and was shown around the leading winery in that region without an appointment, on the strength of his award. He said that he appreciates now being part of the Award family for life.
The Finalists for the Diners Club Winemaker of the Year were introduced in the Dry White Wine Blend category by video: Jacques Erasmus from Spier, for his Spier Creative Block 2 2013 and 2014; Alicia Rechner from Backsberg; Alvi van der Merwe from Alvi’s Drift Private Cellar, nominated for his AD CVC 2011 and 2012; and Bryan MacRobert from The Hughes Family Wine. Jacques Erasmus was announced as the winner, and he was humble in congratulating JD Pretorius, and thanking his Spier colleagues Johan Smit and Frans Smit. He has won two return tickets to the USA plus R50000 spending money.
In announcing the winner, the Spier Creative Block wines could be poured, and the delicious main course of pan-fried kingklip was served, with lemongrass-infused pommes Anna, new season asparagus, grilled apricot, and buchu honey beurre blanc.
The dessert was a soft creamy flourless dark chocolate cake, served with pistachio ice cream, La Residence rose petal shortbread, and cherry compote. This course was paired with Nederburg 2007 Private Bin Eminence Noble Late Harvest. Former La Residence manager Evan Sampson who was helping out last night looked after me, in finding perfectly plated dishes to photograph, in looking after the supply of water, and in making the most perfect and good strong cappuccino. A plate of friandise was served with the coffee.
The organisation of the event, other than the technical hitches, cannot be faulted, and one could say that it was over-organised, with a form to be completed about one’s dietary requirements, as well as details requested about one’s medical practitioner, followed up by a form to book interview slots with a host of Diners Club executives and the winners. The staff was a mix of contracted-in waitrons as well as La Residence staff, and they did a perfect job in serving so many guests. We were entertained at our table by Kalinka’s partner Waldie, and Alheit and his colleague, which enhanced the enjoyment of the evening. Impressive was receiving the e-mailed media releases from African Sky Communications on arrival back home.
Disclosure: We received a copy each of the 2015 Platter’s Wine Guide and Rossouw’s Restaurant Guide with our media pack.
POSTSCRIPT 22/11: We have heard from two attendees of a Brunch which Diners Club organised for the morning after the dinner, in what they regarded as the B Team event. They were hosted in one of the Villas, and were served left-overs from the dinner of the night before, I was told. They were told that there was not enough space for them at the function the night before, but we saw at least 15 open spaces at the dinner. They were addressed by Diners Club Head of Marketing Lee-Ann Shepherd, who welcomed them as bloggers, which caused an outcry amongst those who were not bloggers, the ‘serious’ journalists looking down on this group of writers. One German journalist fled in disgust, while others protested the insult. Shepherd herself ran off in tears, I have been told. It is unbelievable that the Diners Club Head of Marketing can create so many insults to writers through one event! It shows that she has no clue what she is doing, something we experienced from her at the same event!