Franschhoek Cellar undergoes complete image transformation, pity about design and poor service!

Franschhoek Cellar exterior 2Yesterday I spent the afternoon in Franschhoek, and used the opportunity to visit the completely transformed Franschhoek Cellar, for which re-opening I had received an invitation, but could not attend the Monday evening function last month.  The redesign led to the closure in October and November last year, and the Franschhoek Cellar re-opening in December.  What has emerged is a monster, not suited to brand ‘Franschhoek’ at all!

For the first time I noticed yesterday that one can no longer park in front of the building, an area which was shared with that for The Stall.  There is no entrance into the wine tasting centre off the R45 entrance to Franschhoek anymore.  Instead the walkway to the centre has been turned into a garden, with a rose garden, another with protea varieties, and a fountain wall.  To the left of the building are some unusual looking ‘umbrellas‘, as if they are upturned, more designed to impress and attract attention than to protect anyone from the sun.  The building exterior has been repainted the dark brown.

The Franschhoek Cellar (a misnomer, as no wine is made in the building) building has been very unimaginatively designed, basically a block-shaped building.  An entrance section is at ground floor level, and the rest on a higher level, where one could buy cheese and taste wines in the past. The designers of the new transformed Franschhoek Cellar seem to have thrown every design element into the building interior upgrade, which represents what was once a co-operative of wine farmers but now is a private company in the DGB (Pty) Ltd stable.

To enter the building, one now has to park behind the building, on the other side of the Franschhoek Tram line, without there being any warning. With a fright I saw that I had missed the Tram by a few seconds, an extremely dangerous crossing.  A fabulous service, given that one cannot see how to enter the building from the parking area, is the golf cart shuttle service, with a friendly driver.  Arriving at the building, the first thing one notices is a massive McDonalds’ style playpen for children, utterly bizarre!  Further along, where the parking used to be, a raised platform seats guests eating and drinking outside, offering a lovely view onto the Franschhoek mountains.

At the entrance, on the outside, are two new metal stands with cut-outs of bottle and glass shapes, andFranschhoek Cellar Vespa Whale Cottage the Franschhoek Cellar branding.  At one of the two a red Vespa has been placed on a platform, a design touch it seems, but none of the staff could explain it.  As one enters the building, one is shocked by a riot of Franschhoek Cellar Brampton Wall Whale Cottagecolour in the Brampton Wine Studio, an UBER crass and loud area consisting of high tables and black chairs, and some low tables for children to draw on (are children even allowed in a Tasting Centre/Bar?). The bulk of the space is taken by a bar counter, from which Terbedore coffees are prepared (R14 – R24), and Brampton Wines are sold to drink outside or to buy to take home. Wine by the glass is dead-cheap, ranging from R20 per glass for the Brampton Rosé 2014 (R50 a bottle) to R30 a glass for all three red wines (Brampton Shiraz 2012, Cabernet Sauvignon 2012,  and Pinotage 2012).   The Brampton Sauvignon Blanc 2014 and Unoaked Chardonnay 2014 cost R25 per glass andFRanschhoek Cellar Brampton wines in ice bucket Whale Cottage R60 per bottle.  The Brampton wine maker is Bertho van der Westhuizen.  Three Brampton wines can be tasted for R25, and six for R50.  A flyer defines Brampton as ‘one of South Africa’s eponymous lifestyle wine brands and the brand represents a range of up-front, fruit-driven wine with a strong, colourful personality, reflected in the modern and stylish packing‘.  The only design feature which impressed was the cute cork-shaped bar stools set up at the bar counter.

The new Brampton Wine Studio is the second, following on from the one in Stellenbosch, which is nothing as ‘loud’ as the Franschhoek cellar one.  In Franschhoek it also serves as the meeting point for new visitors.  Here I was lucky to meet Lucinda Baardman, a supervisor who has worked there for seven years already, and was the most senior person on duty yesterday.  She told me all the tasting options Franschhoek Cellar Bernard Room Whale Cottageand venues in the building, too much presented too fast to absorb. Franschhoek Cellar Lucinda Baardman Whale Cottage Upstairs, she said, are the Bellingham Tasting Centre and The Bernard Room.  She delegated Zandile to show me around, an offer I accepted happily initially.  We started in The Bernard Room, previously the Board Room, now ‘more cool, more serious‘ she said, and mainly used for tasting hosted for international guests.  It has a small seating area too, and was the most understated room of the three that I was shown.   Zandile really got to me when we got to an ‘olive press’, which came from ‘Hangary‘, and I asked her to explain to me where the olives came from and which brand is used to sell it.  She mumbled, and luckily at that point Lucinda came to the Bellingham Tasting Room, and corrected the information, it being an old grape press from Hungary.   I was then introduced to Elmarie, seemingly running the very vast space, in which one can taste the Bellingham range.  This huge space was barely filled in the past, but now bigFranschhoek Cellar Bellingham Tasting Room Glasses and bottles Whale Cottage wine stands take up a lot of the space.  In one corner is a Bellingham ‘Picnic Store’, which allows one to buy one of six Truckles cheeses (Boerenkaas Traditional and Cumin, Gruyère, Gorgonzola, Fontina, and Emmental).  Odd was not seeing any Brie or Camembert, nor bread or any other types of picnic food.  The cheeses fade into insignificance within the massive fridge of Bellingham wines displayed in it.  Alongside the fridge was a shelf of ‘pairing chocolates‘, very nicely presented in a black box and gold ribbon (R75).  One can also buy Franschhoek Cellar olive oil, but it is made by La Bourgogne.  In the Bellingham Tasting Room the only apparent physical design change has been made, with three new wall-height glass windows, giving a fantastic view onto more wonderful Franschhoek mountains.

As Lucinda took me to show me the Event venue at the far back of the building, Elmarie traipsed behind Franschhoek Cellar Bellingham Tasting Room lounge Whale Cottageus, regularly interrupting Lucinda to add further information. The venue can seat 250, and is massive, looking relatively untouched by the designers’ hands!  We saw a cake stand in walking through the Bellingham Tasting Room, and Lucinda said that they offer Chocolate Cake, Cheesecake, and Carrot Cake, at R35 a slice.  Elmarie was delegated to organise for one slice to be taken away.  She brought it in a fomolite container that was too short for the slice, meaning it would be squashed.  It was returned to be closable.  Then she asked if I wanted a glass of Rosé with it, which seemed to irritate Lucinda too. I remarked to Elmarie that her accent sounded so American, and she retorted to me in German (my language abilities and surname were not introduced to the conversation at any stage): ‘Ich bin Deutsch, ich bin in Deutschland aufgewachsen’)!  All she could tell me was that she was previously at Warwick Wines. Lucinda told me that Elmarie has been there for 7 days, and was a trainee until yesterday, becoming full-time responsible for the Bellingham Tasting Room from today. I was intrigued about her German exchange with me, and slowly it came back to me that I had met her as a waitress at The Red Table Restaurant at Nederburg, a disastrous encounter, and I had heard that she had left soon thereafter!  She was from Paarl before living in Germany fro 15 years.

Lucinda went to find out the name of the Johannesburg-based design company, calling it ‘Famous Grounds‘ (which turned out to be Famous Brands on checking up today – see Postscript), but no such company name could be found on Google.  The design feel got better and gentler as one moved through the building, but one got the feeling of a building with three vastly different personalities, more than schizophrenic in its interior design, and not giving one overall brand image or design feel.  One feels that many many Rands were thrown at the building redesign, just to make it look different and more impressive inside (little has changed outside, other than the entrance).  What the company has neglected is the training of its staff, none of them impressing other than Lucinda.  I was surprised to hear that the overall manager Mearl van der Riet was not in the house, Sundays being their busiest day, and that their Hospitality Manager Helene Rademeyer only works from Mondays – Fridays!

The chef is Jerry Kennedy, who had previously worked at La Residence and Sacred Ground, I was told (via Google I only found a chef by that name working at Le Bon Vivant)!  The menu seems as confused as the building, most dishes being accompaniments to the wine, such as chips (R25), biltong (R49), and ‘pan-fried prawns in a creamy Franschhoek Cellar Sauvignon Blanc dipping sauce‘ (R70).  Salmon, cheese, and mixed cheese and charcuterie boards are available.   ‘Gourmet Boerie‘ (R70), char-grilled chicken (R86), hamburgers (R88), tapas, and rib-eye steak (R126) can also be ordered.

Very oddly Franschhoek Cellar does not have a Twitter account, despite a staff member insisting that it is ‘@Franschhoek Cellar‘!  The cheese and wine pairing is the most popular offering, Lucinda said, six wines and six cheeses paired costing R55.  They also offer a paired wine (6 wines) and chocolate (8) tasting, costing R65.  Six Bellingham wines can be tasted for R40.

There is live music on Friday and Saturday evenings.  On request, I was driven back to my car, which had been guarded by two security men.  Driving off I was shaking my head at the design overload I had been subjected to!

POSTSCRIPT 9/3:  I spoke to Eileen from Famous Brands this morning, and she shared that they had designed the interior as a once-off project for Franschhoek Cellar, the DGB Chairman Tim Hutchinson and Famous Brands CEO Kevin Hedderwick having been previous colleagues at SAB.  Costing close to R6 million, the revamp was led by Famous Brands’ designer Livia Coetzee.  Famous Brands is a franchisor of Steers, Tasha’s, Debonairs Pizza, Mugg & Bean, Vovo Telo, Wimpy, Keg, Wakaberry, and more.

Franschhoek Cellar, off R45.  Tel (021) 876-2086. www.franschhoek-cellar.co.za  Only Facebook, No Twitter.  Monday – Thursday 9h00 – 18h00, Friday and Saturday 9h00 – 20h00, Sunday 10h00 – 17h00.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com  Tel (021) 433-2100, Twitter:@WhaleCottage  Facebook:  click here

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