Andrew Marais, who died last Monday aged 80, might have had a stern, sullen presence that could bring a room temperature down by 10 degrees, but he was arguably the best Afrikaans wine writer the industry has known.
I encountered him in the 1980’s when I was a cub arts reporter at Die Burger and Meneer Marais was Naspers’s head of communications working in the same building. A born newshound, sub-editor and writer, his career at Naspers had been interrupted by a successful stint as PR head of Stellenbosch Farmers Winery. Here he initiated – among others – the Oude Libertas Amphitheatre as a means of promoting arts and culture alongside wine and Meneer always underscored the importance of wine’s role in Man’s more civilised pursuits.
These included almost daily lengthy lunches, and bumping into Meneer Marais in the Naspers foyer after 15:00 one would find him rosy-cheeked above his characteristic bow-tie and in an almost friendly mood as he greeted one gruffly through a cloud of Gauloises smoke.
He took his wine writing seriously, ensconcing himself in his 18th floor office and hammering away at a manual typewriter which he deemed far superior to and more “hands-on” than the newspaper’s Atex computer system. I would be handed the typed A2 sheets for retyping into the computer with the instruction that not a word or comma required amending. He was usually right.
His knowledge of local and international wines – this in the 1980’s and early 1990’s – was impressive and informative to a wannabe wine-hobbyist such as me. Meneer Marais loved old school red wines, especially those of Welgemeend, Kanonkop, Meerlust and whatever Jan Boland Coetzee was doing. South African Port and Muscadel caused him more joy than anything I could think of, apart from catching a 4kg galjoen.
Unlike much of today’s purple-prose, gushing wine-writing, Meneer Marais was easy on the praise. A great wine was “heerlik” (delicious). A very good wine was “bevredigend” (satisfactory). He had a weekly column of around 800 words and thousands of readers who would religiously buy what Meneer recommended. He carried weight and influence, and knew it. At many a media lunch he would, as an invited guest, end the proceedings with a stirring speech commenting on his host’s wines as well as wine-related issues.
And he did not fear to make his opinions known outside of his writing. When KWV launched its Perold Shiraz 1998, Meneer arrived at the glamorous lunch as the main media guest. However, upon hearing that this wine was aiming to revolutionise the pricing of South African wine by asking 100US dollars a bottle, he abruptly left the lunch in protest to go drinking Chenin and Dry Red with his mates down the road at Simonsvlei. The mocking of KWV’s pretentiousness and audacity continued into the early hours.
A terrifically able fisherman and avid diver of crayfish and abalone despite his Gauloises habit, Meneer was also one of the finest seafood chefs one would have ever encountered. His soup of fresh West Coast mussels and his steamed crayfish were incomparable. He could out-cook most restaurant chefs. Out-write any of his peers of the day. And if you wanted to be put down in an argument and go down in flames, Meneer would oblige.
Towards the end of his wine writing tenure he led a crusade to encourage producers to use Afrikaans language on their labelling, colourfully dissing those who wished to bend to Anglo-Saxon wants by translating authentic names. The Breede River’s, for example, renaming of itself to Wide River came to an abrupt end.
His argument was that not only were the translations embarrassing – quite rightly so – but they eroded the authenticity and legacy of an internationally marketable culture specific to South African wine.
The fact that many of the country’s modern, trendiest producers are today proudly and successfully using original and authentic place and other names in vivid Afrikaans, proved Meneer’s foresightedness.
I’ll drink a glass of old Welgemeend on him. And who knows, perhaps even light a Gauloises.