Exclusive Interview with Jan van Riebeeck

On 2 February 1659 Jan van Riebeeck announced the pressing of the first Cape wine grapes. Emile Joubert asked Commander van Riebeeck to look back over the South African wine industry’s past 350 years and to ask if it was all worth it.
Why try to make wine in the Cape Colony in the first place?
To tell you the truth, there was just not much to do back then. Selling fruit and vegetables to scurvy-skinned Dutch sailors, trying to build windmills next to Lion’s Head to remind us of home and eliminating the native Khoisan was not all that stimulating. We tried all sorts of things to pass the time: bonsai trees, pearl cultivation, breeding Dachshunds, hot-room yoga…. and then my gardener, Bertus Tuiter, said we should give winemaking a shot as he had some European vines lying around which he initially thought was Moroccan Red Marijuana. My bosses, the Dutch East India Company, were really keen on the idea, being obsessed with doing anything French as they were.
You made a big song and dance about pressing the first grapes, even diarising, 2 February 1659 with the words “Praise be to God….”
Look, my son-in-law, Bennedict, had just started a small PR company in town so he encouraged me to get maximum mileage out of the occasion. And was he right! 350 years down the line and this press release is still being quoted. Which one of today’s fancy PR companies can say the same?
Ja, and I couldn’t move my butt without telling the wig-heads at the VOC what I was doing, so I reported that we weren’t just lying around in the Cape having a jolly, but actually getting down to work.
What was the first wine like?
Very acceptable by Dutch standards. Before that Simon van der Stel snob arrived, that is. Just because he became Governor, and not Commander like me, he thought he could try and get one over our efforts. Him and his fancy Constantia plantings, apparently because the wine we were making in the Company Gardens was not up to his precious standards. Looking back, this is where the South African wine industry became a divisive force. Simon trying to pull a French Ch?+¦???+¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¬teau stunt with all his bowties and parties and soirees, while my guys just wanted to make an acceptable drop.
Then those French Huguenot outcasts arrived and really buggered it all up by claiming they were the only worthy followers of the quest for good wine.
And since then, it’s been a bun-fight. French against Dutch. English against Afrikaner. KWV against farm labourer. Pontificating self-important wine writers and organisations unable to represent the whole industry.
No hell man, if I knew it was going to turn out like this I would have brewed gin from day one and cut-out the tongue of anyone who said wine.
Being the pioneer, how was the birth of a wine industry welcomed by the people you were governing over?
Well things did lighten-up a bit around the colonies. Although it is difficult to be hip and merry if you are Dutch. I must give all credit for the locals: slaves, mulattos, Khoisan and the rest of the motley crew who supported the wine industry from day one.
They did not have Van der Stel’s opinionated stance about the wine I was making, except that there was not always enough of it to go around. The really climbed in, and this merriment lead to all sorts of noisy colour that we Dutch were unable of bringing to the colony.
There was dancing, singing, merriment, fornication, buggery and beach tennis. To put it in today’s lingo: the place rocked. This also allowed my troops to get in a lot of target practice when things got just a bit too merry.
How was your wine treated by the press?
Ag, they’ll always be the same. I mean, here we were, vintage 1659, first in South Africa and one of the oldest wine-producers in the New World, and the journalists were still not happy. “Ja, but is it a story worth writing about?”, “Why do I only get one bottle to sample?”, “The suckling pig stuffed with Gouda that we had at the launch of the 1661 vintage was overcooked.” Never happy.
In those days it was easy to deal with the press, however. Just send them on a freebie to Java and make sure they never return.
You are rumoured to have started the first wine guide in South Africa?
Just to make a quick buck on the side I began the Van Flatter Wine Guide. Initially it was accepted with enthusiasm, but then some of the judges started being blackmailed by a producer next to the Liesbeek. His wine, De Vrottenvoet Muscat, was always getting the top 5 Clog rating from a particular judge, and then the press found out the producer was supplying the taster with discounted Angolan slaves. I canned the project shortly after that ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ I’d rather deal with a tribe of Khoi than a roomful of journalists.

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