Letter from America: The Good, the Cab and the Ugly

Wine connoisseur and marketer Bernard Kotze from Du Toitskloof Wines recently undertook a trip to America which resulted in an impassioned piece of correspondence. This I share with permission.

Dear Brother Emile

I hope that when these few lines reach you they may find you in the best of health. (Plagiarized from “Sonny’s Lettah” by Linton Kwesi Johnson.)

After eagerly abiding by your request to bring you a good bottle of Napa Cabernet Sauvignon from my three week visit to America, I feel compelled to share my quest – of-course I’m also aware of my presumptive expectation of you giving a shit. Anyway, what follows is my hero’s journey in search of your Cabernet Sauvignon, wine of origin Napa Valley USA.

Bernard Kotze and his Bacall, aka Colleen.
Bernard Kotze and his Bacall, aka Colleen.

There were icicles in my beard as I eagerly ventured into the frozen mid-winter landscape of the village Gloucester Courthouse in Virginia. Before me lay the cobbled and very historic main road, decorated on either side by a wide array of artisan shops: bakeries, breweries, candy-stores, diners, inns, etc. And then…..about halfway down main road and as gracefully as Excalibur rose from the lake, it beckoned to me through the grey cold morning hue, a sign: “Kelsick’s Wines and Foods”.

When the handcrafted copper bell above the door rang as I opened it, like the “Dead Parrot” sketch from Monty Python’s Flying Circus, I just knew. I knew that the love affair between this shop and my credit card would be as profound and painful as the love between Tomas and Tereza from Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Inside warm aromas hugged and welcomed me like a bearskin rug in front of a fireplace. As if from the unfathomable mists, a raspy Lauren Bacall-like tone addressed me in mid-browse.” Welcome to Kelsick’s, Sir, my name is Megan. May I be of assistance?”

As I turned to find Lauren Bacall’s origin, the voice of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (Stacy Keach) exploded in my head: “She passed my office window like a vision. She was tall, I knew she was tall ‘cause I was on the second floor. She stepped into my office wielding a pair of 45’s …she also had a gun.”

This was going to be a daunting task, fraught with dangers vast and diverse. But for you and your Cabernet I was willing to leave the trenches and go over the top in ultimate “Blackadder goes Forth” mode.

Mustering my best James Earl Jones tone while Megan gave me a smile I could feel in my Levi’s pocket, I explained my quest, my noble hero’s journey to finding your Napa Cabernet Sauvignon. And what followed were three weeks of possibly my best wine experience ever, entailing a strenuous yet rewarding insight into wine branding and selling, an experience from which our own beloved industry can most certainly learn.

Lauren Bacall giving a sales pitch: is that a wallet in your pocket or you happy to see me?
Lauren Bacall giving a sales pitch: is that a wallet in your pocket or you happy to see me?

It took Megan ten minutes of deep probing for and drawing out of information, after which she very accurately summarized a precise strategy, a battle-plan if you will.

Ten Cabernet wines were set aside and complemented by ten suggested recipes, all to be made with the freshest and tastiest ingredients from Kelsick’s. On each of the ten subsequent visits to the shop, Megan would personally feed me the low-down on the specific Cabernet for the evening after which she’d assist me with selecting the ingredients for the suggested dish. I would then go cook for my darling wife and family and enjoy the matching Cabernet with one single goal in mind, and that is to find the right wine. For you.

Despite her myriad attractions, it was Megan’s sales pitch which impressed the most. Sharp, informative and very brand-driven. From berry and plumb-driven brands like Gnarly Heads and Layer Cake, to the more full and balanced Ménage á Trois…a right regal romp.

From the elegant and beautifully tannined Tortoise Creek to the shining light of celebrity brands such as the Francis Coppola Diamond Collection. Not to forget Count Dracula’s personal favorite, Carnivore. About all these Megan was extremely knowledgeable. Kelsick’s stocks about 30 different Cabernets and she knew what she had to know about all 30.

Never once did I hear kak like “north or south facing slopes”, or “cool morning mists”, or “our wine maker’s passion”, or “one can taste what the otter that shat on the banks in 99 BC had for lunch in this wine” type of hogwash. It was about what the brand stood for and how trustworthy it was.

It’s about the brand: Each Cabernet was one, so too the appellation (Napa) as well the Mother Brand, brand USA.

The French started this thousands of years ago and the Americans have certainly learned the lesson. I tell you Brother Emile, this Swartland and our beloved wine commentators…. This ménage a coq-up and the eternal fascination with the otter’s excrement makes Wine Brand SA about as appetizing as Baldrick’s cooking. (Rat-o-Vin) Anyway. But let met stop, as this is a topic for another day….on with the quest.

The Holy Grail is found.
The Holy Grail is found.

Every one of the suggested Cabernets paired with each of the recommended dishes was a journey, every single wine honestly and truthfully representing exactly what the brand stood for. It became an almost impossible task to pick one – until the last wine. As Megan opined: “In my opinion, this Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon remains the most loyal to what the cultivar actually is. It is regal and arguably the noblest of all red wines and Caymus respects this and is not for nothing one of America’s leading Cabernet producers.”

This statement hit me, it was probably the sexiest line in my history in the wine industry and I was sold and you got your bottle.

And from the depths of my wallet came a General Insanity Melchett-like cry from my credit card “Come on darling, we’re leaving!!”

Bottoms-up, Megan.


Your Brother in Wine


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