All Rise for the Icon that is Ken Forrester

So it’s official, is it, Ken Forrester is a legend. So named at this year’s Groot Constantia shin-dig to celebrate the local wine industry icons. The powers that be at the HQ of South African wine prefer to term its annually elected industry persona extraordinaire as a “visionary leader”, but for us mere mortals, legend will do just fine. Especially in Ken’s case because this is what he has become, and this is what he will go down as in the annals of Cape wine.

The first thing I ever drank with Ken was at 08.30 in the morning, an espresso strong enough to shrink the balls off a wagyu bull. In his gracious and stately home on Scholtzenhof farm off Stellenbosch’s R44. This was at the beginning of the current millennium, and I had been sent to pick the Forrester brain as to the state-of-play on Stellenbosch’s status and future as a wine region.

At our first meeting, I summed him up as the quintessential no-shit guy. Back then Ken had not yet been living and making wine in Stellenbosch for 10 years. But he spoke with the authority of a pedigreed local who could lay claim to generational experience and expertise. Confidence was clearly not a challenge for him, and everything he said about the industry was backed with an opinion of informed logic and the kind of foresight I found refreshing, far-removed from the stifled, gruff voices one encountered when seeking information from the offices of Cape wine officialdom.

I remember Ken pinning me with that steely gaze and saying: “Wine producers must realise that our interests do not come first in promoting the national wine industry,” he said. “It’s South Africa at number one. Then Stellenbosch. And thirdly comes us wine farmers. We can only make a success of it if our country’s and our respective wine regions’ images and wines are successful. If we don’t all realise this and work together, we’re stuffed.”

While this image of brotherly inclusivity might be seen by some as out of synch with Ken’s relentless promoting and marketing of those millions of wine bottles bearing the name Ken Forrester, people are the oxygen allowing his persona and presence to come to the fore. He loves talking, arguing, joking and opining, dragging you into his aura of robust energy which, however you may encounter it, will leave nobody without an opinion of him or his views concerning the topic of conversation on hand.

Quite a few years back now, Ken hosted the monthly gathering of the Wine Swines of which I chanced to be a member. Of course, it is always a treat when he is the host as few people do a better and more entertaining talk on a range of personally-selected wines. Plus, as a former chef, you know that when lunchtime comes, the grub at Chez Forrester will be a bit of all right.

At this specific Wine Swines gathering, the usual jokes and bantering from the audience began to silence as we realised Ken was treating us to some seriously special and old wines. Châteaneuf-du-Papes and other Rhônes from the seventies. Some Loire whites, fifty years and older. Vintage Billecart Salmon Champagne and killer Grgich Hills Chardonnays from Napa.

As we moved from one awesome wine to another, the late Duimpie Bayly and Swines stalwart asked Ken if he was getting divorced and now having us drink-up his rare vinous assets before the settlement.

Ken laughed with the rest of us, and replied: “Duimpie, for me the only thing better than tasting special wines like these is to drink them in the company of true friends like you bunch of miscreants.”

Of course, one of the more profound features of Ken’s place in the wine world is his role in establishing a formidable position for Chenin Blanc in the modern offering of South African wine. After decades of cheffing in the mosh-pits of Southern Sun Hotels and then stomping a culinary stamp on Johannesburg with restaurant Gatriles, he mosied down to Stellenbosch in 1993 to “make the best white wine in the world”. The seed towards this modest goal had been planted by the effect great white Burgundies had had on him, wines he’d come across during his restaurant days.

With old Chenin Blanc vines growing on the newly-acquired Scholtzenhof spread, and a few individuals such as Irina von Holdt having began to show an interest in reviving the fortunes of an ubiquitous variety that had fallen out of favour thanks to the sudden local interest in Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, Ken went Chenin. “The position of Chenin Blanc acolyte was pretty vacant when I arrived in the Cape,” he told me, “so having seen the quality of the grapes and vineyards, why not go for it?”

Without any formal winemaking training, to boot. He might have been a deft hand with a duck and cherry pie, but viticulture and oenology were things even Ken had to admit to initially being beyond him.

“I had no formal training in the field, which perhaps was a blessing as I had no preconceived ideas of what this or that has to smell or taste like, and under what conventions something had to be made,” he told me. “There was nothing to confine me. Sure, you make mistakes along the way – a lot of them – but there is nothing like making a mistake to force you to learn. Quickly.”

Mates such as Martin Meinert helped, and today I can say from having watched and listened and seen that Ken can truly back-up his talk with prodigious insight in winemaking and viticulture, along with a seemingly natural talent with all things grape. He does old vines and pruning techniques, cover-crops and mulches together with fermenting, lees contact, barrel-selection, understanding of terroir and blending. He knows his stuff in the vineyard and the cellar, as the immense commercial success and critical acclaim shows and continues to show.

And of marketing and promoting, few come close – and I’m talking the world here. “Ken’s an animal,” Mark Norrish, former wine-buyer for Ultra, once said. “The guy just never stops working, doesn’t miss a beat and can sell chopsticks to the Chinese.” And the social stamina, an under-looked requirement in the world of wine promotion, is legendary.

“One ouk you don’t want to end-up with in a contest to see who’ll close the bar, is Ken Forrester,” says Eben Sadie. “He has hollow legs and can party guys half his age under the table.”

Personally, I’ve had my run-ins with Ken, but these have left me with respect rather than the usual petty vindictiveness that is such an unfortunate part of the wine world. For one, he’d just started making his legendary FMC Chenin Blanc when I mentioned to his PR that I found a noticeable dose of botrytis in the wine, which to me was overdone. Obviously, word got to him, and for a few months Ken would look at me as if I had a tarantula on my forehead. Pouring an FMC at a tasting he couldn’t help saying “let’s just have a glass of botrytis juice, shall we?” We both understood each other, with no further talk on the subject needed.

Ken’s crusade against and high-profile admonishment of cork closures continue to be a tad relentlessly tiring to me, seeing as I consult to a cork company and do so with pride. But his conviction is true and real, and can thus be admired, should it not?

In only 30 years, Ken Forrester has founded and created one of South Africa’s great wine brands. With quality in the bottle. He is individual and authentic in character as well as a vocally proud and convincing flag-bearer for the country’s wine industry, the kind of guy anybody who must fight the fight for wine South Africa wants on his or her side. No fools are suffered, no full glass goes untouched, and be assured that there will always only be one Ken Forrester.

And he be legend.

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