On Pretending to Know Wine

The Stellenbosch wine region visited via a Vine Hopper tour bus is the kind of thing that brings in a lot of foreigners. By the end of our tour there were 12 of us: two Joburg South Africans on a weekend getaway, a German couple, of which the man kept confusingly saying, “America is such a wonderful place!,” while simultaneously giving a thumbs-down, two women from London, an Irishman, a Dutch woman, and a couple from Austria.

vineyardSaturday morning, we started at the Stellenbosch Information Center, taking the Vine Hopper on its Southern Route. The entire journey takes all day–about 8 hours for 5 or 6 stops, but you can spend more or less time at each winery. Once you’re on the tour, the expenses for the day are pretty reasonable. Each winery has a tasting fee, but you can visit 6 of them for under $15 total. The wines themselves are also affordable. It’s not like “ooh…this wine tastes dry and full-bodied like an old cigar box (real description)…let me see how much–Woah. Nope.” Most of the bottles at the Stellenbosch wineries we visited were between R55 ($4.75) – R155 ($13.50).

Our first stop was Neethlingshof Estate, where we accidentally crashed a wedding. But the wine was sweet and the estate was beautiful. This was our first winery, so things were a bit quiet for our group at this point. One of the couples seemed to be trying to do their own thing, probably disappointed that it was a group tour. One woman didn’t drink wine (she ordered grape juice????). It was an awkward start.

barrel makingWe then headed to Van Ryn’s, which is Stellenbosch’s only brandy distillery. This was, by far, our favorite stop. They let you tour the distillery and brandy cellar, and even give a demonstration on how they make the barrels. Then, we did a lovely brandy + chocolate + espresso tasting, which was so perfectly paired. Our group was getting more chummy at this point–laughing at the fact that we all started eating the chocolate before the tasting presentation actually started, and that Clayton, our driver, had somehow been mysteriously replaced by another person.

bourbon tasting

Next, we were off to Spier wine farm, where we had lunch. Our group disbanded for this portion, a child with a pet-able owl showed up, things got weird.


Does wine make you sleepy like it does me? This is the part of the day where I was really glad we hadn’t gone with our first idea, which was a 21 kilometer wine + bike tour.

Spier Wine picture frame


Our next stop was Bilton estate, not to be confused with Biltong, a South African dried game meat. I opted out of the tasting here (they give you about six half-glasses at each stop), choosing to do my own chocolate tasting, which was basically a plate of chocolate to be paired with each of their wines. Except I just ate the chocolate.

What I like about our group is that most of us are there in Stellenbosch not because we’re sommeliers, but precisely because we don’t know much about wine. We like to laugh at the descriptions, and when the staff asks us what our impressions of the wine are, we tend to say, “Ah, yes, mmm, it’s very…good.”

Except for one guy. At this point in the day, he’s gargling the wine and making a scene about how the woman presenting the wine probably “doesn’t even know a thing about wine HA HA,” and he’s much louder than he thinks he is. Meanwhile, the teetotaler from Holland has decided to finally have some wine, and tells us beforehand that she might go to sleep under the table after doing so.

Finally, we make our way on the Vine Hopper to Kleine Zalze, which has been making wine since 1695. Chas and I both agree that this was the best flight of wine from the day. So good. Our group has also finally gotten comfortable with each other and heart-to-hearting it, so our conversation is super lively. Topics discussed:

  • Life as a Zimbabwean refugee
  • Hiking in New York
  • How Capetonians don’t work because they’re always at the beach
  • When Germany slaughtered someone’s family
  • Why someone should move to Australia
  • Thumbs down America
stellenbosch mountains

Trying to take a picture of Chas, trying to take a picture of the Stellenbosch mountains. It’s useless–you just have to see it in person.

And just like that, our wine tour is over.

The ride back to drop people off is quiet–people are sleepy, or wined-out. I think the most unexpected part of the day has to be when we drop off one woman, a volunteer, who is staying at a township outside of the city. That drive very quickly brings us all back to the reality of how different South Africa can be from one neighborhood to the next. It’s a sobering experience to be driving through the poorest part of town after having sipped wine all day on sprawling vineyards. Chas even said on our drive home to Cape Town, “Doesn’t it feel weird that we spent the majority of the day commenting on how one wine might be slightly better or worse than another wine?”

It didn’t until it did. What did we do to get to do that? I don’t know. Life is weird.


3 thoughts on “On Pretending to Know Wine

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