INDUSTRY ICON: During the February 2 award ceremony Spatz is surrounded by, fromleft, sonVictor, wife Vera, daughter-in-law Ronel, son-in-law Erhardt Thiel and daughter Nora Sperling - Thiel
Article: Wednesday, May 02, 2012 - 8002
PeeBee’s Wine Column
1659 and all that – the medal of honour goes to Spatz Sperling
I was sitting at the computer humming ‘Oh leave me not to pine, alone and desolate’, when I pushed the keys to the Wines of SA site and up jumped the message: ‘Spatz Sperling honoured with 1659 Award.’
I shouted with joy, as is not my wont. I never believed or dreamed that this dear friend - but to many others, a threat - would be honoured by an industry that he criticised, that he altered, that he challenged, that he loved.
To their eternal credit, the official industry called him a giant, and recognised the permanent contribution to the South African wine industry that he first encountered as a 19-year-old in 1951.
Born in 1930 in Tettnang, Spatz had been brought up on this East Prussia estate that was lost to the advancing Russians. His father was killed and his mom and younger brother fled to Dresden to experience the bombing. He did a bit of training in general farming.
Aunt Deli was married to Hans Hoheison, a leading Cape Town architect who had bought the Driesprong farm in 1938, making muscadel in small beer bottles. With three pounds to his name, he arrived at Winchester Castle, stayed at what he was later to name Delheim in her honour, and planted vegetables that they drove to the station market in Rondebosch every Friday – earning a pittance.
He pressed his first grapes in 1952, to be called HOH – Hans Otto Hoheisen. In 1962 he pioneered touring the country, wine in tow. He married Vera Felicitas Reinarz in 1965, and the love endured.
His first venture into modern wine (1963) was so vile that a lady friend called it ‘dreck’, giving rise to the gorgeous Spatzendreck - a veritable loss leader, but made to keep Spatz smiling, and to keep him away from the marketing of Delheim under daughter Nora, and the viticultural and vinicultural aspects under son Victor. It hurt not to be ‘Baas van die Plaas’.
The strength of this great man was that he made friends and enjoyed confronting enemies and then befriending them. His dearest friend was Frans Malan of Simonsig.
A week before the February 2 honouring, Spatz nearly died in the farm pool, but clever thinking by Victor and eight-year-old Garby saved him. All that he could recall was that “there were angels hovering and I saw the Simonsig cellars”.
With Frans Malan and the equally warm Niel Joubert of Spier, these three started the Stellenbosch Wine Route in 1971, two years before the Wine of Origin legislation was introduced. He encouraged Sydney Back of Backsberg to start the Paarl Wine Route.
Wife Vera was the brains behind making the place presentable, while Spatz would walk around ‘as if he owned the place’, scolding any employee who was not precise. He was always serious and sincere at wine presentations, but full of bonhomie at parties.
He encouraged young South African winemakers acknowledging that they really understood red wine - Boland Coetzee, Beyers Truter, Jacques Borman - and those who worked for him: Kevin Arnold, Jeff Grier, Philip Costandius, Conrad Vlok and Brenda van Niekerk.
The first discussions behind what became the Winemakers Guild were held in his offices with Kevin, Billy Hofmeyr, Etienne le Riche, and Walter Finlayson. Spatz always had a close link to Kevin and felt it deeply when he left to go to Rust en Vrede just after winning the SA trophy for the 1986 Cabernet Sauvignon. Rather keep Kevin than the silver!
I met Spatz in 1978 at a Nederburg Auction. He said: “Are you that mad fellow who circulates your tasting notes? Some people say you write nonsense, but I tell them to show me one town except George where there is a monthly tasting of amateurs and their tasting notes are sent back to the industry.
“They could not – not even in Stellenbosch, so carry on and ignore your critics.” Even on my recent visit, he said: “Show me what you are writing now.” Thus for 34 years, he has been my biggest fan. I use him for philosophical discussions, or to answer the questions he puts forward, like: “Why is there no fun anymore?”
Spatz planted pines on his farm, and saw a fire decimate it in 2000. He changed a piggery to Delvera (named after his wife Vera) - a Klapmuts farm that produced the Grand Reserve (the name grabbed from a brandy bottle lying around).
Other recent honours have been life membership of the SA Timber Growers Association and recognition as a founder of the Estate Producers Association. He built houses for his workers, joined them on Christmas Eve with the entire Sperling family singing along, and followed the Green Footsteps programme that has become an emphasis of son Victor.
No matter how much Spatz is to be commended, the industry needs praise for choosing him, albeit that he was born in a foreign land, and that he rode the waves of controversy if need be.
He joins his friends on that list - Frans Malan (1998), Niel Joubert (1983), Ronnie Melck (1990), Sydney Back (1996), and NC Krone (1988) - and even three national leaders: BJ Vorster (1978), General JC Smuts (1994), and Nelson Mandela (2003). He ‘walks with kings, nor loses the common touch’.
The citation of the 1659 (the year Van Riebeeck pressed the first grapes in South Africa) Award reads: ‘The inspiration and effective contribution to the development of the wine industry, where he left a positive contribution, influence and legacy.’
They added:‘His passion and enthusiasm whereby he took leadership in the starting of the wine routes and other pioneer work and market initiatives have directly and indirectly developed wine tourism in South Africa.’
PeeBee lives in George, teaches at Oakhill in Knysna, and explores wines worldwide.
Author: Peter Bishop