Sour Grapes on a Pink Tongue

With wine publications collapsing faster than KwaZulu-Natal RDP houses in a storm, it is a small consolation to note how many other SA magazines could be confused with a wine mag: Noseweek, an SA version of Private Eye without the humour and The Pink Tongue. Herman Lategan reviews Sour Grapes in the February edition of the Tongue.

sg0 Sour Grapes on a Pink Tongue

Neil Pendock, irreverent wine writer for the Sunday Times, has been called many names. He has been labelled as “a self-styled fat richie” and also (by the editor of Noseweek) as someone who takes himself too seriously.

These insults run like well-matured wine of a ducks back and he just laughs at his detractors. Neil Pendock, as wine writer for the largest Sunday newspaper in the country, is an obvious and easy target for other green-eyed wine scribes, who write for minor publications, or who generally write insipid copy.

Pendock writes columns that sing on his pages and he has a rich and wide knowledge of his subject. He behaves with style and aplomb in a wine subculture that is fraught with backstabbing, vicious gossip, naked hatred and century old vendettas.

The theme for a dramatic opera, one might say. In his new book, Sour Grapes, he gives readers a wonderful glimpse into the dark underbelly, the demimonde of our wine industry. His style of writing is engaging and informative.

As a man who has travelled the world and who has read widely, this book is filled with an extensive range of references, both locally and internationally. It is funny and even shocking, but never dull. After reading it, it is the type of book that you can put on your shelf en reread just for the sheer pleasure of it.

Moreover, if you live in Cape Town, you live on the cusp of the winelands. Read Sour Grapes and a trip to the winelands will never be the same again.

Q & A with Neil Pendock
Q: You grew up in exotic Singapore. How did you land up in South Africa?

A: My dad was in the Royal Air Force and was based in Singapore, which was worried about an invasion from Malaysia. It was 1969 and even the gravediggers in the UK were out on strike. So, when his tour of duty was over, sunny SA seemed a no-brainer.

Q: You are a mathematician. What else do you do when you do not taste or write about wine? (Career-wise, that is!)

A: I use mathematics to generate targets for mineral exploration. A recent project had me in the Amazon for a couple of months. We found two iron mines and one was named after me – King Kong – which should come on stream in 2011. When I asked the geologists why King Kong, they said because I am big and hairy.

Q: How did your passion for wine develop?

A: From writing about it. I was teaching at Wits and was asked by the Sunday Times to review a book by (UCT Professor) George Ellis on Cosmology. I was outspoken and so was added to the list of people sent books to review. One of them was Oz Clarke’s Wine Atlas, which I trashed and so a career was launched.

Q: If a young person should want to start a humble wine cellar and build it up over the years, where should he/she start?

A: Keep your money in a savings account and buy wine as you get thirsty. SA wine gets better each year and imported wine is totally unaffordable. A cellar is expensive to maintain (air conditioning is dodgy in this unreliable Eskom era) and gets raided when you’re pissed and least able to appreciate aged gems.

Q: What constitutes good wine writing?

A: Honesty and humour. I try not to become an eye-specialist, a bow-tie or a bore and I’ve so far resisted joining producer payrolls like so many other scribblers in the business.

Q: The way connoisseurs at times describe wine borders on sheer madness. What is the most ridiculous description that you have ever heard of?

A: A magnum of Château Cantenac Brown 1947 was described as smelling of chocolate and schoolgirl’s uniforms by Michael Broadbent, one of the UK’s biggest wine nobs.

Q: Good wine goes with good food. So, what would you have with simple food such as fish and chips or a common old braai?

A: I love SA Sauvignon Blanc with fish – 2007 if you can still get it, as most 2008s require a pack of Rennies. I’m doing this interview in Hyderabad (India) where most folk are 100% vegetarian so a braai is definitely not on the menu. That said and karma aside, I think Cabernet and Karoo lamb chops is a match made in Montagu.

Q: Just for the sake of being silly. Your last meal on death row with your last bottle of wine? What would it be and why?

A: Alsatian Riesling as close as wine comes to immortality. I was in Strasbourg earlier this year and had the privilege of smelling the bung from a barrel of 15th century wine that had recently be discovered in a bricked-up cellar. All the people involved with that wine – the owner of the farm where the grapes were grown, the pickers, the winemaker, the owner of the barrel – have long since returned to dust. The wine, a fragrant Riesling, has outlasted them all. Although I wouldn’t be around to taste it again, it would please me to know my last wine would outlast the judge, jury and executioner.