26 July 2011 by Dianne Tipping-Woods

Wine-tastings that tell a story

There is something cheering about bubbles, especially when they’re bottled. So on a grey day in Cape Town, it made perfect sense to head out to Graham Beck’s Franschhoek estate for a sparkling wine tasting. The bubbles came in various shades and sizes; all beautiful to look at and fun to taste. I was just as interested in the venue itself.

The landscaped gardens are home to a collection of modern sculptures that have been assembled by the Beck family over the years. The walk-way leads up to the dramatic entrance of an imposing building made from sand-blasted bricks, slate dry stone walling and traditional roof tiles.

Each detail in the venue has been carefully chosen. The table bases were conceptualized and custom made by interior designer John Jacobs and his team together with André Stead of Bronze Age. The coffee tables were hand crafted by Slavo of Karella Carving. The lines are clean and modern, with some eye-catching statement pieces, like the studded Moroccan main door, the peaked roof line, narrow symmetrical ponds and striking Dylan Lewis sculptures that flank the entrance. All seating was designed exclusively for the space. The bar stools echo wine corks and the chairs are a modern interpretation of the historic Cape Riempie stools. There are Christian Ploderer lamps by Prandina and the Cape slate packed walls converge at right angles with engineered glass membranes, dividing the working wine cellar from the recreational setting.

There are also a number of interesting artworks on display. Graham Beck’s personal art collection has works by South African artists Karel Nel and Irma Stern, as well as international artists like Chagall and Léger, including a bronze by Elizabeth Frink. Julia Meintjies is the consultant curator who has said that the idea behind the conjunction of wine and art was to enrich the experience of those coming primarily for the wine by offering a space that “stimulates the senses and encourages visitors to a broader enjoyment of sensory pleasures”. Another Beck property, the Steenberg estate in Constantia, has sculptor Edoardo Villa as the dominant presence. His bright tubular works are mostly placed in vineyard settings, to good effect.

Of course, Graham Beck is first and fore-most about the wines. The estate’s world-renowned Brut Non-vintage has been used to toast the inauguration of the likes of Mandela and Obama. The estate’s wine-tasting environment and aesthetic choices do tell another stories though.

Like the story of the power relationships at play in the wine industry in South Africa. These are rendered highly visible at the Franschhoek tasting room. It over-looks the bottling process, which is housed behind sound proof glass. While it was interesting to see the sophistication of the set up, it is less comfortable to watch people working while sipping on sparkling wine amidst the exclusive John Jacobs designed interior. While I like the idea of opening up the wine-production process, the sound proof glass somehow does the opposite. Or does it?

What’s certain is that this wine-tasting space does tell a story, and there is more than one story to tell. Sometimes, the aesthetic choices can help with the narrative. This is a great article by Tim James on relationships between art and wine in the Cape.

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