The news that Anglo American CEO Cynthia Carroll (below) has laid down her jack hammer, ricocheted around the Winelands this morning like a cork from a shaken-up Methuselah of Boschendal bubbly. For Don Tooth, CEO of Anglo’s renewable resource play Vergelegen, reported directly to Cynthia.
It was less than a year ago that charming Cynthia fell in love with that small country in Somerset West branded as Vergelegen and like its founder, Willem Adriaan van der Stel, she seems to have fallen foul of the latter-day Here XVII of the VOC who own her company – institutional grey shoes relocated from the Stadhouderskade in Amsterdam to the curry dens of the City of London.
After a board meeting on the farm last November, directors were divided into seven teams and asked to come up with seven blends. Winemaker André van Rensburg was particularly impressed with the blend of chairman Sir John Parker – a handy name in wine circles as Robert Parker is America’s über-palate. The chairman’s choice was ruled hors de combat on corporate governance grounds but the toothsome winning blend will indeed be bottled under the label Board-O (an auditory pun on Bordeaux worthy of Charles Back).
Cynthia made an impromptu speech at dinner at which she suggested further investment. Phase I was designing and building a new wine tasting centre and a bistro-style restaurant with family friendly menus designed by the chairman of judges of the annual Sunday Times Chef of the Year Competition, Garth Stroebel.
Called The Stables, it is like an upmarket Mike’s Kitchen: comfortable and relaxed, yet sophisticated and stylish, designed by Christo Barnard who did such a sensitive job at La Motte in Franschhoek. The colour scheme is green, white and grey with various sized tables in French oak – square and rectangular – combined with modern versions of traditional riempie benches. Modern artworks chosen by Ilse Schermers of Is Gallery in Franschhoek are a feature while indigenous floral table arrangements add colour and texture.
Phase II was to develop the former Vergelegen Restaurant into a culinary destination and the restoration of another historic home on the estate. A magnificent garden, the 18th on the estate, will also be designed to complement the new hospitality offerings and will include an innovative play area for children.
The striking entrance to the wine tasting centre boasts a tree sculpture created by renowned Stellenbosch land artist Strijdom van der Merwe and is inspired by the historic camphor trees (declared national monuments) on the estate. The pièce de resistance is a magnificent central table over five metres in length, crafted from a 400-year-old yellowwood slab. Pity about the overpowering smell of thatch from the roof that makes all wines smell like Sémillon though.
With guardian angel Cynthia now hors de combat herself, how long will Vergelegen, long regarded as a costly indulgence for directors by UK-based fund managers and certainly not core business for a mining company, manage to maintain its independence? With SA mining involved in a life-and-death struggle with radical labour, there is no need to paint a huge bull’s eye on the tasting room. There is one already in place.
Lovers of SA wine will be watching this space with keen interest as Vergelegen is way too valuable a cultural treasure to disappear into the foetid swamp that is all too often the aftermath of “transformation” in the wine industry.