Posts Tagged ‘South Africa

Prime South Africa: a Q+A with Ross Toombs of Meridian Prime

For at least the third year in a row, I told myself THIS would be my year of Southern Hemisphere wines. I would shift away from my Euro/California preferences and discover all kinds of new delights from Australia, New Zealand, Chile. Carmenere and Central Otago, here I come!

Well, we’re more than halfway through the year and so far it’s been a mixed bag. A quick look at my Delectable profile shows that only 10% of my wines hail from down South. But. One of my favorite meals of the year so far was at the Musket Room, an homage to all things New Zealand with a menu and wine list that punch way above their prices. One of my few southern Westchester wine refuges is Bar Lees, an Australian joint in Mamaroneck. And a few months ago I met Ross Toombs, a fellow Pelhamite who imports wine from his native South Africa. He started his import business, Meridian Prime, 3 years ago, and works with a number of up-and-coming South African producers. He was kind enough to answer a few questions about his work and what’s new with South African wines (which, really — did I mention this already? — I need to drink more of.)


Being in the wine industry is obviously a fantasy career for many people. What do you love most about what you do?
I love being responsible for ensuring that the passion of the all the people making the wines (not just the winemaker) are transferred to everyone we interact with.  I also love seeing the look of surprise and joy on the face of someone trying one of our wines for the first time. That is a gift that we keep getting and it makes it all worthwhile.

What is the biggest misconception about your job?
The biggest misconception is that it is quick and easy to bring another wine into the portfolio. The work to get a new wine to market is immense — but rewarding in itself.  Another misconception is that the startup importer/distributor can’t take on the big guys head on and win. It is possible to act big without being big.

Why should people drink more South African wine?
The South African wine industry — and the country itself — is so unique in so many ways. These characteristics are captured in the wines themselves which are, like the country and the people, complex, beautiful and bold without being overbearing.  South African winemakers have found an amazing balance between New and Old World wine styles (most often in the same glass).

Aside from your own, what wines are you most excited about drinking now?
I am most excited about drinking other South African wine producers that are hoping to be in the US market. There are some truly outstanding wines which American consumers would be lucky to have on their tables. For the wine adventurer South African wines provide an oasis of untapped gems.

What’s the most remarkable wine experience you’ve ever had?
Starting an import and distribution business has been that remarkable experience.  For me it has been about meeting the amazing people in the industry as much as the wines themselves.  With the wines I never anticipated the incredible experience that comes from drinking a glass of wine that captures the passion of the people you’ve met who made the wine. I wish everyone could meet the people that toiled in the vineyards, the cellars and the offices to get the wine all the way to your table. When you know these people and how much effort and skill goes into the process,  every glass becomes a celebration of the collective achievement in getting a wine into the market.

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What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Wine

Back in grad school, I wrote a paper on the “dop” system. During apartheid, South African vineyard workers were regularly paid in alcohol. The results were predictably horrific.  While no longer as common as it once was, this practice still exists. Its consequences are, quite literally, passed on to future generations: many farm laborers are women, and the Western Cape suffers from one of the highest rates of fetal alcohol syndrome in the world.

I thought of all this a few weeks ago, when Human Rights Watch released a depressingly familiar report on human rights violations in South Africa’s wine industry. It was a hot topic among wine people when it came out (see, for example, the post and comments here) and as I followed the debate, something struck me: this was the first time I’d ever heard wine folks talk about the people who actually work in the vineyard. We spend a hell of a lot of time obsessively analyzing pretty much everything else, from rootstocks to yeasts to soil composition, so our silence on this topic is notable.

And it’s not an insignificant point, especially for Americans. According to the Oxford Companion, “few reasonable observers would dispute a claim that [California’s] clandestine, 600,000-member Mexican labor force constitutes CA’s greatest asset in the competitive arena of international fine wine production.” This workforce is not only large and hard-working, but also incredibly skilled and efficient. (No wonder producers were able to replant to Pinot Noir so quickly after “Sideways” came out.)

And if we’re really serious about the whole “natural wine/great wine is made in the vineyard” thing, then we need to talk to the people who are actually doing all the vine- and grape-coddling we wax rhapsodic about. The more I drink and study wine, the less I care about a given winemaker’s “philosophy” (talk is cheap) and the more I care about execution (how exactly does grafting work, anyway?) As wine writers and educators, my compatriots and I owe it to you to delve deeper here — and as wine consumers, you owe it to yourself to understand and appreciate all the hard work that goes into your glass.

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