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The Circus: Act 1

1st in a 4 part series, to be published in quick succession

A week ago we labeled a bright orange, bone dry Verdelho that looks suspiciously like radioactive waste. Some of us love it. Others are less impressed. But instead of arguing its merits, we’re too busy with the 2021 vintage, pressing what we hope will be the world’s first drinkable Zinfandel after 5 days of carbonic maceration.

Also, we're not quite sure what carbonic maceration is.

Anyway, the build up of pressure in the now raging barrel ferment has caused an explosion of crimson liquid. Seconds later, the landlord will walk in.

It feels like the right time to tell this story, because halfway through our third vintage, and our thirteenth wine, we're still trying to figure out what we're doing. Perhaps this will help.


With John and I being business partners who work on the fringes of the wine industry, and being somewhat partial to the stuff, we began hatching plans to one-day make wine together. This was February 2019 and harvest was already in full swing. So, maybe next year? Perhaps the year after?

Until the following day. When John called to say that a friend had some Shiraz for us:

Friend: I have some Shiraz for you.

John: Amazing. Keen. Small problem though; we have nothing and we know

even less.

Friend: Great. We pick in a few weeks.

What neither John nor friend realized was that we didn't have a few weeks. You see, while also clueless, I wanted our Shiraz to be a Northern Rhône-inspired Syraaah because all the cool kids were doing it, and it tasted brilliant. The problem was, that meant picking the grapes at lower sugar, which meant picking them a few weeks earlier.

This was a blessing in disguise, as it gave us less time to realize how hopelessly ill-prepared we were. And John had also begun discussing the project with Dan, whose father-in-law was rumored to know someone who had once made wine in his garage. This tenuous connection, along with a badass truck, made Dan the most important member of our trio. Until our friend Sam agreed to join us and complete the crew (for the time being, anyway).

With some last-minute help from YouTube, Mambo’s, and a 1973 book on South African winemaking, we were on our way. A few days later, we found ourselves in Hemel-en-Aarde to visit friend (Peter Davison), check sugars and get a crash course on how to make wine. And thanks to a late evening phone call, we had also arranged to see Butch Alheit at Hemelrand:

James: We’re making a wine!

Butch: That’s a terrible idea

James: Cool, do you mind if we pull in tomorrow even though it’s mid-harvest and you can stop what you’re doing and

Butch: Don’t. Don’t make wine. It’s going to suck.

He's been right about a bunch of things, so that wasn't great. Also concerning was that, as it turned out, he wasn’t expecting to see us the next morning. But there we were.

But Butch was an absolute gent. After a tasting of the Alheit's soon-to-be-released 2018’s, he gave a list of 463 things not to do, told us a few secrets and waived us off to Newton Johnson.

A few kilometers down the pass, Dean Leppan was just as busy, just as surprised and just as generous. By the time we left we were legitimate Pinot Noir experts, and even though we weren’t technically making a Pinot we finally felt what can only be described as a quiet confidence.

This winemaking lark was going to be a walk in the park!

Next week, in Act 2:

- It wasn't a walk in the park

- My mom has her say on our first wine

- Reenen Borman is forced to accept an honorary consultancy role

- We decide on a name which you obviously already know because I gave it away...dammit It's Circus.

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