This article first appeared in The Times newspaper in South Africa, on 22 February. As many of you may know, the UN has declared 2017 to be the Year of Sustainable Travel for Development: http://bit.ly/1OftqQK , so many of my editorial features and blogposts will have a focus on environmental awareness and sustainability in travel.
WINE IN GOOD CONSCIENCE
As a six year old, Patricia Werdmuller von Elgg learnt about the solar system and the sun’s connection to all living things, a defining moment in her young life. Today, at age 90, she radiates unbridled enthusiasm when talking about preserving the environment, rescuing animals, and producing her sauvignon blanc from grapes organically grown on Hout Baai, her estate in McGregor.
Initially moving to McGregor in the 90’s to be nearer to her brother in Worcester, Von Elgg acquired a 27ha farm in 2003 called Hout Baai. What she inherited was a wilderness land saturated with toxins and overrun with pests. Today, her fastidious attention to a long term sustainability policy has resulted in a thriving and balanced eco system on the farm, with vineyards well nourished with seabird guano, kelp derivatives, mulch, and an organic compost made courtesy of wiggler worms bred on site. Pests are eliminated naturally, without the use of deadly pesticides – guinea fowl devour snails, mongoose prey on rodents, and birds eat the mieliebugs – and there are a number of beautiful species roaming free like deer, meerkats, hares, civets and caracul. When bat-eared foxes occupy burrows under the vines, production activity halts in those lanes and workers keep a wide berth until the pups have moved on. That block on the property is called Little Foxes and it is Pat’s best performing section on the farm.
Born in 1927 in Meerut in the Indian State of Uttar Pradesh, Pat traversed the high seas some ten times from the age of two, sailing between Britain, where she attended boarding school, and India, where her father was a troop Commander in Waziristan. One voyage included an impactful stopover at the Cape of Good Hope when she was thirteen. The downside of the frequent travelling was the interruption to her studies and ultimately she was unable to attend Oxford to study medicine. Never one to shy away from a challenge or tackle any new project, her diverse working career has included stints as a signals operator in World War ll, farming livestock in Kwazulu Natal after immigrating to SA in 1948, starting up businesses in Johannesburg and America, and developing a unique photopolymer for which she held the patent. She has also been a tireless champion of animal rights through the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and various other organisations. As a courageous rookie navigating the world of wine, Pat educated herself about viticulture and the principles of farm management, and over time her vines began to produce the premium grapes sought after by wineries like Lord’s, Rooiberg, Laibach and Arendsig.
With the invaluable support offered by her eldest son Otto Werdmuller von Elgg and his business partner Georges Sayegh, Pat put her heart and soul into Hout Baai, pursuing her vision to produce the wine now known as Solara. Otto, the CEO of Unmannd Ariel Vehicle and Drone Solutions, is not much of a wine fundi but shares his mother’s commitment to wildlife conservation, having invested millions in the fight against poaching in the Kruger National Park through drone surveillance, a critically important resource in the sector.
The journey into a highly competitive South African wine market has not been without angst, frustration and setbacks, but the progress and successes have outweighed the drama by far. In 2006, Lord’s Winery was the first to buy Patricia’s grapes, followed by Rooiberg just outside Robertson who produced the first bottle of Solara in 2014. Hout Baai’s high quality product also attracted the attention of one Ivan Oetle, a former wine buyer from Woolworths who is now a partner in the Solara business. Oetle introduced Pat to Arendsig’s master viticulturist and wine maker Lourens van der Westhuizen who was so impressed that he agreed to take on the making of Solara going forward.
As the one who governs all aspects of the running of the farm, Pat’s immovable rule is never to deviate from her ethos – “I will always endeavour to do all I possibly can to prevent environmental contamination and to make the planet safe for nature.”
She is a spirited, iPad savvy nonagenarian and a fine example of enduring tenacity and determination who identifies with the Royal Air Force motto, “Per adua ad astra” which is Latin for “through hardship to the stars”. It seems that a stellar new Solara is on the horizon and Pat anticipates that it is going to be exceptional. “We’re going to make our wine in the most perfect way that we can devise.”
Each evening, a petite lady can be seen riding through the vineyards on her quad bike, taking notes for discussion with her team, one of whom who has been with her since 1996. Then her dogs beckon her to sit on the stoep where she enjoys a time of reflection over a glass of wine as the sun goes down on another day in the Langeberg Valley, with a promise of good things to come.