Thank you, Robin.

Oh me, oh life!

Oh me, oh life!

I wasn’t going to add my voice to the millions across the world mourning the loss of Robin Williams. I know it will get lost in the noise and the virtual tsunami of outpourings remembering this great man. But after a week of feeling pervasive sadness, I turn again to writing down a few thoughts and putting out my thanks to the man who was the absolute embodiment of my childhood.

His suicide also hit home closer for me than I could have anticipated (as it did for many), having lost a friend to suicide just a few weeks ago. We weren’t particularly close, but we lived together for almost a year. She had always suffered severely from depression. None of her therapies or drug regimens seemed to help for long, if at all. I never understood it. I tried to be as sympathetic as I could be, but I was young and this was my first up-close and prolonged encounter with real depression (I say real, I mean clinical. Bi-polar. Deep, real, physiological depression. Not just a really bad bout of the sads).

She was waiting for me once as I came home after a particularly long day at the lab. She had a massive plastic container in her hands. It contained all her medication. She looked like she had been crying all day. She asked me to keep her medication locked up in my room for the night, because “she didn’t feel well”. I was tired and while I was concerned about her, I was also worried. At that time, I saw it as attention seeking. She looked disappointed when I agreed but didn’t really react more than taking the box from her. Looking back now, I still don’t know if I honestly thought she would have through with it that night, or if I was just trying to be nice in what felt like an incredibly awkward and unusual situation. All I know for sure is that I didn’t understand it then. I lived with her, I saw her struggle but I was too young to appreciate what was going on. I still don’t, but I’m more sympathetic. I know more about depression and the disease it really is.

I know the Academy’s tribute tweet to Robin was criticised by a suicide prevention group and I understand why. But knowing my friend and how hard she tried to be free in other ways and how she could never shake the iron grip her depression had on her, I can’t not agree with the spirit of the sentiment. She’s free now, form the pain and darkness and the hardship that her life had become. Coming to realise this in the light of Robin Williams’ passing has helped me say goodbye to her and be more appreciative for my own health, family and happiness.

As for Robin; I don’t have to say much about him that hasn’t been said already. YouTube is overrun with tribute videos, produced by movie houses, TV networks and even just thousands of fans posting their thoughts and self-made video tributes to him. The recurring theme being that not only was he a brilliant actor, but a loving, passionate and beautiful human being, despite his illness.

One of the seemingly more forgotten movies in his vast and impressive repertoire was Jack, the story of the child who grows up four times faster. Towards the end of the movie, Jack delivers his valedictorian speech, and in it the most appropriate and heartfelt words are uttered.

A fitting tribute, not only to Robin but to all that have been lost to us, by whichever means.

“In the end, none of us have very long on this earth. Life is fleeting. And if you’re ever distressed, cast your eyes to the summer sky, and the stars are strung across the velvety night. And when a shooting star streaks through the blackness turning night into day, make a wish and think of me. Make your life spectacular.”

Thank you, Robin.

Quaffers and their counterparts

(My winning article entry for the Veritas Young Wine Writer award, translated from Afrikaans to English)

Wine. Making it, selling it and enjoying it is a fluid and ever-changing world. A world that is becoming increasingly diverse, inhabited by all kinds of people. From students enjoying little boxes of wine in pubs to true connoisseur who attend auctions and travel to all corners of the earth for new oenological discoveries. The spectrum in between is vast, surprising and never boring.

As diverse as the people who worship at the feet of Bacchus may be, the precious liquid that they all enjoy is what brings them together. Countries and regions. Styles, colours and tastes. Cheap as chips or eye-wateringly expensive. A lifetime can be dedicated to the knowledge that comes with a passion for wine. Some do just that. Sommeliers. Winemasters. The rest of us do what we can, learn what we can, decide what we like and what we don’t care for.

Often, two types of wine are distinguished. Quaffers and wines that were made to pair with food. The former created for easy drinking and the latter demanding to be carefully combined with just the right flavours.

Quaffers are everyday wines for everyday enjoyment. Simple. Without pretense. Your glass of sweet relief after ‘n long day at the office. The start of the weekend. A holiday staple. Quaffers are easy to drink. They don’t make you think too much about what’s happening on the palate. The vintage is not important. Ageing potential is irrelevant, because the bottle won’t see next week. Quaffers also won’t really break the bank. Soft red blends, ‘n fresh Sauvignon Blanc, ‘n lovely Merlot that wipes out a long, difficult day.

At the other end of the spectrum are the quaffers’ counterparts. Fine dining wines. Table wines that were made for haute cuisine, special dishes or specific flavour combinations. These wines need something to complete them, challenge them and bring out the best in them. They speak to you. They tell you what should be on the plate, what they need and what they’ll work with. They demand planning and careful, considered choices. A little time and a bit of effort is necessary to ensure that the wines and the feast are perfect a perfect match.

And yet, while these two types of wine seem so vastly different, they have more in common than you may think. It may be more challenging for a serious, fine dining wine to pass itself off as a quaffer, but there’s no reason the latter can’t take a well-deserved place at the table.

Antiquated notions about wine and pairings expect red wine to be paired with red meat and chicken to be paired with white. These ideas are being replaced with new, exciting and adventurous combinations. Heavy reds are no longer solely destined for big, juicy steaks. How about a Pinot Noir with that tuna steak? Or some luxurious, rich Chardonnay to go with the oxtail curry?

The emphasis is shifting to balance of flavours between the wine and the dish. Pair the main characteristic of the wine with that of the food, rather than trying to match the wine as a whole with the entire dish. Of course a few golden rules will ensure a successful pairing, but the hard and fast “rules” of pairings are falling away in favour of a fresh, new approach. A good approach is to focus on the wine and match the food to it. As long as the wine is sweeter than a sweet dish, or more acidic than a zesty one. And try to avoid bitter-bitter combinations.

Ultimately, the best way to find the perfect match is through trial and error. Experiment with unusual combinations, contrasting flavours and those that are complementary. Food and wine were made for each other and complete each other.

In South Africa, quaffers and their counterparts are often found in the same price class. Local producers fill the market with high quality, premium-class wines at affordable prices. Wines are made in many different styles, sometimes classic, sometimes new-world and sometimes according to their own initiative. These wines are comfortable at any table, with or without a fancy menu. They make finding the perfect pairings even easier, and considerably more budget friendly.

The supposed rules around drinking wine are slowly changing and disappearing. Wine is more affordable, drinkable and accessible than ever before. The line between quaffers and fine table wines is fading. Producers and winemakers are making their own rules, as they see fit. The end result? Creating wines that can be enjoyed whenever, wherever and however you please. 


Joostenberg Long & Late

(The blogpost part of my winning entry for the Veritas Young Wine Writer award, translated from Afrikaans to English)

When in search of an unusual wine or wine type, people often chase after them in the farthest reaches of the planet. French Bordeaux, Argentinian Malbec or German Riesling. Sometimes you look so far afield that you end up missing the gem that was right under your nose.

I discovered such a gem in a small bottle with a content resembling that of a brandy. No label. Just a name, written in Tip-Ex. Joostenberg Long & Late.

“A rarity,” I was assured.
“Uniquely dry-sweet,” I was told.
“Perfect cheeseboard wine,” was the advice I was given.

And it was exactly that. All of that and more.

My dad used to buy Hanepoot sweet wine, in those big bottles with the little ear on. A light straw-colour. He has a small, old wine barrel in the kitchen. Just a few liters. The sweet wine would be put in the little barrel. And it would be left there. Until we’d almost forgotten about it. Then one day, a year later, as winter creeps around, the barrel will be opened. Sweet, syrupy goodness would come out, almost the colour of Port. My mom’s favourite.

The Joostenberg Long & Late is nothing like my dad’s little creation. But the story behind it reminds me of it. It’s an experimental wine, a single barrel of 2004 Chenin Blanc. Harvested late, fermented in the barrel for 3 months and then just left for 8 years.

The winemaker isn’t entirely sure what to make of it either. The closest description is a Vin Jaune-style wine. Strong sherry character, but it isn’t fortified. Lots of sugar, but the sweetness is masked by something that dances around the edge of your consciousness, but you can’t quite put your finger on it. An earthy, nutty taste that just barely eludes you.

It’s a damn shame it was such a small bottle. 

Veritas Young Wine Writer 2013

Yes. Well. It seems that would be me.

In a wildly unexpected turn of events, I seemed to have won a competition I entered on a whim. Entrants were required to write an 800-word article on one of two topics. Either The role of wine in everyday life or Describe the difference between wines to be enjoyed as ‘quaffers’ and wine that do justice to certain cuisine. A 200-word blog post on the most unusual wine ever encountered was also a requirement.

The press release announcing the winner and runner up is here.

My original entries, written in Afrikaans, can be read here. And the runner-up, Ricardo Gouveia’s entry is here.

Apart from the obvious thanks that, in melodramatic award-winning style, goes out to my constant and regular support network of family, boyfriend, friends and an assortment of Tweeps, special thanks is owed to two people:

Nicolette Waterford (@NWaterford) for bringing my attention to the competition and encouraging me to enter, and @bigbigjoe1 for generously providing me with the Joostenberg Long & Late which was my inspiratonal “most unusual wine”.

I’ve had a few requests to translate my entries into English. I’ve done so and will post them separately in the next two posts.

Permit me a last moment of blushing, giddy excitement and gratitude to the judges, sponsors and organizers. The announcement left me speechless and anyone who knows me even a little bit will realize that takes some doing…


A melody, a short word and a quiet weep

At the end of Les Misérables, when Jean Valjean is dying and Fantine’s ghost appears at his side, they sing:

“Come with me, the chains will never bind you,
All your grief, at last, at last behind you.
Lord in heaven, look down on him in mercy.
Forgive me all my trespasses and take me to Your Glory.

Take my hand, I’ll lead you to salvation.
Take my love, for love is everlasting.
And remember the truth that once was spoken:
To love another person is to see the face of God.”

In the heartbreaking anticipation of the death of a loved one who is losing his fight against cancer, the words and music had me weeping tonight. And yet, in that moment of terrible sadness, the music had such hope and salvation in it, I could not help but be comforted.

What would we be without music, and lyrics?

Quite miserable, I believe.

August and everything after.

It seems it’s that time of year again. Winter has hit hard once or twice, but the general state of affairs seems much colder and more dismal than the weather.

Aside from the usual stresses of work that crop up around August of every year, bad news is in abundance lately. It feels as if early everyone I know or work with has been touched by a tragedy of some sorts.

I feel the heaviness of it all, pressing down on me. The bad news has touched me and mine too, though (and I cannot possibly overstate this) myself and my family remain in good health and are well. A blessing. And a fact I remind myself of every day, to be thankful.

Yet everywhere I turn, I see those dear to me having a bad time of it all. Worry, stress and grief permeates. Hope seems to shrink away and faith is hard to keep hold of.

And I’m afraid. I’m afraid the bad things will happen to me. But I’m even more afraid that I’ll be a bad friend, a disappointing confidant. Too weak to make a difference, too cowardly to be brave when they need it.

Admittedly, I have been handling all this sadness quite badly. I haven’t been the friend I should be. The friend my dearest friends deserve. This will change.

So. To my friends: despite the greyness of the situations and the sadness tainting your days, hold on. Hang tight. Vasbyt. Keep the faith. It’s easy for me to say, because I’m doing OK. So I’ll keep reminding you, until you’re doing OK. And one day, when the sadness finds me, you can return the favour.

It’s August. But I have hope for everything that comes after.

The plight of the tireless scientists…

A few weeks ago (after a particularly distasteful incident with what can only be described as an anti-science nutcase) I wrote a post relaying the incident. I wrote it immediately after the exchange had taken place and, while I had done my best to temper my response, reading it now I feel I may have moderated it a touch more.

While I still fully agree with my original reaction and viewpoint, I did throw the word “idiot” around quite a lot. And while that sentiment may be accurate, it is not for me to label or judge. I’ll leave that to the actions of those themselves.

Upon rereading my post, I realize it is not just the individuals themselves that tire me with their ignorance, it’s the massive gap between the public understanding of science and the actual science itself that causes the problem. Despite the best efforts of organizations such as PUB (Public Understanding of Biotechnology), the masses sometime simply do not understand, mostly because no effort has been made to properly explain it to them.

Enter the countless “watchdog” agencies and organizations which protest GMOs and vaccines and anything that sounds a little too evil. All most of them manage to do, is muddy the waters, confuse the masses and give scientists a bad reputation. I’ve always been outspoken about the misunderstanding of science and the fallacies spread by the agents against it.

Up until now, my reactions have always been tainted with annoyance. Understandably. Science is something I feel very strongly about, it piques my interest and it’s part of my daily job. I don’t mind when people get it wrong, but why do they scoff at attempts to help them get it right? But I digress.

Bottom line, I need to find a way to get involved in developing and promoting the understanding of science by the public. Not just on the superficial levels. I mean really get stuck in and help chip away at the “evil scientist” image that seems to be so prevalent lately.

Now, to figure out where and how to start my crusade….