I’ve always thought wine to be one of life’s great small pleasures. It is accessible to mostly everyone, it is something you can share, and it comes in so many wonderful different varietals. It also happens to mix well with two other great passions of mine: golf and food. It’s hard to beat enjoying a nice bottle of wine and a meal with friends after a game of golf. It makes you feel good about life, don’t you think?
It’s one of the reasons we have a restaurant in all of our wineries in South Africa and the primary logic behind our new restaurant, The Big Easy, located in Stellenbosch. People tend to be very well travelled these days, and not only are they better informed about wine, they are altogether more inquisitive about ideal wine-food combinations. These restaurants at wineries give patrons the opportunity to enjoy wine responsibly and to discover the joys of great food complemented by great wines. Ultimately I’m hoping we can open The Big Easy restaurants all over the world.
It is wonderful to be able to sample different wines during my worldwide travels, but South African wines are still my favorite. It is the wine I was first exposed to, and I’ll always have a great fondness for it—basic human emotion, I suppose.
It took me a while before I discovered wine, though. When I lived at home with my parents, my dad never drank alcohol. And I grew up in Johannesburg, which felt seemingly a million miles from South Africa’s wine region.
It wasn’t until the early 1990s, when I got to know Jean Engelbrecht, that I first discovered wine and started to properly appreciate it. My wife, Liezl, and I had just met and we went to a barbeque at his winery. Jean and I struck up a great friendship and went into business together almost 10 years ago, launching Ernie Els Wines.
Being “just” a sportsman, I suppose it wasn’t surprising that some people viewed this business venture with suspicion and even a degree of cynicism. “Just another product endorsement,” they perhaps thought.
They could not have been farther wide of the mark. We have just released our ninth vintage and each has scored 91 points or higher by the bible of the industry, Wine Spectator. In this business you are measured not only by the quality of the product but also its consistency. On that basis, we are viewed as a serious wine maker now. That’s very gratifying. And no one can be in any doubt now that we’re in this for the long run.
It’s a fascinating business, with much more to it than meets the eye. I like to be hands-on, whether it’s designing a golf course or trying to blend the varietals to create the perfect bottle of red wine. Each takes time and you need patience, in the sense that what you do today might not come to fruition for many years.
Wine tasting is definitely an art, but it is an art that can be learned. I’m on the tasting panel at Ernie Els Wines and a couple of times a year we’ll sit down to taste the wine at various stages in its development, long before it even makes its way into the bottle. My palate has developed and matured; I am now better able to identify the nuances of a wine and to differentiate between its many characteristics. That means I’m able to give better feedback to the guys at the vineyard so they can produce a more polished product.
The process is not unlike another interest of mine: motor racing. As a novice driver you just drive the car. As you gain experience, you start to understand more about how the car works. You get more technically minded and are able to give better input and feedback to the mechanic, who in turn makes the car better. The wine taster and the driver shoulder the same responsibility of giving the best possible feedback.
But with wine, you have to wait a bit longer to appreciate the fruits of your labor.