Why does Lettie hate Pinotage?

Wednesday, 2 June, 2021
Dave Jefferson
Most in the Cape wine business likely do not know who Lettie is, and couldn't care less if she hates Pinotage. Further, the author doesn’t know Lettie personally and can only guess about her reasons for detesting and generally “bad mouthing”, as we call it in the US, our 96-year-old native cultivar.

But stay with me, as this unfortunate and continuing behavior has been building over the last ten years, and is not going away.

First, we are referring to Ms. Lettie Teague, the wine journalist for the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), the long-established national financial newspaper of the US. She has won three James Beard Awards, including the 2003 MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award, the 2005 Best Magazine Columns, and in 2012 Best Food-Related Columns for her work at The Wall Street Journal. She has been used as a wine authority by CNN.

In other words, in the US she is a wine bigshot, if not a minor celebrity of sorts. Quite honestly, I have enjoyed reading many of her columns as she is frequently a witty and creative writer, and she often reviews obscure wines from unusual regions of the world. Most readers would assume she must be a Super Taster, with a winemaker’s sensitive palate and generally outstanding product knowledge. Quite a pedigree. However, since she is not one of the current 416 Masters of Wine, is it possible she is only a provocative wine writer and an average taster?

Unfortunately, per her website (http://www.lettieteague.com ), “Lettie loves most wines of the world except Pinotage. She has never had a good Pinotage.” The truth be told, Lettie has spent many opportunities over the past decade to deride the Pinotage grape, wines made from it, and, as a result, the entire South African wine industry. In short, Lettie hates Pinotage and lets the world know it. Here are three recent examples from the WSJ of her vitriol:

Sept. 8, 2020 “IN THE 10-PLUS years I’ve been writing this column, … Unlike me, many are fond of Pinotage, though quite a few readers let me know that they share my distaste for this South African grape.”

Nov. 24, 2020 “Among the other grapes I’ve found to be problematic food matches, Pinotage, the red grape of South Africa, ranks particularly high. It smells like a cross between damp earth and burned rubber tires, and I just can’t think of a dish I like so little it deserves to be tied to a tire-scented grape.… I might even have another go at serving Gewürztraminer or Pinotage at dinner sometime soon — though I’m not entirely convinced the experience will be fun.”

May 5, 2021 "AS A CHILD I was told I should never use the word “hate,” even to describe a thing I truly despised. According to my mild-tempered schoolteacher mother, there simply was never an occasion where such a harsh and terrible word could acceptably be invoked. To which I’d now reply: Have you ever tasted Pinotage?

On more than one occasion I’ve publicly declared my animus toward this red grape from South Africa that tastes and smells like rubber tires. And each time I’ve been on the receiving end of some, well, pretty hateful responses. Apparently, many wine lovers consider it unseemly to express hatred for a particular wine; if you intensely dislike it, that just means you haven’t had the “right” one. Yet people feel free to say they hate other things—paint colors, hair styles. Why not wine?

When I revealed my hatred of Pinotage in this column several years ago after tasting many, many examples, I received a raft of emails from readers. In one notably long missive, grape grower Dave Jefferson of Kenwood, Calif., wrote, “A more prejudicial statement by a wine journalist can scarcely be imagined. A wine journalist is not entitled to any such prejudices in their professional field.”

Other correspondents shared my anti-Pinotage stance and voiced their support. Yet another put forward a strategy to combat the wine’s malodorous nature. Reader Pierre Bedard suggested decanting a Pinotage for an extended period. “The foul aromas will decamp, and new ones will form,” he promised. To my mind, the fact that “foul aromas” need to be dispersed says everything you need to know about Pinotage."

My characterization of her position most certainly offended her back in 2012, irrespective of the merit of my conclusion. Indeed I stirred things up by accusing her of being prejudiced against Pinotage, which clearly she is and continues to prove in repeated publications.

Certainly this characterization is highly justified as the foregoing written remarks attest. However, I did not express anything hateful toward the journalist then or do now.  I did not call her a bad person, or reflect on her choice of clothing, friends, or anything else irrelevant to wine reviews. To this day I do not hate her although I was quite surprised to see my name and California residence called out in the WSJ. I just find her dredging out a legitimate criticism from nine years back rather immature of a professional now in her 60th year.

Nor do I fault her for not liking Pinotage; we all have different tastes, and sometimes they evolve. (I could not stand cooked spinach until I was in my late 20’s and then I came to love it.) However, to quote her own words, since she loves most wines, simply acknowledging that Pinotage is not one of them should be adequate. Then either ignore the category or select another wine critic to review Pinotage when its turn comes up, perhaps every four years. This seems like a simple and fair solution.

However, like a grudge-holding scolded schoolgirl, she goes out of her way to disparage Pinotage in every way possible. This is so unfair to Pinotage producers and the South African wine community in general that it infuriates me and many others. Further, I can now only conclude she is also far less than truthful: she implies she is continuing to seek out a good Pinotage but continues to find none. Come on, Lettie! Do you think there is anyone that believes you? It is hard to believe she has continued to taste any Pinotage wine in the past eight years or so but simply relies on perhaps bad experiences 25 or more years ago.

That said, I grant her that Pinotage had a pretty rocky start in the international wine community when it returned after the sanctions of the apartheid era were lifted in the early 1990’s. I made my first trip to the Beloved Country in April 1994, at the start of the General Elections; in the following years I made numerous trips, (now totaling 40), first looking for potential acquisitions for Napa’s Beringer Wine Estates and then subsequently for our own account. During that early period, I drank many Pinotages and a many were only fair at best, though some were brilliant. But for now well over 20 years, most Pinotages are good wines, and many are exceptional. Stylistically Pinotage has evolved in so many different styles and character. And if Lettie was in any way on the top of her game, she would know that and be professional enough to acknowledge it.

In February 2000, my partners and I purchased an old fruit farm in the Breedekloof hills that required 90% replanting and substantial expansion to modern wine grapes. Under the exceptional management of our local partner, Anton Roos, a Stellenbosch grad in viticulture and consulting experience with Vinpro, we commenced the long effort of building what is today an exceptional 87 hectare vineyard: Silkbush Mountain Vineyards . I swallowed, however, when Anton showed me his proposed planting map with close to 15% in Pinotage. “Anton, are you convinced we should go with this much Pinotage? Yes, Dave; you have to trust me on this.” Well, I did and has it ever paid off. Our highest elevation planting was named Writer’s Block by the very clever Bruce Jack, founder of Flagstone Winery. Its top Pinotage from exclusively our grapes was deemed Absa Top Ten Pinotage, for 5 of the last 11 years, including a four-year streak, all produced by winemaker Gerhard Swart. (While all vineyards experience some vintage variation, this exceptional cultivar has proven itself at Silkbush. Bruce Jack still believes it to be the best Pinotage vineyard in the country!)

Despite Silkbush’s sustained success with Pinotage, we have never tried to promote our wine for Lettie’s consideration but rather those from the best South African cellars whoever they may be. Regard the following email to her in June 2013.

Hello, Lettie,

In April, during my annual three week "harvest trip" to the Cape, I met with the Chairman of the Pinotage Association, the esteemed Beyers Truter, founder of Beyerskloof, the producer of the acclaimed Diesel wine you selected as one of the top five in your WSJ article in January.

Then having barely returned from South Africa, I was with Beyers again on May 10th in Napa, along with De Wet Viljoen, Vice Chairman of the Pinotage Association, and Estate Manager/Winery for Neethlingshof, also located in Stellenbosch. Both earnestly reaffirmed the Association's standing invitation to you to be an international judge of the annual ABSA Top Ten Pinotage competition. The judging this year is July 10-12,with the Announcement of the Awards on August 30th.

(While July is the Southern Hemisphere equivalent of December, and not the absolute best time to visit the Cape, with sufficient planning, we all are sure you would have a magnificent and eye-opening trip to the Beloved Country whenever you can spare the time.) The Association has a series of three videos from the 2010 competition, interviews with a number of the judges and the winning winemakers, posted at: http://www.pinotage.co.za/index.php/competitions/absa-top-10/videos

You may find their remarks and personalities intriguing, and hopefully encourage you to give this invitation serious consideration. Realizing  it may be years before you ever again review Pinotage for the paper, the Pinotage producers are not attempting to capitalize on your wine journalistic celebrity. However, since even after the January tasting,  you still carry an unchanged biography on your website ("She loves most wines of the world except Pinotage. She has never had a good Pinotage."), we believe there is still honest work to be done.

 Every year there are many truly magnificent wines we would like you to taste and judge. Having a historically opposed and gifted critic on the ABSA judging panel would be fun and reflect well on all involved. (You could even choose to reprise the role of a tough East German figure skating judge in the old Winter Olympics.) If you then still hold the cultivar in contempt, we will put up our hands, but not until then.("Hands-Uppers" is a traditional expression of surrender in the Cape dating back to the time of the Anglo/Boer War.) However playfully or seriously we phrase it, the Pinotage producers truly would love to have you in their company for a few days. Please give it due consideration.

Most respectfully ~Dave-Jefferson

In 8 years, we never received a response to this friendly, standing and anything but hateful invitation!

The simple and fair solution to Lettie’s Pinotage quandary is to nominate a well respected wine judge (or a panel of qualified judges) from New York to review Pinotage every four years, perhaps coincidental with the Olympic Games, and who could also perhaps sit on the Absa Top Ten panel in Lettie’s absence. We doubt she will do it, however, as it would diminish her standing jokes about Pinotage. But until there is a reasonable solution, Lettie will continue being tarred internationally with the well deserved PREJUDICED label from 9 years ago. If others conclude she is prejudiced and determined to malign the grape and South Africa, is it not logical to also conclude Lettie Teague is the enological equivalent of a wine bigot?

The fact she has chosen to call me out 9 years later is not personally troublesome but that she continues to degrade South Africa’s wonderful 96-year-old “hybrid” from her bully pulpit is reprehensible. As it is South Africa's signature variety, her words hurt all Pinotage producers in their international efforts to gain recognition for the cultivar and its wine, as well as other RSA wines, and simply is not fair. Were she or another public wine critic to malign, for example, New Zealand’s Sauvignon Blanc, in a similar fashion, it would not be permitted for a day. So why should It be allowed now by the WSJ, we ask, as we did back in 2012?

Finally, while it is assured that Lettie will go to her grave as a Pinotage-hater, Denzel Washington’s dying words, after being established as a wine expert in the 2012 South Africa filmed Safe House, were “Pinotage is a good grape, great wine, local grape, Pinotage …” Since the movie was shot in Cape Town over an extended period, it seems most likely the screen writer, the director, if not many of the cast, too, and, most importantly, Denzel, himself, had enjoyed Pinotage and were all in agreement as to the validity, appropriateness, and merit of the Pinotage assessment. Now, whose Pinotage judgment do you want to accept: Lettie’s or Denzel’s?

Dave Jefferson
Napa, Sonoma, and Breedekloof grape grower
Kenwood, CA


* This article has been edited 

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Beyerskloof Pinotage grapes
Beyerskloof Pinotage grapes

Lettie Teague's Wine in Words
Lettie Teague's Wine in Words

Diesel Pinotage
Diesel Pinotage

Writer's Block Pinotage
Writer's Block Pinotage

Dave Jefferson
Dave Jefferson

Pinotage Association
Pinotage Association

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