Deon’s a coastal man

Thursday, 11 March, 2004
Tessa de Kock for Two Oceans
'I wanted to prove I could make it'
Pretty cool. That’s Deon Boshoff’s (25) measure of his job as assistant winemaker for Two Oceans white wines. Although he offers this in the typically laconic way of the laid-back South African male, his body is tightly sprung and he wears a frown of urgency. It’s the middle of the harvest and he’s missing his early morning beach run at the Strand, where he lives. One of the Cape’s most beautiful beaches, it’s usually his first destination of the day.

‘An early morning jog keeps you a step ahead of everyone else,’ reckons this lover of R&B, Rap and Eminem, whose work rhythms are far faster than his taste in music would suggest (if you exclude Eminem, that is). ‘I figured education was the only way I could make it. After matriculating I went to work for an apple packaging co-operative near Grabouw, enjoying a pretty happy-go-lucky existence, when my older brother, who works in education, heard of an opportunity at a technical college in agriculture he thought I should try for.’

The opportunity was offered through a scheme to promote tertiary training among farm worker families in Grabouw, originally a fruit farming region and now an increasingly important cooler-climate wine growing area. The scheme was the joint initiative of Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery (now a part of Distell), Paul Cluver Wines and SAFCOL, a national forestry body.

'I grew up on a farm, where my parents have worked all their lives, I was exposed to deciduous fruit and it seemed something I would be comfortable with. You know, something like fruit production management. I imagined it would give me a good life with good prospects, something denied my father and mother.’

But when Deon, then just 20, was into his third month at Elsenburg Agricultural College, he heard about cellar technology, a third-year diploma option for which only the top academic performers were eligible.

‘What attracted me was that just ten students from the entire intake would be selected for the third-year course on the basis of their results over the first two years. I wanted to do it to prove mainly to myself I could make it. I didn’t grow up with wine. My people are brandy or beer drinkers. But the little I’d glimpsed excited me. It seemed creative and mysterious and I was starting to enjoy the taste of wine.

‘I’m a very goal-oriented person so it didn’t seem like I was making many sacrifices to get into the top ten. I worked hard and consistently.’ And then, with scrupulous modesty, he adds: ‘But if I’m honest I have to admit that being at college I was away from the temptations of Stellenbosch, so that made it easier.’

His reward was inclusion in the year-long course that culminated in a two-week visit to Adelaide. ‘My first and only overseas trip.’ What impressed him more than anything was the very evident and highly sophisticated marketing machinery of the Australian wine industry.

‘When you see where the Australians have come from and how they’ve earned international attention and respect, you know it’s not just winemaking skills that have taken them to where they are now. I’m not knocking them. But they know as much about brand building as they do about winemaking.’

And being a part of a major South African brand excites him. ‘I’m not a marketer but, making wine and bringing more and more people to the brand, growing its popularity from here to all over the world gives me a major kick.’

His drink of choice is Sauvignon Blanc but the varietal he likes working with most of all is Chardonnay. ‘There is so much opportunity to make an impact – whether it’s in yeast selection, how much of the blend you decide to ferment in barrel, the wood you choose for ageing, working towards the right balance between fruit and wood. To an outsider it might not seem important. As a consumer you are supposed to take flavour for granted, to enjoy it whether consciously or unconsciously, but the choices I make can alter the experience – turn people into Chardonnay drinkers or not.’

Afraid to inflate his own importance he adds: ‘But then that’s my job. I’m supposed to do these things.’

This is his third harvest, so where does he see his next move? ‘I’d love to work a harvest in France and another in Australia or California so I can get a true sense of the old world and the new, put some of the theoretical knowledge into practice. I’m studying for my Cape Wine Academy Diploma and I’d love to help make some of the wines I’ve read about and tasted.’

Deon also plans on taking a course in financial management. ‘It’s critical if you are going to be a good winemaker. You have to understand the financial implications of the choices you make. And one day, when I make wine for myself, I’ll be grateful for having put in the effort.’

So is he all work and no play? ‘No way!’ he chuckles. ‘I play cricket, when it’s not harvest time, and I relax by watching action movies with Denzel Washington, Samuel L Jackson and Bruce Willis. Or chilling on the beach with my girlfriend Josey, who’s also teaching me to cook.’

With wine? ‘What a question!’