The lawnmowers shed that houses 12 000 bottles of wine

Monday, 19 April, 2004
Cape Argus
It was French writer André Simon, or someone like that, who said something like this: “If you have more than one bottle of wine in your cellar when you die, then you didn’t plan your life right.”
It was French writer André Simon, or someone like that, who said something like this: “If you have more than one bottle of wine in your cellar when you die, then you didn’t plan your life right.” Jan Momberg, retired owner of Middelvlei wine estate in Devon Valley outside Stellenbosch, believes they are wise words. But if you saw his family home, you would realise he doesn’t believe Simon for a second! Middelvlei was founded in 1918 by his father. He took it over but has now retired with his wife Philé. The estate is now run by his three sons, Jan the logistics man, Ben the viticulturist and Tinnie the winemaker, who is the eldest and lives in the old family home. From the outskirts, the house looks average enough. But open up a door inside, clamber down a steep staircase into the dark and you enter a wine-lover’s heaven. Welcome to Jan se Gat! “It started as an old lawnmower shed,” middle son Ben Momberg explained. “My dad started putting a few wines down here in 1971. And now beneath the house is a sprawling, six-roomed wine cellar which is home to more than 12 000 bottles. But from the outset Momberg insisted: “It’s not a storage cellar, it’s a consumption cellar.” Jan Momberg, before we start, is the cousin of the former ANC MP and current ambassador to Greece, Jannie Momberg. The latter is nicknamed “Jan Bek” (Jan the mouth) and the former, the far quieter Momberg, is Stil Jan (Quiet Jan). Down in Jan se gat, where does one start?! Ooh, look as that, there’s a French bottle of 1977 Chateauneuf du Pape. And its bottle has a wonderfully skew, twirly design. “Don’t worry, “ said Momberg. “I’m sure if we had a couple of drinks it would look straight again.” And what have here? A Spanish bottle of Vall Formosa;s Vall Fort. And a 1988 bottle of Aan de Wagenweg Chardonnay. The three brothers spent time working in the United States and here’s a bottle of Landmark Chardonnay, a 1990 from Alexander Valley on the West Coast of the United States. Among the oldest wines, in a small, treasured, “sentimental section”, is a bottle from one of old man Momberg’s closest friends, his best man, a Walvis Bay fisherman named Tjollie Cilliers, who was killed off the coast of Mauritania many years ago. And among its neighbours are a few bottles of Lanzerac from the mid-late 60’s. One of the oldest is a 1937 bottle of Grand Mousseux Cabernet Ruby sparkling wine. It was meant to have been opened on Jan Momberg’s 21st Birthday, but the family only found it in the bottom of his mother’s wardrobe after she died – the hand-written message on the label long faded. But messages on many a bottle in the cellar remain clear – bottles signed by Naas Botha, Carel du Plessis and England cricketer Ian Botham, of all people. “Ya, he comes here quite a lot,” Momberg said. “He’s quite knowledgeable about wine. There are no rules here. You just come down and choose a bottle!” His best friend? “A 1969 Swartland Pinotage. It was unbelievable. It still had all the fruit and flavours. Another of the Momberg’s most famous fellow wine-drinkers were the touring 1976 All Black rugby players. That was before their first test, which they lost. But he admitted he didn’t remember much as he had been “nog ‘n tjokkertjie” (still a little boy). There have been a few shaky moments down in Jan se Gat too. “They were having a couple of drinks one night when an architect friend of my father’s pointed out that they had virtually hollowed out the underside of the house,” Momberg said. A number of cast-iron support pillars were installed fairly snappily! And their was the time when they spotted a huge rat, and searched for it for ages armed with a knobkierie. They eventually found it drinking from a toilet – needless to say neither the poor rodent nor the porcelain looked too good by the end of it. Here’s a bottle of 1974 Vergenoegd Shiraz. There’s a 1972 bottle of Rustenberg Cabernet Sauvignon and a 1984 bottle of KWV Roodeberg. But hold on: there among the thousands of horizontal bottles of wines, unless our eyes are deceiving us, is an Amstel lager. “Ahh,” said Momberg, thinking fast. “That’s because, um there’s an old saying that ‘it takes a lot of beer to make a good red wine’.” By far the largest of the extremely good red wines is a 15 liter bottle of Rust & Vrede, a 60th birthday present to Jan Momberg from Jannie Engelbrecht. Ben Momberg admitted, though, that some bottles were past it. Used in the kitchen, was it? “Naa. My old dad told me a long time ago that you can’t cook with bad wine. Maybe in stews, but you should rather use a good bottle of Tassenberg. There’s some stuff here that will put you off wine for - well, a few days.” But the wine is piling up. “We just need to open up and drink,” Momberg muttered. “At least 50% in this room needs to be drunk quite urgently. And in this room. The only problem is time! “This is the only industry in the world, when, if you get home sober, your wife asks you where you’ve been!” In whose hands is the cellar likely to be in years to come? Well, the three brothers and their two sisters, Tinkie and Annatjie, have had 11 children between them in the past eight years, the youngest being Taai, who is just 13 months old. So, unless a herd of thirsty elephants descend on Jan se Gat soon, a lot of wine down there is going nowhere for a long, long time.