The Whine Route

I stand in solidarity with the striking grape-pickers of the Western Cape because I, too, was once a picker of grapes. Not here, of course. Our wine farms would never hire white pickers, especially not from Cape Town, because we would make snotty remarks about the quality of the wine instead of shutting up and drinking it in lieu of wages.

My career as a grape-picker began and ended on the Greek island of Crete. Please do not confuse me with one of those mewling brats spawned by the idle rich who spend a year sashaying around Europe acquiring “life experience” by doing the kind of jobs usually reserved for the darkies back home.

For a start, I never had a gap year. Well, there was a gap, but it was a lot longer than a year. And I was travelling because, even though I single-handedly lost us the war in Namibia, the army still thought it a good idea that I go on camps. Ah, camping. What fun, you might think. You would be wrong.

My money ran out in Spain but the idea of being destitute in the land of Alexander the Great was a lot more appealing than being pretty much anything in the land of PW Botha the Not-So-Great.

A friend living in Barcelona said there was money to be made in watermelon-picking, but later I realised he must have been on drugs because all the Greeks I subsequently spoke to not only knew nothing about watermelons but frequently became enraged and chased me down the street.

Picking grapes is vicious work, especially when it is done day after day after night after night of drinking retsina in the company of an emotionally unstable Hell’s Angel from northern California and then having to spend almost every morning explaining why it would be a bad move, in terms of career advancement, to run down the slope and open the farmer’s throat with his hook knife.

But that was then and this is now.

When I heard the workers in the winelands were asking for R150 a day, my first thought was that they were insisting on reducing their wages as an example to our politicians of how to make do with less so those with nothing can have something. That’s what happens when you read Das Kapital with a mug of hot absinthe just before bed.

Truth is, they earn R70 a day. If I worked on a wine farm and that was my salary, I would insist on a return to the dop system. Keep your stinking seventy bucks and give me three bottles of semi-sweet white night-terrors instead. I would rather spend my evenings singing and fighting, thank you.

The leader of my research team has just told me that the strikers have agreed to go back to work. That’s a bit selfish of them. They could at least have waited until my deadline had passed. Oh, well. I’m not starting over again.

They are in a rotten business, anyway. Most of these farms are producing table grapes – grapes that you eat, not drink. What a terrible waste of a grape.

When DA leader Helen Zille heard the farmworkers were unhappy, she quickly grasped the implications. Capetonians would be forced to lower their standards and drink beer, making them no better than anyone else in the country. Something had to be done.

She sent an SMS to ANC provincial leader Marius Fransman saying: “We are heading towards anarchy.” Right away, I scrapped all plans to emigrate. At last, a promise of real change.

A promise of a society based on non-hierarchical, voluntary associations. In other words, no more governmental authority. No more state. I wanted to know what Helen had in mind. Anarcho-communism or anarcho-syndicalism? I hoped it wasn’t anarcho-pacifism. Too spineless for my liking. Probably libertarian anarchism. But then we’d be right back where we started, lurching about knee-deep in the filth and fury of the free market, except this time there would be too much freedom and not enough market.

It didn’t take long to work out that Helen was undergoing her monthly Jekyll and Hyde metamorphosis, except her Mr Hyde is almost always more Mr Machiavelli.

It is essential,” said Hekyll Zilliavelli to her opponent, “that we remove politics from this matter and stabilise the situation.” Then, the coup de grace, “This is the call you must make.”

Marius Fransman, surprised to find the ball in his court after having been knocked out of the finals in 2009, responded by … I’m sorry. This information is not currently available. Reboot your politician and check for answers later.

Helen was also “extremely worried that lives are in danger and that people will retaliate”. I love it when politicians speak like this because it causes absolutely all of us to panic.

The mark of a true patriot is s/he who sows alarm in everyone, not just a single race, tribe or food group. Who is retaliating? Who are they retaliating against? Us? Them? Who are they? Who are we? Whose lives are in danger? Ours? Theirs? Should we worry? Should they? It keeps you on your toes.

Zille must have thought Fransman was playing doubles with Jacob Zuma because she batted it to him, too. Good luck with that. The day Zuma intervenes to keep everything running smoothly in the Western Cape is the day Israel exports Uzis to the Gaza Strip.

The ultimate irony, of course, is that wine is undrinkable.

Ever since I discovered the benefits of alcohol, at the age of five, I have had a hard time keeping wine down. Even the so-called good stuff tastes like badger urine to me.

The only people who can stomach wine of any vintage are teenage girls, unemployed journalists, middle-aged homosexuals and housewives who use it to wash the Valium down.

Apart from anything else, one of the natural flavourants in wine comes from chameleons. I am the first to agree that any animal capable of looking forward and backwards at the same time, let alone changing colour at will, deserves to be harvested, liquidised and drunk slowly with a little lightly salted mozzarella and biscuits on the side. But however much they deserve to die, chameleons have never really made wine any more palatable. More earthy, perhaps, but not palatable.

The wine industry is so far up its own provincial decanter that it thinks it is superior to everyone else dealing in food and beverages and marginally related substances sold through a hole in a brick wall.

What we need to do is destroy the myth that wine farmers are somehow providing a more useful service to humanity than farmers or Mrs Bismillah and her fabulous mutton rotis.

Wine farmers generally have more money than roti farmers, and this is why we tend to stand slack-jawed in awe of these shameless grape-mongers.

Because they live in magnificent mansions on sprawling estates with wanton wives in jodhpurs and children with blue eyes and blonde hair, you instinctively believe they are a higher life form. You need to sober up.

They make their money by producing more than 800 million litres of wine each year. And every single drop passes through somebody’s liver. Okay, not every drop. A fair amount ends up down the side of your car.

They manufacture a product that disappears within hours of buying it. And once you have finished with it, the only evidence you ever had it is a brain too big for its cranium and a monkey armpit mouth. And possibly two broken legs and a criminal record.

Why do you think wine farmers and their conniving connoisseur acolytes always pick up a glass by its stem? They would have us believe that it’s done to avoid warming the wine, but those of us who have been around these swine know that it’s to prevent the police from lifting a clean set of prints.

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