Why the Michael Fridjhon wine experience came about
31 May 2016
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Welcome to Old Mutual Live Wine Edition, I’m Jenny Crwys–Williams. Okay, so we’re talking about the Michael Fridjhon wine experience. I’ve never been to the full thing, I’ve been to the champagne breakfast and we’ll talk about that later. But you are now celebrating your 20th anniversary of what has got to be one of the most special wine events in South Africa. A learning event as well as a fun event at that. How did this all start for you?
Michael Fridjhon: It started for me sometime in 1996 and it came about because, particularly in America, they were suddenly doing sort of exhibition type wine events. Where producers came and stood around and invited guests.
I chatted to the late Harold Eedes of Wine Magazine and I said, you know, we don’t do this. We tend to show pretty much current release wines. We have an exchange rate situation which progressively by 1996 we were 10 years past Rubicon, the rand had already, whatever, lost 50% more of its value.
If we don’t create a once a year benchmarking event, then no one in the industry will grow up knowing what the benchmark wines really taste like. They’re all too expensive for people to go out and buy and knock-off a bottle. We also spoke about the winemakers because many of them had never tasted these wines. There was no opportunity for them in the Cape to do so.
There’s been a slight change in that perspective, the members of the CWG, the Cape Winemakers Guild have workshops where they do this sort of thing. But no one was doing it. I said if we don’t put an event like this together, we’re going to produce an entire generation of people who won’t know what they’re up against.
We’re going to lose the consumers whose demand for these kind of wines will justify the effort and investment that the winemakers have to make in the first place to get there. So we need to have such an event. Harold was very supportive, we put it on and the first one was in 1997. So this year, as you’ve observed, is the 20th and we got 50 people to come and I think they paid R1 750 –
JCW: Including accommodation?
MF: Not including accommodation, in those days, accommodation absolutely wasn’t on the radar screen. Because people used to go to dinner and drive home, remember? There we were and to give them value for this event, I mean it was extraordinary.
The origins of the experience
Firstly, we had a kind of workshop luncheon, which gave the chefs at the Hyatt an opportunity to trial biting sized portions of various dishes. So we put lots of wine on the table, so with each course there’d be two or three whites and maybe a red. You’d pair it with two or three little plates of this and two or three little plates of that. It was a long, hard working lunch.
Then we had a benchmark tasting, the very first year, in 1997. We did a horizontal of the five first growth of Bordeaux, the 1985. So they were then 12 years old, so Lafitte, Mouton, Latour, O’Brien and Margaux. Amongst the people we had attending, because we used to the SAA wine selection the week afterwards, were people like Steven Spurrier. Who’s the man of the great judgement of Paris tasting, 1976. Steven, in fact, presented that first benchmark tasting or first growth Bordeaux’s.
Then we had a dinner at which wines of comparable, but perhaps one notch down, in terms of price were served and then we had a champagne brunch. The champagne brunch was this extraordinary array of food which has been tweaked over the years. The first year we had oysters from four separate origins in France. We had lobsters etc, and we had a lot of champagne, only champagne and no restriction on how much you could drink. So, it was a blow-out.
I remember in those first couple of years, a lot of guys would come up from the Cape. A lot of the winemakers came, a lot of the proprietors came and they wanted their money’s worth. I had never seen people drink so much! They wouldn’t leave the dinner until 2:00 in the morning because they wanted to make sure that every bottle that had been provided for, had actually been flattened.
We did it, you know, increasingly or decreasingly, on that scale. The first five or six years, at one stage we instituted a benchmark champagne tasting ahead of the champagne brunch. People would arrive at 9:30 and sit down to Grand Dom, Dom Perignon, Krug, whatever, in front of them. Do a serious tasting, a glass each of those four champagnes. Then leave the tasting venue to go down to the champagne brunch where equally fine champagne, but once again, not necessarily at the blow-out price, was served in copious quantities.
It really was five events over a weekend and as I say, we started with a budget of R1 750 and the people who came, tried to get their money’s worth in the budget, which was easy to do. One bottle of Lafitte was worth that. It evolved, it evolved, the prices went up, the rand went down.
Looking at the price of inflation over the years
What we never realised was how much the prices of those wines was actually going up in hard currency terms. When I did the exercise for this 20th anniversary function, I looked at what the rand had done and I used the dollar as a benchmark because there wasn’t a Euro in 1997.
MF: I took the dollar price, of those wines, at the time and I’ve looked at the dollar price today and apples for apples, as far as it’s possible. The 1985 Lafitte in 1997, in dollar terms compared with the 2005 Lafitte in 2016 dollar terms. While the rand has moved to a quarter of its value, the hard currency price has moved tenfold.
Actually, it wasn’t just, if you like, bench-marking against a falling rand. It was against the fact that these rare wines in a market into which had come Chinese millionaires, Russian oligarch’s, a whole new generation of people who have these wines on their Bucket List. Almost all of them come from single site vineyards. The volume of production can never increase.
JCW: You’re talking of the wines of Burgundy in particular?
MF: Burgundy, but also first growth Bordeaux, they are estates. The wine is the wine. In fact, they have shrunk in quantity because with the Parker Score pressure, every first growth estate now has a second label and a third label. So that they can select, select and select again, for their top wine.
What would have been a property, making 20 000-30 000 cases, now only makes 15 000 cases of the first wine. There’s less supply, there is infinitely more international demand and there is a dramatically weaker rand. Every year I think to myself, we’re not actually going to be able to continue doing this because it doesn’t – trust me – it doesn’t make money. If it weren’t for the generosity of Investec who have come on board as a sponsor, it would lose serious money.
I really think it’s a very important event. If you love fine wine, if you want to see really exciting wine pairings, if you want to be able to benchmark and it’s overworked. But if you don’t put Lafitte next to Mouton, you’re never really going to decide which of the two you prefer. Because your memory of the Lafitte, when two weeks or a month or two years later, you taste the Mouton, it’ll never be an identical memory.
Put five first growths in a row, you really do need to go down the line and taste and re-taste. Otherwise you’ll never pick up the nuances and render something of a crystalised vision of each of them. You do need to have them on the table at the same time, that’s what the tasting does.
That’s what the dinner does in a way because we serve two red wines with the main course. So you can really decide if you want to have a Shiraz or a Cabernet blend with the Karoo lamb or whatever exotic thing Andrew Atkinson has decided to come up with for this year. You need them together, so it’s a lot of fun, but it is amazingly hard work.
Trying to give the best possible experience
JCW: I’m absolutely sure it’s hard work. Have you ever been in the situation where you haven’t filled the evening? I would think this must be very, very high on everybody’s, wine lover’s calendars?
MF: The answer is yes and no. We always have a good number. Could we in the evening have more guests? To a point. There were a couple of years where we had 160 or 170 in the room. I think it strained the kitchen, in terms of speed of service. Although the Hyatt would love to have that number again, I said to them, you can’t because you only have so many stations in the kitchen to get the food out.
For me, I’m very happy when there’s 140-145. We have wine for 180, if we had 180 bookings, but there is a point at which I say, you know what, that’s it, let’s drawn the line. I’ve seen who’s in the kitchen, I know how it’s running, we’ll give everybody and experience which exceeds their expectations if we keep it under 150.
There is physically more space, there could be more wine, but that’s the line we’ve drawn there. When it comes to the champagne brunch, as you know, it is always oversold, there is always a waiting list, people hang from the chandeliers. But it’s an extraordinary event, so I understand that.
At the tasting, which precedes dinner, the only real question is, you never have more people at the tasting than at the dinner. You do have some people who say, my partner isn’t that interested in wine, but would love to come to the dinner.
So we have a few slots at the tasting and that’s actually convenient as well. Because it means everyone gets the wine they want and if you find that kind of level of wine discussion boring, then why would you want to come? Rather enjoy the dinner and have a wonderful party.
A few years ago we had two leading Burgandian’s arrive as guests, so the Chairman and the CEO of the Dijon Chamber of Commerce. One of them, Jean comes to South Africa quite often, so he knew a few of the people in the room. He said, there’s no event like this anywhere in the world.
Because at one level, it’s quite a small society. So the people meet each other once a year, they know each other, it’s clubby, without being exclusionist. He said, so people find friends, they meet new friends, they bond because of an interest in food and wine. Yet, he said, he’s never felt so welcome or refreshed memories of acquaintanceship.
He said there’s nothing like it and he said it’s done entirely without snobbery. This is not a black tie event. There was a time when the GM of the hotel said it has to be black tie. We had people stomping off, I think in a way, quite rightly, because it’s not that kind of event. Dress smart, but comfortable, it’s for fun.
JCW: It sounds absolutely fantastic. Michael Fridjhon, talking about the 20th anniversary of the Michael Fridjhon Wine Experience. My final question to you on this topic is are you sold out for this year? Anybody listening to this, is there still an opportunity for them to book?
MF: I’m sure there is, we’ve only really now just launched it and invited the regulars who are on our database to sign up for it. So I’m absolutely certain that there are spaces just because it’s in the early stages of bookings and people should take advantage of the opportunity it presents.
JCW: Michael Fridjhon, thank you so much. Thanks for listening to this episode of Old Mutual Live Wine Edition. If you’d like to get in touch with comments, questions or suggestions, you can email me at email@example.com.