If you follow us on Instagram you’ll already know we’re all about Steenberg this September.
And not just the wine; the people behind the wine, too, and their intriguing stories. Let’s start way back. Yes, that’s right; a little further… Keep going until you hit the 1600s.
Have You Met the Feisty Catharina and Her Five Husbands?
Piecing together the story of Catharina Ras, the 17th century founder of Steenberg, is apparently quite the challenge, despite the wonders of Google. But visit Steenberg and you’ll find the staff all too happy to regale you with their slight variation of the tale, the facts tied up flamboyantly with a length of creative-license ribbon.
Apparently Catharina lost her first husband back home in Lübeck, Germany, which may have been what prompted her to set sail for a new start in the then-rather-wild Cape. Being of the female persuasion – and single to boot – she was rather popular. She quickly found a match in Hans Ras, a German soldier who owned a little farm near where Newlands Rugby Stadium is today. (When you’re next in the area, go take a look; you’ll find Ras Avenue two roads down.) On their way home from Cape Town Castle where they’d just been married, Hans got involved in a drunken horse cart race which landed him with a knife in his ribs, and *cringe* with the handle broken off. And he survived! Only to later be eaten by a lion one day while protecting his farm.
Legend says Catharina tracked that poor lion down with a shotgun to exact her revenge.
Her third husband went out fishing, and was stabbed to death by a local tribesman. Her fourth husband went out hunting in Zeekoeivlei and got trampled on by an elephant.
And her fifth husband – and last (whew) – outlived her. It was with him that she set up Steenberg Farm as a rest and trade stop between Simons Town and Cape Town. In 1682 she was granted the land from Simon van der Stel, and in 1688 got the title deeds, making her the first woman to legally own land in the Cape. She named the farm Swaaneweide, meaning ‘feeding place of the swans’, perhaps to remind her of her home town in Germany where it’s surmised the swans were plentiful.
On top of all this, in her lifetime she had 13 children.
‘Then & Now’…
If you were to enter the Steenberg we know today through the bottom gate in Tokai Road, you could drive up the long driveway and use your imagination to envision it more thickly lined with trees, and listen for the clip-clop-sound of the horses’ hooves as they took you up the shady drive to Catharina’s main house; today’s reception.
It was along that driveway (where today’s golf course is) that the first vines were planted in the early 1700s by the Russouw Family who owned it after Catharina. They also had a manor house and a wine cellar built when they moved in, which today acts as the luxury hotel and fine dining restaurant respectively. The restaurant’s name? Catharina’s, of course.
If you carry on a little way past the restaurant, up to the wine tasting rooms and Bistro 1682 – care for a spot of lunch? – you may bump into JD Pretorius, their affable Cellar Master. Here’s a bit of his interesting story, and how he ended up at Steenberg.
Growing up in the Free State with no vineyard in sight, farming was a way of life in his household. Farming, and wine. His parents loved wine; they still do. And his mom is a great cook. JD remembers a hundred rows of roses, all different varieties, colours, shapes and perfumes. As far back as he can remember, his mom would give him roses and spices and different foods to smell and taste and experience, encouraging use of all his senses.
JD was 16 when he discovered there were things other than wheat and cattle to be farmed; you could farm vineyards. “I thought, vineyards? You can farm wine? Great! That’s where I want to be.”
Now, his dad, back in his high school days, had become great friends with Beyers Truter of the Beyerskloof we know today, and the Pretorius family would come down to Stellenbosch to visit. JD can remember the day he first walked onto this new type of farm, drinking in the views, the mountains, and the vines… “There was so much green. Back home it was so arid it sometimes seemed the table had more growing on it than the land. And then there was the old manor house; a beautiful old Cape Dutch house with a huge kitchen and expansive kitchen table. It was so cool inside, even though outside it was sweltering. It was there that I thought, this is my kind of farming.”
Once his dad was happy that JD wouldn’t be snookering himself with his study choices, he set up a meeting with the Stellenbosch faculty, and soon JD found himself in the faculty’s musty underground cellar which smelled of wine and promise.
“I remember it was August; Grey College was playing Paul Roos that weekend. We visited the experimental vineyard which was right there on campus, and everywhere I looked I saw girls in short skirts. I said, ‘Dad, this is it; this is me.’ And I still knew nothing about wine!” he laughs.
JD was enrolled. In the registration queue on his first day at varsity he made friends with two young men who knew as little about wine as he, and together the three immersed themselves in the industry and in the beauty of the vineyards. They spent every free minute they had on wine farms; scrubbing floors, filling barrels, working in the vineyards, and – of course – racking up many hours of wine tasting. (No sniggering; it’s serious work!)
Near the end of his studies after a stint working in the vineyards and tasting room at Muratie, Oom Beyers called him up. “JD. Ek hoor jy maak klaar. Kom.”*
JD recalls the hard work at Beyerskloof with a smile, “It was fun! It channelled my energy and challenged me in all the right ways. And, of course, I got to meet many great people.”
He finished his studies and, after Beyerskloof, worked at Graham Beck back when they had two cellars; one in Robertson and one in Franschhoek. “They made a Sauvignon Blanc called the Pheasant’s Run; I loved that wine, so I went to the winemaker and asked if I could work with her and learn how to make it. She asked if I would mind running the cellar for the harvest, and I thought, ‘Huh? I can’t run a cellar’. It must have shown on my face, because she reassured me she’d be there to help. And so I became a supervisor… of sorts.
I learned so much being thrown in the deep end. And I got to live in a little prefab house on the mountain for the seven or eight months I was there. It was spectacular.”
From there JD trotted half-way around the globe to California to work for a company called Jackson Family Wines (who currently have 42 wineries all around the world, including in South Africa). “I sent them an email, and their winemaker, Graham Weerts – a fellow South African – said, ‘Come on over!’ He knew Anthony Beck, Graham Beck’s son, who lived over in Kentucky, so I was given perhaps a little more freedom because he knew of the work I’d done at Graham Beck, and because I was keen to learn. And I certainly learned a whole heap from him.
One day I got a message saying that the winemaker at Steenberg had resigned. Now, my plan had been to finish up in California, go back to Graham Beck for the harvest, and then set out for France. But suddenly this message was blinking at me on the screen. It was 8 a.m. in California; 5 p.m. in South Africa. I thought, ‘I’m way too junior. There’s no way.’
I spent the day thinking about it; should I apply… shouldn’t I…? By the end of the day, I applied. It was 11 p.m. in California when I hit send; 8 a.m. in South Africa.
Back at Steenberg when John Loubser – the GM until just a few months ago – came in that morning, he found my email from the other side of the world saying, ‘Hellooo. This is me,’ less than a day after their winemaker had resigned. My Steenberg chapter began when John offered me a 6-month temporary assistant winemaker contract. At the end of it, he said, ‘Listen, you’re welcome to leave whenever you want, but you can stay as long as you want.’ I stayed. Six months later I was offered the position of Winemaker, and in 2012 was pleased to be made Cellar Master, a position I’m still enjoying!”
So there you have it; the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the stories you’ll find at Steenberg. Visit the farm and follow us on Instagram and you might be spoiled with a few more.
*”JD. I hear you’re finishing up. Come on.”