Yeah. It was kinda like that.

In Kenya, there is a brand of alcohol simply called “Safari.” They make an assortment of products – gin, vodka, whiskey – although I’m fairly certain it’s all the same thing, but with different labels. The taste is interchangeable; that is, each and every one tastes like hand sanitizer. But it’s cheap, and when you’re living on $4-6 a day, you find you can choke down a lot of things you wouldn’t ordinarily: slightly-off milk, rice full of weevils … and when you’re having a social evening with other PCVs, the occasional Purell-flavored vodka tonic. I can only guess that if it were exported to the US, its only legal use would be to strip the varnish off of speedboats.

Suffice to say that, with few notable exceptions, the cocktails I’ve enjoyed over the past two years have generally been of less-than-stellar quality. I went out for drinks only rarely, partly because I was a “site rat” and my companions would have mostly been an especially irritating brand of expat, and part because (as I said before) we were paid peanuts. Nonetheless, for most of my life, I’ve harbored a shameful secret:

I’m a wine snob.

I’m a wine snob who can’t *actually* afford to be a wine snob, but likes the idea anyway.

In college, I discovered that if you aren’t afraid to ask for help at the liquor store, you can drink surprisingly excellent wine for under $15. I kept an absurdly meticulous journal of what I did and didn’t like about particular wines, including occasional commentary about the artwork on the box. (Go ahead! Laugh. Everyone does.) I discovered a secret distaste for punch-like Pinot Noir and an overwhelming fondness for spicy, springy Shiraz. Kenya does a few things excellently, and many things passably well; unfortunately, wine isn’t among either of those. A glass of “house red,” when sipped, tends to conjure images someone furtively smashing out the back window of a church in the middle of the night and making off with their bought-by-the-barrel communion offerings. But my luck turned: after two years in the village, I found myself headed to a part of the world renowned for its Syrah grapes – the Western Cape of South Africa. I was giddy.

Mountains of the Western Cape looming over the vineyards of the Solms-Delta Winery.

At least, I was giddy until I realized that I’d missed my bus by nearly an hour and the certainty of my adventure very much in doubt.

Spoiler alert – all’s well that ends well; but I’m going to start off the meat of this post by giving my very first Double-Plus Good ThisAmerikenyan Life Offishul Endorsement:

When you’re in South Africa, come to Cape Town, and book the Story of of Wine tour with the Wine Desk company. If possible, ask for Fern as your guide.

That’s not a suggestion, it’s a directive.

Fermentation vats at the Tokara Winery.

They couldn’t collect me from my guest house – I was staying way out in the suburbs, so I can’t blame them – so I arrived at our predetermined pick-up point a good half-hour early (I’m like that.) BUT THEN TRAGEDY STRUCK. Owing to a little confusion, a touch of inexplicable duplicity, and a bizarre deluge of misinformation from someone we may suspect have been from a rival touring company (long story, ask me over more wine), at the time of the rendezvous, I was on the other end of the neighborhood, happily) eating a danish and watching seals frolic in the early-morning sun. Fern the tour guide searched for me for almost 20 minutes (!!) before deciding The Tour Must Go On and setting off for the first winery. When I discovered this, I managed to contact the company, which seemed genuinely distraught at my dilemma and offered to do anything to “make this right” (even though they hadn’t done anything to make it wrong to begin with.) I expected an offer of refunding my $20 deposit, but no! The bull goose of the operation himself, a sweet and soft-spoken South African man named Bruce, whose passion for sharing wine country is intense and obvious, picked me up personally (gratis) and raced through traffic to meet the tour van at its first stop. But hey, at least this time we had seatbelts and a vehicle designed to go 100kmph.

As we screeched to a stop amidst a spray of gravel in the parking lot of the first winery, our guide emerged from the wine lodge. “OH MY GOD WE’RE SO GLAD YOU MADE IT WE WERE SO WORRIED WE LOOKED ALL OVER FOR YOU …” she babbled on as she bodily dragged me inside. Before I could mutter greetings, I found myself in a comfy chair by the fireplace, a glass of sparkling Chardonnay in my hand, with four very concerned strangers empathetically coaxing out the story of my morning.

I could tell immediately it was going to be a good day despite all. I’d been fearful that an activity with a yuppie-ish reputation like Wine Tasting (even the great English travel writer Bill Bryson casts aspersions) would result in me being the only person on the tour without blue hair. But alas! Rather than a coach jam-packed with pensioners, I found myself in a very pleasant oversize van with three other tourists in their 20s. The tiny tour group made for a very intimate experience, with conversations instead of microphone lecture (“On your left you will see vines …”).

Traditionally, when you’re tasting a lot of wine, you’re poured a bit – maybe a quarter of a glass – which you swirl, sniff, sip, then spit and cleanse your palette to prepare for the next sample. But all four of us were of the opinion that this was a criminal waste of *excellent* local wines, so even if we’d felt stand-offish or awkward at first, we ended up having a jolly nice time indeed.

Tasting bar at the Fairview Winery. All those framed things on the back wall are awards.

Our guide was relentlessly chatty – but I mean that in the fondest way possible. I’ve met Labrador Retrievers that didn’t love their jobs or lives that much. In addition to being quite well-informed on the topics of wine country and South African history, her enthusiasm for her work infused the tour like floral scents at a mall candle store, and you got the impression she was genuinely happy to have you along. We were all greatly pleased to be there anyway, but even if we hadn’t been, it would have been impossible not to crack a grin and enjoy yourself after marinating in our guide’s glee for a little while.

We made it to four wineries in all, including one that offered an excellent variety of different kinds of olive oil (we mutually agreed each was excellent, though rather indistinguishable, despite variations in description and price), one where we were given a dark chocolate pairing with the Shiraz, and one where each wine was followed up by a field trip to the cheese bar to gorge ourselves on over a half-dozen types offered for sampling. (Verdict: Everything pairs nicely with everything else. Nothing offered was anything short of delicious. I apologize if that isn’t the keen, discerning reportage you’ve come to expect from me over the years I’ve kept this blog.) I did my best to keep notes, but over the course of the day, they slowly evolved for “2009 Sauvignon Blanc, greenish-gold-sunlight color, olfactory leader of apples and vanilla, hints of pine? on the back of the tongue” to “Red, 2011/2???, goat on the bottle, VERY TASTY.”

Combination wineyard/olive tree orchard at the Tokara Winery.

Namesake for the “Goats Do Roam” series of wines at the Fairview Winery. (Oenological pun very much intended.)

As we piled into the van for return trips to our respective guest houses, the guide pulled me aside to apologize once more for my rough morning – even though she bore literally zero responsibility for the mix-up. She re-iterated that she was glad I’d finally made it and presented me with a bottle of sparkling Shiraz, the signature wine of one of the vineyards we’d visited and one of my favorite wines from the day. It was an incredibly thoughtful gesture, and really above and beyond the call of tour-giving duty.

To re-iterate in brief my directive to follow in my footsteps: the Stellenbosch wine country is stunningly beautiful on its own, and even if you don’t drink, if you like cheese or chocolate or olives or nature or views or driving places that are pretty or seeing goats climb towers you’ve GOT to put this one on your bucket list. While you’re here, you can go with any number of companies, that are probably fine and all, or you can go with a company that goes out of its way to make your time with them joyful. The staff is dedicated and enthusiastic, the sites they visit are excellent and diverse, the value for the money is so good that I question how comfortable their profit margin must be (transport + guidance + lunch + four wine tastings [20+ wines] + olive oil tasting [7-8 oils] + cheese tasting [a dozen cheeses] + chocolate = <$70USD), and they will do anything to right a wrong, even if it's a wrong they had no part in creating.

I ended the day overstuffed, tipsy, and radiant with the joy that comes form a day overdosing on amazing comestibles and jaw-droppingly beautiful scenery. I suspect this may not be my last trip to South African wine country.