A fitting tribute

The Sterling family at the recent launch of the Iconoclast, a once-off wine made in honour of patriarch, the late Spatz Sterling. In front, matriarch Vera flanked by son Victor, and daughter, Nora Thiel. At the back, Robel, Victor's wife, and Erhardt Thiel , Nora's husband.

Iconoclast. A person who challenges or criticises cherished beliefs or institutions.

In a fitting tribute to a man who became a legend in the South African wine industry in his own time, the Sperling family of Delheim wine estate, released the Iconoclast last week, in honour of late patriarch, Michael Hans “Spatz” Sperling.

Characteristically, the Iconoclast, a four way “not quite” Cape Blend, bucks convention, by not leading with pinotage. The wine will only ever be made once, in much the same way that after the great sculptor cast Spatz Sperling, he broke the mould.

Spatz arrived in South Africa from Germany at the age of 20 in 1951, to join his uncle Hans Hoheisen and his  aunt Del on the farm Driekhoek which they had bought in 1938. In a series of pioneering firsts over the next six decades, Spatz turned Delheim – named in honour of his aunt Del (Del’s home) – into one of the most enduringly popular and successful wine destinations in the country.

He pressed his first grapes in 1952 from which he made a wine called HOH – Hans Otto Hoheisen, and the rest as they say, is a fascinating history peppered with innovation, imagination and the challenging of many sacred cows.

In 1962, for example, he pioneered touring the country with wine in tow, which he sold while on the road. Kevin Arnold, who spoke at the gathering last week, of the time he spent working as winemaker for Spatz at Delheim, made the observation: “Spatz taught me how to sell wine.”

With Frans Malan of Simonsig and Neil Joubert of Spier, Spatz started the Stellenbosch Wine Route in 1971, just two years before the Wine of Origin legislation was introduced, in the drafting of which Spatz, Frans and Neil played no small part.

Spatz married Vera in 1965, and she told the most engaging story of how she ended up at Delheim. It had to do with an important gathering at the farm, for which Spatz enlisted her help, which culminated in Spatz announcing to the assembled company that he and Vera were to be engaged, which came as something of a shock to Vera. Spatz later admitted: “sorry, I forgot to ask.”

One of Spatz’s most well-known wines, Spatzendreck, his first foray into modern winemaking in 1961, was so named because it was apparently so vile that a lady friend called it “dreck”. This naughty named natural sweet wine – literally sparrow-sh1t – endures to this day, with the most recent release being 2017.

Spatz was once more ahead of the curve when in the early 1970s he foresaw the demand for red wine in South Africa, which prompted him to buy prime vineyard land on Klapmutskop, which he named Vera Cruz in honour of Vera. Delheim’s flagship wine, the Cabernet-led Grand Reserve, came from these vineyards . First produced in 1981, it was among the early Bordeaux-style blend.

Delheim was the first estate to open a restaurant, the precursor of which were the famous Delheim cheese lunches, another of Spatz’s pioneering inovations.

Friend and neighbour, Norma Ratcliffe, spoke of the trepidation with which she attended the weekly blind tastings which Spatz hosted at Delheim: “He was always brutally honest in the assessment of any wine he tasted, but I learned a great deal from him.” Norma’s decision to make wine at Warwick next door, was prompted in part by Spatz’s encouragement, and as she honed her craft – she did not study winemaking – Spatz was an inspirational mentor.

A number of winemakers who have gone on to greater things, spent time early in their careers, under Spatz’s guiding hand: Kevin Arnold, Jeff Grier, Philip Constandius, Conrad Vlok, Walter Finlayson and Chris Keet come to mind.

As the stories about Spatz unfolded, the measure of the man became self-evident. Mentor, friend, innovator, visionary, father, husband, and yes, iconoclast, he demanded excellence, and he got it.

In 2009, the 350 year anniversary of Jan van Riebeeck making wine in South Africa for the first time, Spatz was honoured with a 1659 Award, the citation of which reads: “The inspiration and effective contribution to the development of the wine industry, where he left positive contribution, influence and legacy. His passion and enthusiasm, whereby he took leadership in the starting of the wine routes, and other pioneer work and market initiatives, have directly and indirectly developed wine tourism in South Africa.”

Long-time family friend, Peter Bishop, observed in 2012, in relation to this award: “No matter how much Spatz is to be commended, the wine industry needs praise for choosing him, albeit that he was born in a foreign land, that erode the waves of controversy if need be.”

Spatz passed away in October 2017, leaving his wife Vera, and children Victor, Nora, Maria, Nicholas, and grandchildren Rudy, Karl, Gabriele, Michael, Louis and Renzo.

To son Victor, and daughter Nora, fell the task of sustaining and building on the legacy left by the redoubtable Spatz.

Iconoclast is a blend of four cultivars, although not typical of the Cape Blend, which commonly uses pinotage as the lead variety. Iconoclast this Shiraz driven, a quirk that would have made Spatz smile not only for being contrary to the mainstream, but also because Shiraz was his favourite varietal. The blend is rounded off with cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot, with pinotage, of course, being the fourth component.

Only 2 100 bottles were produced, and it retails from the farm at R1 000 a bottle.