If this sounds like the title of a European children’s fable, in a way it is, complete with the reassuring ending, ‘and they all lived happily ever after’. Except that it is deeply rooted in South African soil. For Geta and Peter Finlayson are as much a product of the Hemel-en- Aarde terroir as Peter’s award-winning wines are… the perfect pairing in fact.
As the founder of the globally-recognised Bouchard Finlayson Winery and South Africa’s Pinot Noir pioneer, Peter Finlayson has been named by well-known wine writer, Tim Atkin in his latest South African Wine Report as the Winemaking Legend of 2020. After more than 40 years of active participation in the Sport of Wine, as he calls it, Peter feels deeply honoured by this acknowledgement, which he considers “a lovely thank you note”.
But let’s scroll back to the beginning of the journey. Peter and Geta, a refugee from the Free State, completed their degrees at Stellenbosch University, hers in jewellery design, his in agriculture, specialising in oenology, and both were afforded the opportunity for further study in Germany. Having just got married, they were dismayed to find that the towns in which they were to be based were three hours distant from each other by train. “So for the first eight months of our married life,” remembers Geta with a wry smile, “we only saw each other over weekends.”
For her the learning environment was less satisfying, with large classes conducted in German and no facilities for practical work, but for Peter it was an inspiring experience. He was able to immerse himself in 600 years of classical wine culture and for the first time encountered vineyards growing on sloped mountainside terraces. After they returned to South Africa, he was appointed as winemaker at Boschendal, where he remained for three valuable years.
And then came the move which was to change their lives forever and, indeed, to dramatically transform the trajectory of farming in the Overstrand region. In 1979 Peter was appointed by Tim Hamilton Russell, an advertising executive, as the first winemaker on his newly-acquired farm in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. “We arrived here with a two-year-old son,” remembers Geta “and found ourselves completely isolated on this godforsaken farm.
We had no electricity and the dirt road through the valley was so shockingly bad that you thought several times before going into town.”
“In any case there wasn’t much to go into town for,” Peter picks up the story. “Shopping for even basic necessities was hopeless – there was one grocery store and the Cypress Tea Garden. And at that time, there was no farming of any significance in the valley. A few people picked wild flowers to sell; that was it. In fact, the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley was known as poor man’s country and Tim Hamilton Russell was considered an eccentric Engelsman who would soon burn his fingers with his mad idea of growing grapes and producing wine there. For me, it was a sharp learning curve, starting with a clean slate and having to make something of it.”
After 10 years, the Hamilton Russell Winery was pretty well on its feet and Peter had the opportunity to buy a neighbouring farm in 1989. In partnership with Frenchman, Paul Bouchard, a wine shipper from Burgundy, whose family had been in the winemaking industry for 13 generations, the Bouchard Finlayson Wine Estate came into being. “I had a feeling from the beginning that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay would do well in this area and this proved to be correct,” says Peter. “From Paul I learnt the importance of careful management in the making of fine wines and this has stood me in good stead through the years.”
And what of Geta, meanwhile? She continued producing fine jewellery at her workshop on the farm and participating in exhibitions in Stellenbosch from time to time, but most of her pieces were bespoke, carefully matched to the personality and lifestyle of the client. When the time came for their two little boys to go to school in Hermanus, they bought one of the old fisher cottages in Aberdeen Street (where the Barefoot Cook was later located and local artists Lize van der Walt and Jeandré Marinier have now set up shop with the Lifestyle Studio) for the exorbitant sum of R13 000.
“I set up my workshop there and the two children could be with me after school,” she relates. “After I took occupation, we noticed that there was a strange notch in a branch of one of the trees in the garden. Apparently the house had belonged to Meester Paterson, the original school teacher in the village and we were horrified to learn that he was in the habit of hanging naughty children in a sack from the tree!” A salutary lesson for all naughty children.
Those were the pioneering days for the Finlaysons. Since then, new wineries have sprung up all along the Hemel-en-Aarde region, and Walker Bay area is recognised as one of the Western Cape’s prime wine-growing regions. As Peter says, “Of course the terroir has always been there, for thousands of years it has been here, all it needed was to be brought to fruition.” And one might add, people with the vision and flair to create some of the best wines of their kind in the world.
Of course both designer jewellery and fine wines are luxury goods and are affected by swings in the economy, and as Peter emphasises, competition – mainly against oneself. As far as Bouchard Finlayson is concerned, Galpin Peak Pinot Noir, of which approximately 15 000 cases are produced each year, is still its flagship wine, eagerly sought after by connoisseurs and collectors world-wide. However, its Chardonnays, Sauvignon Blancs and Mixed Blends are also regular gold medal winners.
In 2000 Peter sold the winery to the Tollman family, owners of luxury hotels around the world, and although Chris Albrecht has taken his place as winemaker, the winery is collaboratively run by himself and Victoria Tollman. He remains Cellar Master, with a particular responsibility for the Pinot Noirs.
For her part, Geta continues to run her jewellery workshop and gallery, now in the heart of the art district of the old town, with the help of two assistants. She no longer makes annual pilgrimages to Hong Kong to buy stones, and although she has kept up with changing trends, her real interest at the moment is designing what she calls memory necklaces, incorporating a client’s old reworked pieces.
Both she and Peter now have more time to spend on their hobbies. For Geta, it’s painting, her first love which she neglected during the busy jewellery-making years and for Peter, it’s wildlife photography, or hunting with a camera, as he describes it. He has travelled throughout Africa with his lenses, sometimes combining wine tasting with photographic expeditions. Some of his magnificent prints are to be seen in Geta’s gallery. He has always had a passion for environmental conservation and on the wine estate, only 22 ha out of the total 125 are under vines, the rest is maintained as a conservation reserve, winning him the title of WWF Conservation Champion.
Mostly, though, the Finlaysons are proud parents and grandparents, grateful to be fully involved in the lives of their offspring. Both of those little boys who spent so much time in Geta’s workshop and amongst Peter’s vines, grew up to be artists in their own right – Andrew becoming an architect and Peter-Allan the winemaker at Gabriëlskoof, as well as developing his own label, Crystallum. Each of them have two children of their own, a new generation to keep the Finlayson dynasty alive in this corner of Heaven and Earth. Cheers to that!