Remembering Sydney Back and the Natural Splendours of Backsberg Estate Cellars
Maureen Joubert was editor of Wynboer Magazine, today known as WineLand, from 1979 to 1983. In light of this year’s centenary celebration of Backsberg Estate Cellars in Paarl, she remembers the wine lesson learned from the legendary Sydney Back, the 2nd generation owner of the Estate, which is now in the hands of his son Michael and grand-son Simon.
I had barely set-up my new office in the KWV’s imposing main building on Paarl’s Main Road and still had to learn the ropes as just-appointed editor of Wynboer Magazine when the telephone rang one hot morning. The voice at the other end of the line emitted a formal greeting. Followed by: “I am Sydney Back and I’d like to see you. Here, on Backsberg.” I hastily agreed to a meeting the next day, although my heart was skipping a few beats.
With my experience of the wine industry and its people still limited, the thought of being summoned by one of the industry’s major figureheads was daunting, to say the least. Not only was he an internationally renowned leader in South African wine production, but he was known to be a formidable character. And here I was being asked to see him, without any reason given. I tried to remember whether I had recently written anything about Sydney Back or Backsberg that might have raised certain hackles, but could not find any.
So the next morning I drove the road to Backsberg with a sense of foreboding, although the majestic scenery of Simondium and the Simonsberg helped – as always – to instil in me a sense of calm wonder. I stopped at the gates and breathed deeply, my journalistic faculties making me briefly analyse the lay-out of the vines and attempt to determine which varieties were planted where.
At the winery I was greeted by a friendly staff member and led to an office where Sydney sat behind a huge desk. We greeted with a handshake and without any of those frivolous attempts at niceties I was asked to follow him as he had something to show me.
Once outside, we got into a Volkswagen Beetle which spluttered into life and with Sydney behind the wheel we headed for the Backsberg vineyards.
I had never been on this road, which led along the Simonsberg between pristine vines and the higher we drove, the more magnificent the scenery became as I stared down in amazement at the Paarl Valley below me. All this time, Sydney peppered me with questions: where I came from, my family, towns and countries we had lived in and my past professional experiences. It was all quite formal, almost like an interview, and in between the questions he would point-out certain vines, name their variety, what they needed to grow grapes of the desired quality and how the wines would taste – if well-made.
Remembering back now, it felt as if that little VW Beetle drove right up to the very top of Simonsberg. Then he stopped the car, switched off the engine and asked me to get out. And there we stood, looking out at the beauty of land and rock and blue sky and vines below us, turning to gaze at the mountain behind. No-one said a word, and I swear that I had a lump in my throat at the wonder of it all.
“Just look at this,” said Sydney after a long while. “This is what I wanted you to see. Not my farm as such, but I wanted you to see what our country’s winelands look like. I can stand here every day and each time I am amazed by the beauty of it all.” Turning to me he said, “And Maureen, this is what makes me so proud of our wines and our winelands.”
I had swallowed the lump in my throat, but Sydney was not yet finished. “You are now working in this wine industry of ours, and wish to learn about wine, vineyards and our wine folk. Well, what you see here is the heart of it all. Learn to appreciate it and to love it, and you too will become a part of this.”
From my time as editor of Wynboer right up until today, these are words I will never forget. Also that one has to appreciate and to be grateful for everything and every person that has helped you enjoy wine.
Actually I wanted to give Sydney one big hug, but he turned to the car saying that we both had work to do. And that I, too, should do mine with love.
Nobody has ever taught me so much, in such short a time as Sydney Back. What a great pity he is not here to celebrate Backsberg’s 100th anniversary. But he will be there in spirit, of that I am sure.