In Vino Veritas: South Africa, Part I

Tiffany Patterson
7 min readMay 11, 2023

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Lately, I feel tossed between waking and dream states, desperately clawing my way out before the two realities close in. When did this feeling begin? Am I naturally agitated, rebelling since the moment my parents conjured me from the expansiveness of the universe down to this contained planet? Or was it a specific moment in my life that caused me so much discontent? It’s hard to tell with time; what feels like the beginning could’ve been a journey already underway, and what could’ve been experienced as a single moment, another had simultaneously occurred.

A wine bottle label containing an image of a bearded man with crows perched on a tree growing from out of his head.
Photo by author: “The Dark Side of the Vine” by Black Elephant Vintners

The establishment listed the wrong address in the auto-generated invite sent to me upon reserving a wine tasting for one. I stood blankly before a boarded-up venue I presumed was the company’s previous location as the signage remained.

The surrounding parking lot had no loiters I could ask for information. Cold, wet, and without service, I hesitantly entered the open doors of a café nestled between the closed establishment and a wine shop to ask for help. I looked around at the brick-covered walls, white doors dressed in silk drapes, and a lovely garden out back. The place was empty, and no sound suggested anyone had been working there.

I turned towards the entrance and stared ahead at the bushy thruway of Franschhoek and became flustered. My day was already off to a frustrating start. I was irritated, but in pausing, I realized it was not simply due to the present circumstance but to the persistence with which this feeling had crept into my life from every corner.

Instead of calling out to someone, I walked out of the café. I was too bothered to expend any more energy. Looking around the wet parking lot, I noticed a woman and a young girl unloading two laundry bags from their car and walking toward the cleaners a few doors down. I excused myself and immediately slowed my pace toward the woman, who shot me an agitated look when I approached her.

Having had the “colored” and “white” neighborhoods and privileges explained to me, I began to worry my outreach was less about an interruption while carrying a laundry load and more about my presence. The woman’s distraught reaction made me wish I hadn’t worn my headwrap and taken the time to straighten the curls of hair that pushed out at the top and the sides of my head to become more favorable. It’s a ridiculous thought process in a moment like that; I was more afraid of being perceived as threatening than concerned with my safety.

I asked her for recommendations on where I could use a phone or get service, and she suggested I continue searching establishments along the thruway, starting with the café. Explaining to her I had just been there and the place was empty, the woman shrugged and replied there was nothing she could do for me before rushing off.

“Don’t take it personally. Don’t make it about me,” I thought to myself. And should I somehow be a contributing factor to this woman’s misery, her private thoughts about me were none of my business.

I was raised to wonder what others thought of me, to morph into a version of myself they preferred. I skated on the thinnest ice my entire life, praying I wouldn’t fall through and, secondly, that I would survive if I did. As I slid across the neverending stretch of ice, I balanced overwhelming expectations on wobbly blades I couldn’t skillfully guide because I hadn’t any clue where I was going. My only goal was to keep up the aimless performance of entertaining everyone but myself.

Left without options, I returned to the café and soon emerged an older woman and a middle-aged gentleman. The older woman, wearing a wool sweater, scarf, and head wrap, briefly studied me before sweeping the floor. The gentleman approached me while tugging at his necktie beneath his grey sweater to greet me and introduce himself as the host. Gathering myself, I calmly explained to him that I was lost and without cellular service to orient myself. A West African ex-pat unfamiliar with the territory, the host invited me to order a beverage while I waited for him to collect the chef for additional help.

Black Elephant Vintner’s wine bottle packaging containing images of an elephant, people dancing, playing music, and drinking wine.
Photo by author: Black Elephant Vintners wine packaging

Feeling terrible that I’d inconvenienced the staff, I submitted and asked the sweeping woman for a hot cup of Rooibos tea with cream and no sugar. The mysterious woman who forcefully yielded her broom in the same spot for too long paused to prepare my tea. I painfully sipped the scolding beverage and smiled. Having received confirmation that I was satisfied, she returned to her task.

The host reappeared with the chef and asked me to explain my dilemma again. Instead of offering me their phones to make a call, the chef called his wife and put me on the phone. She explained where I was and how to reach my destination on foot, but the distance was too far to tread in this wet weather. The host ended a call with a nearby friend who agreed to give me a ride. The two gentlemen partnered to better solve my problem by equipping me with the tools to a) avoid getting lost again and b) conveniently reach my destination.

Although I hesitated to accept the ride, I eventually came to terms with the possibility that these strangers only had the best intentions. Satisfied with the outcome, the chef returned to the kitchen, and the host accompanied me in my wait at the doorway of the café.

Dampened by the chilling drizzle and seeking to pass the time with light conversation, the host thanked me for my purchase and explained that he was embarrassed to share that the establishment wasn’t doing well. Much of the business in the area had gone to the wine estates, which offered small plates to pair with tastings. That afternoon, my appearance surprised the three staff members as their days were often filled with curious strangers but rarely diners. For once, he explained, it was nice to feel useful, to be at the service of another.

I’ve made many mistakes and taken many detours, but that is where the lessons are — in detours. Some of us are plagued by pathways full of lessons we cannot learn. Do they call out to us, or do we unknowingly seek them? Perhaps detours are merely alternative routes that, if we allow them, could delight and enlighten us.

Fifteen minutes later, the host’s friend approached in an old Toyota Camry that appeared dirty on the outside from afar but revealed shadowy dents as it drew nearer. The host demanded his friend phone him when I safely arrived and urged me to take his number and contact him if there were any issues. And just like that, I was off to my original destination.

Briefly catching a glimpse of mountains before retreating to the main roads of a small neighborhood, we finally approached a large, gated farm surrounded by enchanting mountains that looked like a neatly placed backdrop of a movie set. I wondered whether those who dwelled behind the tall walls had enough power to imprison those rocky giants within their borders.

A landscape photo of mountains, boulders, trees, and pathways cutting across the farm.
Photo by author: Black Elephant Vintners Farm

After gaining entrance to the farm, the driver slowly followed the pebbled trail to a beautifully painted building. As he parked, he smiled in the mirror, indicating our arrival. I repeatedly thanked my kind stranger and offered him money for the ride, which he graciously refused, but I tenaciously insisted. Sliding out of the car in relief, a staff member greeted me at the large wooden doors and led me to a wine-tasting room with chalkboard walls covered in 70’s-themed hippie art and pop culture references.

Two of the wine brand owners welcomed me. As the sommelier-in-training staff member who greeted me earlier led the tasting, one of the owners indulged me in an inspirational speech about rebelling against the status quo, “creating something for the people, not the critics.” Anything worth enjoying with various people from all walks of life meant “daring to be different” and to do things differently; anything worth a dare is our legacy.

From Chenin Blanc to a vintage Pinot Noir Rosé, I listened intently to drunken truths shared soberly. In vino veritas. Nothing like a vintner-poet-musician to set you on a spiraling contemplation, reflecting deeply about what is worth the fight if not a life lived according to oneself.

It’s taken me many years to come to where I am now, to feel like I have something worth the fight. And right now, what I want, what makes me happy, doesn’t align with what I’m doing: my career, how I spend my time, the company I keep. Though I am arising, battle-worn, my awakening has set me on a surprising new course. To an intriguing new chapter — I’ll drink to that.

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Tiffany Patterson

Caribbean-American sharing personal and professional experiences—unapologetically. I aim for reflection, not perfection.