It’s a strange process to watch an untruth – at best a half-truth – becoming accepted as historical fact. A bit of ignorance, some lazy journalistic reporting, a bit more repetition and there you are…. But as an important part of Cape wine is involved in this case, it’s worth trying to halt the slide.
Last week an article appeared in the Cape Argus, puffing a forthcoming book entitled From Groot Constantia to Google: 1685 to 2010. (Actually it should be pointed out that in a common, blatantly dishonest tradition of Independent Newspapers, the Argus “Staff reporter” is actually largely quoting a press release. Here’s a similar piece from another source. Why the Press Ombudsman allows this to happen is a mystery.)
Anyway, according to the piece, the book “on the history of branding in South Africa by the publishers of the respected Brands & Branding annual claims Groot Constantia wine farm to be our oldest brand at 326 years”.
Well, I don’t know if Brands & Branding is as respected as it claims it is, or by whom, or what the standing of the man associated with it, Ken Preston, is, but if they want it to remain respected they should start checking their facts. (And Mr Preston should at least have the courtesy to respond when people try to help him via his advertised email address! * [see comment below])
Because the claim about Groot Constantia is simply not true – easily demonstrably so.
Presumably when it comes to brands, the actual name involved is pretty important. The year 1685 obviously refers to the granting of the great estate on the Cape Peninsula to governor Simon van der Stel. It was, of course, called Constantia (for reasons that remain uncertain.) In fact “Groot Constantia” did not exist until van der Stel’s estate was broken up after his death, into three farms – two of which were called Klein Constantia and Bergvliet. The main farm, with the house and winery on it, remained known as Constantia, but was also unofficially known as Groot Constantia. It was apparently only officially called “Groot Constantia” from the date of a later bit of tinkering with the property in 1824.
The famous sweet wines of the 18th and 19th centuries established the internationally renowned “brand” Mr Preston’s book refers to. But the wine was universally known as “Constantia”, and came from more than one farm. Including, of course, “Groot Constantia”, but there is extremely little record to back a claim that “Groot Constantia” was – even in the 19th century – a brand in its own right. It certainly was not dreamt of in 1685.
It’s probable that “Groot Constantia” became a brand, as such, only in the 20th century, possibly as late as the 1960s, when the modern history of the winery started.
So the oldest brand in South Africa is not Groot Constantia, but Constantia – a distinction of some significance not only to those who value history, and don’t like seeing it distorted, but also to the other farms of historic Constantia who are implicitly excluded. Incidentally, the most famous modern wine of the area, Klein Constantia’s Vin de Constance, is, of course, simple a French version of “Wine of Constantia”.
So how did this false story get about? It seems that, in recent years at least, the person behind the misrepresentation is none other than Dr Ernest Messina, chairperson of the Groot Constantia Trust. Or whoever writes his speeches. Speaking at the estate at a celebration of 350 years of Cape wine, he is quoted as saying that “Groot Constantia is one of the ten oldest trademarks in the world” – a remark that was apparently widely taken up, not least by the organisation producing this book on brands, with a title that should bring the whole book into disrepute!
Apparently Dr Messina has university degrees in history; one might have hoped that, even if brand experts are a bit lax with accuracy, he would get his basic historical facts right!