For Eben Sadie, there is more to a barrel tasting then dipping a thief and into a barrel of wine. While tasters are swirling and breathing in aromas, the evolving wine has been changed by its visit to the outside world. And when the time comes to return the remaining wine to the barrel Eben does so with love. He tells it “to go back and tell your friends all that you have learned” like a father sending his child to school. For Eben nature is animate, alive with personality and he treats it with kindness.
Eben Sadie grew up on the West Cape. His father was a hardworking man of the land. Their garden was full of almost everything that could grow. Eben, however, loved to surf and wanted to be a marine biologist so he could be close to the sea. But Eben’s father had other ideas. First he enlisted his wild son in the army to try to tame him. Later, when Eben came home, he found himself enrolled in university, in the agriculture department. There was no malice in his father’s plans. He was a practical man who wanted to ensure a good future for his son. He believed agriculture was the best way, and it turned out the decision was an act of providence: Eben discovered viticulture and his passion for making wine.
Eben’s father passed away in 2001, before Eben found his stride. However, while working in the Priorat, Eben met Jaume Sabaté, now the viticulturist partner in Terroir al Limit. Although generations of Jaume’s family had tended vines in the Priorat, he had to find work in construction to take care of his family. When prosperity began to be restored to the Priorat, Jaume returned to work with the vines, and it was widely known that he was the best viticulturist in the region. But for Eben, Jaume was even more. Jaume had the air of a true vigneron, walking the earth with the dignity of knowledge and integration with the land. For Eben, working with Jaume was like having the chance to show his father that he had found his way to the earth after all.
Other pivotal experiences came from working in the Priorat. The region possessed something that was missing in South Africa at the time and Eben needed to explore it. The formidable wildness of the landscape, the old vines and the connection of the people to their vines called him. He wanted to be a part of the Priorat’s renaissance, to get to the soul of the place and make a wine that communicated it authentically. At the time South Africa was just coming out of Apartheid. It was struggling to overcome its focus on bulk wine and ripping out old vines for new, more vigorous ones. Eben’s first wine, Columella, was doing well there, but it was only the beginning of what he was meant to achieve.
Finally, after 18 years working two vintages on two different continents, it was time to bring all that he had learned home, something like the wine he returned to the barrels.
He had come realize that he belonged in South Africa; it was part of his DNA and he wanted to work hard where he would one day be buried. Integrating the lessons of the Priorat and his experiences in other great Old World wine regions of Europe, and with the help of friends like viticulturist Rosa Kruger*, he and other like-minded winemakers are revitalizing the viticultural heritage of his homeland. The value of the old vines and the pride of their farmers has been restored, hopefully for generations to come. And through the power of collaboration, Eben and his friends making wine in the Swartland created a “revolution” that in only five years put their region on the wine map.
Amidst the chaos of working two vintages, Eben’s wife of 20 years, Maria, was raising their three children almost single-handedly. Eben was not oblivious to his wife’s sacrifice; he told me that “it takes a virtuous woman to set aside her independence to raise a family.” It was not easy, but as Maria says, “It is pointless to stand in the way of a person’s nature”—wisdom she applies not only to her husband but to her children as well. The success of Sadie Family Wines represents the commitment of the whole family, and they are pleased that their eldest, Markus, has already developed his own sense of wine. Xander and Lisa-Maria are still young, exploring possibilities. Eben and Maria simply want them to make their own discoveries about what is right for them.
Eben continues to work day and night, full of thoughts and ideas that keep him (along with those around him) buzzing like a firefly, but now his family is completely integrated. Eben named their house Rotsvas, “rock solid” in Afrikaans. Each day ends with the setting sun casting its golden glow upon its walls. The new day begins with the call of a rooster and another opportunity to achieve complete understanding of the land and vines and to make a wine that changes people’s lives. Eben’s journey is not about glory; that belongs to someone else. His journey is simply life.
*Rosa Kruger is a the godmother of the old-vine revival. She spends her free time hiking in the mountains, discovering old vines, matching them with respectful winemakers and managing some of the best wine-growing projects in the region. Her story will be featured on Terroir Talking soon.