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South Africa's Value Wines

Wine impresario Joshua Wesson has made it his business to seek out top values from unexpected places. He celebrates some favorite finds at a splendid dinner party in honor of a pioneering South African winemaker.

"Jabulani is in the house!" Joshua Wesson, the waggish, gum-chewing impresario behind the Best Cellars value-oriented wine stores, is having friends over for a meal, and the guest of honor has just arrived, wearing a friendship lapel pin bearing the South African and United States flags. "The man with the goods!" Wesson crows.

From a satchel, Jabulani Ntshangase pulls forth several newly released bottles from his family-owned Thabani Wine Company, which he is promoting on a six-week visit to the States. They join a cluster of other bottles on the granite-topped kitchen island in this Brooklyn loft.

Ntshangase (pronounced chon-GOSS-ay) is one of South Africa's—indeed, one of the world's—few black wine producers. Raised in Soweto, outside Johannesburg, he was a teetotaler studying business in New York on a United Nations scholarship in the early 1980s when he happened into part-time work as a stock clerk at the venerable Upper West Side wine shop Acker Merrall & Condit. The business fascinated him, and after the U.S. trade embargo was lifted, in 1991, he went to work for an importer bringing South African wines into the States. Eventually he returned to South Africa and became the sole black independent-wine-company CEO there. Lately he's been active in setting up a program at Stellenbosch University to bring young black Africans into the industry. He faces the challenge of cultivating a taste for his wines among black South Africans, who traditionally favor beer. "We want to be role models," he says, "both breaking ground and making wine accessible."

Ntshangase's friendship with Wesson dates from the 1990s, when both men were immersed in the New York wine world. Wesson had made his name as an award-winning sommelier at the seminal New American restaurant Hubert's, and then as coauthor, with David Rosengarten, of Red Wine with Fish, on pairing wine with food. Since cofounding Best Cellars, he has had an even broader impact on how people buy wine. The first Best Cellars opened in 1996, on upper Lexington Avenue in Manhattan; six more have followed, from Washington, D.C., to Seattle. (Wesson is a regular on F&W's Web site, www.foodandwine.com, and his partner in Best Cellars, Richard Marmet, is married to F&W's executive food editor, Tina Ujlaki.)

At Best Cellars, Wesson pioneered the idea of arranging bottles not by geography or varietal but by flavor. "All I did, really, was translate place and grape into taste," he says. Each Best Cellars bottle bears a curious, colorful sticker with a single word: Fizzy, Fresh, Soft, Luscious, Juicy, Smooth, Big or Sweet. "And that," he says, "allows anybody to taste a wine without putting it in a glass." The system is appealingly easy, and an added benefit is that it distracts anxious buyers from the fact that value wines—and most of the bottles at Best Cellars go for $15 or under—often come from lesser-known grapes or from lesser-known vineyards, such as South Africa's. Ntshangase's fruity, judiciously wooded wines, currently priced at $10 to $11 for Sauvignon Blanc and $14 to $15 for Cabernet-Merlot, are a perfect fit.

By classifying a wine according to taste, Wesson says, "you don't have to worry about what's in it or where it's from or who made it or what the soil was like or the climate conditions at the time of harvest or the religion of the winemaker or how many Gauloises butts fell into the barrel." This kind of statement—straightforward and irreverent, with a punch line—is his trademark. Translated into Wessonese, an oaky, buttery Chardonnay becomes "a two-by-four attached to a stick of butter." A sommelier is "a Boutros Boutros-Ghali to help you make peace with the world of wine." Wines that make no pretense to subtlety or depth are "wines without egos."

And egoless wines seem ideal companions for today's spectacular meal, since, as Wesson says, "The great but dark little secret of wines that aren't heroically complex is that they go better with a wide range of foods than wines that are very complex." Wesson's Mediterranean-inflected cooking is as freewheeling, and as far from haute, as his take on wine. For example, the caponata-like eggplant topping for his crostini drops the traditional capers and adds cumin. And he knows how to cook so that after every bite you ask, Where's the wine? He generally likes to serve more than one with a course, in order to show how different a different pairing can be; for instance, with his peppery mussels steamed in rosé (instead of the usual white wine), he offers both a Thabani Sauvignon Blanc (Fresh) and a Bosler Pinot Noir from Chile (Juicy). The main event is his twist on classic osso buco: braised lamb (instead of veal) shanks, matched with an unexpectedly voluptuous rutabaga mash; the wine partners are a Joseph Kaetzel Pinot Gris from France (Luscious) and a Thabani Cabernet-Merlot (Big). The meal concludes with a baked chocolate pudding that has ambitions to be a mousse. This is hearty, even lusty food. "When you have wines without egos," Wesson says, "you can have any kind of food you want."

That makes Ntshangase's wines precisely the kind Wesson loves. Best Cellars draws much of its stock, which now includes all of Thabani's selections, from emerging wine regions, such as South Africa—and Chile, Argentina, New Zealand and the New York State Finger Lakes region. As guests appreciatively sip the Thabani Sauvignon Blanc, someone begins praising it to Ntshangase. "Stop complimenting him," Wesson says. "It'll go to his head. And then he'll raise his prices."

Benjamin Wallace is executive editor of Philadelphia magazine. His profile of chef Georges Perrier appears in the anthology Best Food Writing 2002.

Published March 2003
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