Thelema Mountain Vineyards, Stellenbosch
THE CELLAR MASTER
It was a taste of some Burgundy Puligny-Montrachet that convinced Gyles Webb to lay down the calculator and abandon his accounting career in Durban to become a winemaker. Shortly after, he obtained a degree in Oenology at Stellenbosch University and after gaining some work experience abroad and in South Africa, Gyles and his wife’s family fell in love with a run-down old fruit farm called Thelema.
Gyles has always given meticulous attention to the vineyards, believing that grape quality is the single most important factor in serious winemaking. This persistent precision has paid off in awards for the best vineyards in Stellenbosch. His winemaking policy is one of “benign neglect” or minimum interference, with finings and filtrations kept to an absolute minimum. Gyles also believes in the use of premium wood and you will therefore find Thelema and Sutherland’s wines resting in quality French barrels.
In 2000, Gyles handed the reins of wine making to the talented Rudi Schultz and moved into the role of cellar master.
If Gyles is not in the office or in the cellar, he is scrutinising the vineyards or taking his dogs Ginny and Frankie for a walk on the estate.
A Renaissance monk, physician, and scholar, Rabelais has for centuries received acclaim for his Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-64), a multivolume narrative comprising comedy, satire, myth, and humanist philosophy and detailing the epic stories of two giants’ upbringing, ribald adventures, and journeys towards self-discovery. Throughout this massive work shine the language and wit of a profound thinker possessing a remarkably original voice and vivacious literary style.
In the closing chapter of Gargantua, the titular character builds an archetypal religious abbey (Theleme) for his aide and confidante, Friar Jean. The abbey, for its egalitarian beliefs and adoption of Renaissance principles of education and open-mindedness, is regarded as Rabelais’ idealized conception of a new world order.
Thelema was not walled; time was not circumscribed by clocks or sundials; men and women were allowed to live freely with each other; they were dressed in the finest satins and cloths. Rabelais enters into some rather bawdy detail as to what sort of person would qualify as a devotee of Thelema: “Therefore it was ordained, that into this religious order should be no women that were not faire, well featur’d and of sweet disposition; nor men that were not comely, personable and well conditioned.”
At the foot of this earthly paradise stood a gate bearing a rather stern Admission Reserved Sign. It began:
HERE ENTER NOT vile bigots, hypocrites,
Externally devoted Apes, base snites…
And forerunners of baboons.
Out strouting cluster fists, contentious bulls,
fomenters of divisions and debates,
Elsewhere, not here, make sale your deceits.
It has been greatly abused and much misunderstood, for the rule is not an open invitation to chaos, but a call for true self-examination. The inscription on one of its cornerstones, “Fay ce que vouldras” (“Do what thou wilt”), along with an emphasis on responsible, active participation in God’s community on earth, represent ideals which Rabelais iterates throughout the novel in various ways, often cloaking his humanist beliefs in irony, humor, and allegory.
The phoenix or fire bird, often represented with a scarlet and golden plumage, is an ancient mythological creature that has appeared in several cultures as a symbol of rebirth, immortality, and renewal.
Most beings spring from other individuals; but there is a certain kind which reproduces itself. The Assyrians call it the Phoenix. It does not live on fruit or flowers, but on frankincense and odoriferous gums. When it has lived five hundred years, it builds itself a nest in the branches of an oak, or on the top of a palm tree. In this it collects cinnamon, and spikenard, and myrrh, and of these materials builds a pile on which it deposits itself, and dying, breathes out its last breath amidst odors. From the body of the parent bird, a young Phoenix issues forth, destined to live as long a life as its predecessor. When this has grown up and gained sufficient strength, it lifts its nest from the tree (its own cradle and its parent’s sepulchre), and carries it to the city of Heliopolis in Egypt, and deposits it in the temple of the Sun
(Ovid, Metamorphoses book 15)
The sacred phoenix appears in ancient Arabian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Chinese and Indian mythology, but a little closer to home, the phoenix also symbolises the birth of Thelema. Edna and David McLean ran the Phoenix Garden Hotel in Kimberley. When their daughter, Barbara, married accountant turned wine maker Gyles Webb, they decided to buy an old fruit farm called Thelema and convert it to a modern winery. As synchronicity would have the McLean and the Webb family shared the symbol of the phoenix in their family’s history. The ancient mythological creature also features in the Webb family crest which can be traced back to sixteenth century England.