Legends of SA Wine – Vera Sperling
Wine tasting rooms didn’t always serve food. The person credited for starting what is now accepted as given of a winery experience is Vera Sperling, matriarch of Stellenbosch’s Delheim Estate.
On her formative years
Vera and her family came to South Africa just before the start of WW2.
“Many people were coming to South Africa, by ship. I was only a few months old. Our scheduled departure was sped up because it was only a day before the official start of the war.
“My parents hadn’t been married for long and we were on our way to a new life. My grandparents too. My grandfather was a pianist and grandmother, a painter. She did many portraits. They were there too. We all went to live in a home in Pinelands. That was the start, and we were there for quite a long time.
“Later, my father had to go up to Europe to fight alongside the troops. My mother eventually followed him because she became very lonely. I didn’t know what was happening, of course.
“I was around six-years-old when my parents’ marriage dissolved. My mother took me back to Holland. Her mother and father remained. Later, my grandfather moved to Johannesburg and my grandmother returned to Holland too. It was a confusing time. But I went back to school there.
“My mother was re-married, and it was suggested we move to Chile because it was seen as a fantastic place at the time. They went and I went to live with my father, attending school for two years in Stellenbosch.
Vera learned German when she was very young, from German friends at school. At the time, they lived in Ida’s Valley where her father rented a house.
“My father was an interiors man with a famous shop in Stellenbosch, Cape Town and PE [Gqeberha]. It was very different to what people knew. Beautiful and specially designed furniture and woodwork. He sold cups, made curtains, and whatever, upholstered chairs. He made a name.
“Binne Huis was the name of the shop.”
During this time, Vera’s father got to know Dr Anton Rupert.
“Rupert bought some of his furniture. They would stand together at the shop and look out across Dorp Street in Stellenbosch. They thought that there should actually be a law that forbids the demolition of old houses to replace with new houses. To preserve them.”
Vera’s upbringing also took her from South Africa to other continents. At one point, they lived in Chile, where she learned to speak Spanish.
“If you didn’t, you had no friends,” she says.
When it was time for further studies, she went to The Hague and embarked on a course in art with a focus on interiors.
“I had an aunt in Wassenaar, which was close by bicycle to the Hague. She had the idea because she knew I wanted to sketch and paint.
“She took me to the Art Academy, and I was accepted. I was 16 years old then.
“My mother at this time moved from Holland to Mexico because someone had suggested that it was a better country than Chile at the time.”
For her practical year, she returned to South Africa and worked with my father in his shop. She also spent holidays with him too.
On meeting Michael Hans “Spatz” Sperling
It was during one of these holidays that Vera was invited to attend a party.
“I went on the back on a motorcycle to Paarl. There were a whole lot of students. It was a very hot day, and someone said she’d go for a swim. Others joined her in their underwear. I thought it would be wonderful, but I just couldn’t bear the thought of spending the whole evening in wet clothes!
“So, I snuck down later when everyone was at the braai. It was dark; I stripped completely and went for my swim. It was certainly very pleasant and worked for me!
It was during another holiday to South Africa that Vera met the man she would later marry – Spatz Sperling. Spatz would later become a co-founder of the Stellenbosch Wine Route, South Africa’s first of its kind.
“We did many lovely things together. We went to the beach; to the movies; to the orchestra. We did all these things, and it was fantastic that he also enjoyed these things.
“I thought this man is very nice. I have to watch out! I was planning to tell him on Sunday that we shouldn’t continue. But on the Saturday, Gunther Brözel asked Sperling if he would give a wine tasting for crew of a Lufthansa flight. Some 12 people. Sperling accepted.
“He set up two tables in what is the restaurant now, and he invited two German friends to the event. After the event, he invited the friends to stay for a drink. He’d put a table out in the garden. From the house he brought out crystal glasses from his aunt, and sparkling wine glasses.
“After about 15 or 20 minutes, he asked: Vera, where’s your glass? I said it’s empty! He then asked me to join him, which I did. He then proceeded to fill everyone’s glasses, pause and raise his own, announcing: We’re engaged!
“I was very surprised of course. Next, he quickly looked over his shoulder at me and asked: Is it ok, my dear?”
The couple were married in 1965.
Spatz arrived in South Africa in 1951 on the invitation from his uncle and aunt who farmed at Delheim.
“They had no children, and had bought the farm in 1938. The old house had burnt down, and the uncle was a builder,” says Vera. “He erected many large buildings, even in Cape Town, such as at Groote Schuur. He didn’t spend much time on the farm.
“He built the winery with the help of Italian POWs, around the time that Spatz arrived
On Delheim’s early days
Vera’s daughter Nora recalls how basic operations of the tasting room were in the early days. All the glasses had to be washed in the kitchen at the farmhouse. There was also regularly a queue of strangers waiting to use the toilet in Vera’s home.
“It was one of the things,” says Vera.
“One of the nicest stories comes from the day I stood in my husband’s office looking out of the window.
“There was nothing out there; no garden, just gravel. The people parked there, but they could drive down to collect the wine. Before the time of the wine route, you just had a wine license. Buyers were only allowed to buy 12 bottles. Not six; a minimum of 12!
“One day, I saw a man arrive in a red sports car. I mentioned it to Sperling, and he replied: ‘Yes. It’s Doctor Baker of Baker’s Biscuits! I’ve always wanted to tell him, but he probably isn’t alive anymore. Sperling said the doctor always takes two cases of Pinotage because that’s all he can load into his car.”
On starting a restaurant
“Starting a restaurant was the first thing we thought about. That was after many people were coming here and tasting wine. The wine route had been created and you could then buy wine on the route. We asked the inspector of licenses about serving food. He came, took one look at the kitchen, and declined our request.
“He said: ‘You don’t have floor to ceiling tiles! But, you can get a vendor’s license, which is for someone who sell on the street’. Food on a plate could be sold but couldn’t be prepared on location.
“Soon other wineries followed.”
“With the food, you were not allowed to ask what wine visitors wanted to drink with it. They had to go to the tasting room and choose their own and buy it there. The license was like that. You also had to buy a bottle of wine and bring it up to the dining place.
“We only had six or so tables, but it grew, and we tried many other things. I designed a small wagon that could be towed behind the tractor, so visitors could see a bit of the farm too.
“It was very simple back then. The space for the restaurant was where they labelled the bottles and stored the full cases and so on.
“For wine deliveries, I would have to take the wines to the station at Koelenhof. We’d offload it there for the train to Johannesburg. That’s how it was back then. Everything has changed now, but as the things for people have done better, the restaurant has become bigger and bigger.”
As more people came, so did the visitor experience evolve.
“We decorated the areas with for example, old machines and old barrels that we’d have decorated. It was beautiful. We’d also cut barrels up, inscribe them with the farm’s story and hang them on the walls.
“The design of everything was my job. Even the garden, which I started. I had no idea of it but had to learn as I went. I also learnt about the grapes and wine. Fortunately, I’m a good friend of wine!
“For a long time, the vendor’s license allowed us only a cheese board. Now, we’re back to cheese boards that you can share. It was popular then and is still the story today.”
More recently, Delheim started mushroom hunts and a picnic area was developed. Or course, there are more toilets now too!
On social work
Over the years, Vera became known by many in the community as “Ouma Vera” because of her contributions to social welfare.
She recounts attempts to end the infamous “dop” system.
“[It was tradition] that all your workers would receive a shot of wine in the morning, afternoon and evening. They would gather at the winery with their tin cup, and receive wine. It went on for years.
“I thought it was terrible, especially because they would drink so heavily over weekends. I remember having to take some people to the hospital at night. Someone would arrive at the house with a message, and you were on your way again. It was not healthy or good. We were one of the first that changed things.
It began quite suddenly, she recalls, with a worker from East London. “He had young children and asked to borrow money to buy a bicycle. Sperling came with a good idea, offering to pay half if the worker saved the rest. He was also required to stop drinking.
“At the end of the week, he might not have received much money, but he saved it. Slowly, everyone started doing that.”
The Sperlings also built a community hall.
“The Krone’s in Tulbagh had built a hall for their people where they could do things together and have parties. We arranged a bus and went with our workers to take a look. We then also built one. It worked very well and is now a full-time kindergarten. There’s space for that and special events, that other farms can also use.
On Vera Cruz farm and other highlights
As demand for Delheim’s wines grew, so did its landholding and it acquired a farm Spatz called Vera Cruz farm.
“It was actually half a farm because Sperling needed more red wine,” recalls Vera. “It is a slightly warmer farm, on the southern side of the R44, opposite Kanonkop.
“He named it Vera Cruz (cross) and explained that it was the cross I had to bear for all the years I’d spent with him and for the farm.”
Other milestones that Vera names include the hosting of an auction of wine. “We were the first and a year later Nederburg launched theirs!”
It was on a hot day at one of these grand affairs at Nederburg that Vera once again revealed her spirit by memorably jumping into the fountain, this time in her hat and dress!
This feature was derived from a series of interviews conducted by radio personality Martelize Brink. It was compiled in co-operation with Wineland Media, part of the Vinpro Family, celebrated its 90th birthday in 2021.