90-year-old champions eco-friendly wine production on her Cape farm

22 February 2017 - 11:45 By Allison Foat
Patricia Werdmuller van Elgg on her McGregor farm, Hout Baai.
Patricia Werdmuller van Elgg on her McGregor farm, Hout Baai.
Image: Supplied

As a six-year-old, Patricia Werdmuller von Elgg learnt about the solar system and the sun's connection to all living things, a defining moment in her young life.

Today, at 90, she radiates enthusiasm when talking about preserving the environment, rescuing animals, and producing sauvignon blanc from grapes organically grown on Hout Baai, her estate in the Western Cape village of McGregor.

Von Elgg moved to McGregor in the 1990s and in 2003 acquired 27 hectares of wilderness saturated with toxins and overrun with pests.

Today, her fastidious attention to a long-term sustainability policy has resulted in a thriving ecosystem. Vineyards are nourished with seabird guano, kelp derivatives, mulch, and an organic compost made by worms bred on site.

Pests are eliminated naturally: guinea fowl devour snails, mongoose prey on rodents, and birds eat the mealie bugs. Species roaming the farm include deer, meerkats, hares, civets and caracal.

When bat-eared foxes occupy burrows under the vines, production activity halts in those lanes and workers keep a wide berth until the pups have moved on. That block is called Little Foxes and it is the best-performing section on the farm.

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Born in 1927 in Meerut in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, Von Elgg traversed the high seas from the age of two, sailing between Britain, where she attended boarding school, and India, where her father was a troop commander in Waziristan.

Her career has included stints as a signals operator in World War 2, farming livestock in KwaZulu-Natal after immigrating to SA in 1948, starting businesses in Johannesburg and the US, and developing a photopolymer for which she held the patent.

As a rookie navigating the world of wine, Von Elgg educated herself about viticulture and the principles of farm management, and over time her vines began to produce premium grapes.

With the support of her eldest son Otto Werdmuller von Elgg and his business partner Georges Sayegh, Pat put her heart and soul into Hout Baai, pursuing her vision to produce the wine now known as Solara.

Otto, the CEO of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle and Drone Solutions, shares his mother's commitment to wildlife conservation, having invested millions in the fight against poaching in the Kruger National Park through drone surveillance.

In 2006 Lord's Winery was the first to buy Von Elgg's grapes, followed by Rooiberg outside Robertson, which produced the first bottle of Solara in 2014.

Hout Baai's grapes also attracted the attention of Ivan Oetle, a former wine buyer from Woolworths who is now a partner in the Solara business. Oetle introduced Von Elgg to Arendsig's master viticulturist and wine-maker, Lourens van der Westhuizen, who was so impressed that he agreed to take on the making of Solara.

Von Elgg has an inflexible ethos: "I will always endeavour to do all I possibly can to prevent environmental contamination and to make the planet safe for nature."

• This article was originally published in The Times.

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