It was a surreal night of luxury, to the clink of expensive glasses and the strains of jazz, high on Northcliff Hill overlooking Johannesburg. The valley below spreads out like a carpet of twinkling lights, cooled by a cutting wind from the west. On this night the news on the television is grave; it speaks of hungrier times, strikes and inflation.
At the top of the hill, these fears are far from the thoughts of the diners, who each paid $3,000 to sip on the finest and most expensive wines in the world. Around the table, millionaires chat of bouquet and burgundy. Hands, adorned with sparkling diamond rings, swirl balloons of wine. This is The White Club.
It took inspiration from the London-based Whites, a club created by Francesco Bianco in 1693. It was at his house, which was later painted white, that members indulged in chocolate and bought tickets to the King’s and Royal Drury Lane Theaters. In 1773, The White Club became a place where wealthy men conversed over cigars and fine wine.
In 2009, René Dehn, founder of Gratis Denmark, stepped down as CEO, and took the idea on the road. Now, the Dane travels around the globe, accompanying his well-aged companions. Among them: a 1959 Dom Pérignon Rosé and a 1959 Château Lafite. The uncorking of the bottles always poses a challenge.
“It’s the only little part of the job that I don’t like. You’re a little bit excited but at the same time you are nervous… I’ve gotten over the fact that it feels like I am killing the bottle.”
It’s not easy moving vintage wine around the world. The bottles must be packaged in temperature-controlled cases that are shock absorbent to prevent damage.
For those who wish to join, there is only one way in.
“You cannot buy your way into the club; it’s strictly by invite only. You have to attend one of the smaller dinners around the world in order to be considered for member status,” he says.
The qualities that make for the perfect White Club member include: the ability to be a good dinner partner, who is comfortable and easy going and, above all, willing to share. It’s about creating a sense of community, based on one common bond: the love of expensive wine.
“There was a South African member who missed a dinner in Switzerland. He sent a bottle from his private collection to the people around the table, for them to enjoy… that is the mindset and thinking of sharing that gives me a high.”
In May, The White Club made its third visit to the African continent, bringing along some of the most sought-after and rarest wines in the world. The star of the night was a $24,000 bottle of Château Pétrus, from 1947.
Two teams, each consisting of a wine sommelier and a renowned chef, competed for the best wine-dish pairing.
“I’ve done a springbok fillet, which is wrapped in slightly smoked springbok, served on a bed of butternut rösti… I’m serving it with a piece of foie gras, so it’s going to be something very classic, something very French,” says Coco Reinharz, a French chef from Sel et Poivre restaurant, in Sandton.
Dehn believes that everyone wants to belong to an elite social club and that Africa is the right place, right now.
“It happens in countries where you have a new merging culture of being wealthy, where people have an idea of things they want to spend on.”
In this world of recession, how do White Club members keep to their luxurious pastime?
“In the level that we are doing it, recession doesn’t mean anything. There is always a percentage of people that are above the recession,” says Dehn.
On this night, hard times were far from the minds of the people who had the money to dine like kings and queens on the top of a hill, in the middle of Johannesburg.