Interview by @AdamLechmere
Where did you grow up and what was your first experience of wine?
I grew up in Cape Town, the son of an architect and a musician/writer, so perhaps it was inevitable I would become a winemaker. We first lived on Surfers Corner in Muizenberg, where, in big storms, the waves crashed onto the front windows of our house. Fortunately I grew up in a household fascinated by wine. From about 10 years old I would be given a small glass of half red wine, half water for Sunday lunch – just like my parents’ Italian friends. My dad liked the wines of Cyril Back of Fairview, especially those early vintages of Shiraz. I think that’s probably my earliest memory of a brand I can recal
In 2008 you sold Flagstone to Constellation [part of which became Accolade]. There was some negative press about that – what drove you to sell?
Constellation initially brought me in as a consultant, to advise on[Constellation’s entry-level blend] Kumala, whose sales had dropped and they didn’t know what to do with it. When Troy Christensen [then Constellation Europe CEO] asked me what I thought of Kumala, I said I thought it was an embarrassment to the South African wine industry. He asked me to substantiate some of my more emotional statements, then he offered me a job. I said I had my own issue, called Flagstone, and he said: “We’ll buy it”. So I sold Flagstone in order to get my hands on Kumala.
How are your responsibilities shared out among the brands you cover?
I probably spend a disproportionate amount of time on Flagstone, primarily because I still see it as my creation. Now it’s more like a grown-up child, who has left home, and I am one of those slightly irritating parents who can’t let go.
Gerhard Swart, an exceptionally talented winemaker, is responsible for the day to day winemaking responsibilities, while I get involved with vineyard monitoring (especially picking decisions) blending, strategic direction of style, signing off all pilot blends and all wines before bottling. From a winemaking perspective the strategy and pilot blend sign-offs are most crucial.
Then there is new product development for Accolade’s customers, which is relentless – or at least that’s what it feels like. This involves preparing blends of certain sizes, taking into account all the production considerations and restraints, to make sure the sample we prepare is indeed something we can replicate. I am also sometimes asked to help come up with brand name ideas for these projects. It’s a bit like fishing: a lot of work and time required for an uncertain outcome.
How has winemaking changed in South Africa over the last 20 years?
We were thrust into the world on February 11, 1990, when Nelson Mandela was released, and on that date the world changed for us. We are a 24-year-old industry. Before that, we thought we were quite good at cricket and rugby, and we definitely thought we were good at wine but actually we were pretty poor at all of it. Suddenly we had to relearn how to make wine that was acceptable to the international consumer.
And how to market it…
Exactly. We started getting very exclusive, talking about terroir because that’s what the French talk about and we thought maybe that’s the way you sell wine. But of course it’s not. Then we looked back into the rubble of the past and thought: “There’s a lot to be ashamed about, but what can we be happy with?” There are some good strong myths, our incredible history of individual tenacity, with the Afrikaaners and the Great Trek, for example. So one of the things that has changed after 24 years is that we are able to find enough stuff in the rubble that is positive, and that is ours, that we can talk about when we talk about wines.
What about quality – how has that improved?
There has been a revolution in quality as we have come to understand our soils. They are diverse and very difficult; this works in our favor for white wines, because when you plant white grapes over uneven soils, the unevenness in ripeness is a bonus. You get built-in complexity. But it’s the opposite in red wines because of the skin contact – if you have uneven soils you can get green and weedy flavors. The revolution happened when we realized you have to treat bits of the vineyard differently with trellising, irrigation, orientation of rows and so on. We were ignorant of all these different factors because we didn’t travel during apartheid and so didn’t experience other winemaking techniques and cultures. Then as soon as Mandela was released, South African winemakers became some of the most prolifically traveled in the world.
The words “organic” and “biodynamic” don’t appear at all in your mission statement, yet you have a commitment to “handcrafted”, sustainable wines – is that an anomaly?
There are vineyards that go into Flagstone wines that are organic, or are in conversion to organic. My own farm [just outside Napier in the Overberg Highlands] supplies grapes to Flagstone and we manage to farm organically in some years, but this is the only part of the farm that isn’t organically certified, because every third year or so we are forced to spray for fungus – it’s an extreme farm. I’m fully into biodynamics. My own farm uses biodynamic principles, especially with our vegetable side – we’re one of the biggest certified organic onion producers in the Western Cape.
Handcrafted refers more to the winemaking. There are lots of organic producers that don’t go to the winemaking extent we do in the cellar. For me handcrafted is about taking out the machines wherever possible and so creating a “soft” production process. This is especially critical for the reds, where soft, juicy tannin structure is important to us.
What have been the low points of your career?
I’m still expecting the really low points. I’ve been bankrupt when I wasn’t paid by a big U.K. supermarket on time. Being naïve, I didn’t really understand the rules of the game early on and I had over-extended myself. I had to sell my car to pay the salaries that month. I had to call all my suppliers and apologise and promise them I’d pay them the following month. That was pretty tough, but it sure did focus the mind.
And the high points?
They happen daily. I absolutely love making wine. It’s not something you can ever get bored of. The wine industry is blessed with good people, generous of spirit, creative, ethical and great company. You can’t help but have fun.
What keeps you awake at night?
Nothing. In fact, I can sleep during the day as well – especially in meetings.
Source: Wine Searcher