Eben Sadie – helping create African DNA wine
01 January 1970
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Welcome back to this edition of Old Mutual Live, it’s an absolute pleasure to have you with us today. I’m Brad Brown and returning once again is someone I absolutely love chatting to. We’ve delved a little bit into the history of what he does as a winemaker, as a little bit about the estate that he’s on. It’s a great pleasure to welcome from Sadie Family Wines, Eben Sadie. Eben welcome back onto Old Mutual Live, nice to catch up once again.
Eben Sadie: Good to be back.
BB: Eben, the last couple of times we spoke, we spoke a little bit about your history as a winemaker and where it all began for you and your transition from surfing to wine and we also found out a little bit about the estate itself, but you guys don’t just operate in the Swartland, you’ve got a bit of interest in Europe. Tell us a little bit about that.
Spain proved an enchanting place to make wine
ES: I think, you know, it might be around 2000, more or less the same time we started the Sadie Family Wines, at that point in time I’ve worked a number of seasons in Europe. What happens is you grow friendships, you grow acquaintances, you start to feel inclined to do something in the place. Doors start opening, dialogue flows, one thing leads to another.
I had a very strong appetite for Europe at that stage, obviously having spent a lot of time on and off in Europe and I wanted to tab a little bit deeper and I thought, you could be a tourist forever but the only way you’ll really know the truth is by biting in deep. You can go to a place and be a tourist, but it’s only once you own a house and you struggle with the municipality and you struggle with the water and the geyser and the electrician, I think then the place takes on a different form.
You get deeper into the underground and that’s what I wanted to do with Europe. Really stumbled on this region in Spain and it was an amazing experience. The area at that time, in the 2000s, it’s changed much from that time. But in 2000, one or two or three of the villages didn’t even have street lights at that time. It was really stepping back into time and into an ancient world of wine almost.
It had new people in it with new dynamics and new thinking and new ambitions, but the place had an old makeup and it was interesting to see the older guard and the new guard. The old and the new and pretty much, here I was sitting in Europe, which is supposed to be hundreds and hundreds of years ahead of us and here you step back into something that looked like it could almost have gone down in SA.
But the only difference is, in that area for example, they started making wine 900 years after Christ, so there was this history. But it’s just a very old history and a little bit, what I thought at that time to be backwards, but in essence it was just so true to the place.
Started my own little winery in Spain
I started a small winery there and basically over the next decade from 2000 to 2010 it built into a very incredible dynamic there as well. Not a very big project, again, 4 000 cases of wine and I learnt so much in those years and not only from the project, the virtue of the project, but having spent all that time in Europe.
Europe is a small place and once you’re there, the big haul is from here to get there, but once you’re in Europe, you can commute fast. My closest airport was Barcelona and within two hours you could be anywhere in Europe and I used that time. I used that 10 year span to visit other regions, visit people. I developed relationships, I had mentoring in that era, from great people that I went to go visit often.
We sat and we talked through the night, on wines and philosophy and all the visions and incredibly enticing conversations which I didn’t always experience here, but to many of these people, they only had wine. Wine was the only thing they had. In South Africa there’s just so much more than wine going on in a way, which is also, again, terribly exciting, but that’s the relationship.
By 2010 my eldest son was 12, going on 13 and a boy changes from 12-13 and his younger brother, that was Marcus and the younger brother Xander, he was sort of making the leap from 10-11. I just saw these two kids and I was never at home. I was all over the world, blazing the world and I just saw these guys and this is my legacy here in front of me. It didn’t feel like it was time for me to be in Europe anymore.
By the end of 2010 I had to make the hard decision to leave Europe behind, but it also coincided to what I said in an earlier programme. By 2008 I started realising that I must develop an African DNA and I have to cut my umbilical cord with Europe.
That, together with my inner feeling that I had to be home, so I packed up, my partner, I had a partner in Spain at a winery there and he decided he’s going forward with the wine, the company there. I came back and I’m spending every free hour I’ve got, I’m spending with my children. Because I’ve got to impart things in their lives and spend the time. That relationship can only grow with time and that’s not going to help if I sit in a plaza in Spain having a very nice aperitif, but that’s not going to work.
That’s not the time for me now and I also wanted to come back because I saw the potential of the Sadie Family Wines and its vineyards and my family and everything here. There was just a paradigm shift. For me, life here, I want to be here, I don’t want to be in Europe anymore. I came back to focus on this amazing project that we’re busy with and my family.
BB: I absolutely love that Eben. A question with regards to the comparisons between what you were doing in Europe and what you’re doing here in SA, you mentioned the amount of history in Spain and how long wine has been around there, do you find, I mean the two are very different, but do you find there are lots of similarities between what’s going on in Spain and here in SA and in the wine industry?
Differences between Spain and SA farms
ES: No, there’s huge differences. When they think about wine, they always think about the ancestral past. With every decision they make. It’s like, you know, we have also this ancestral thing where often you go on a farm and a farmer will tell you, when you say you’ve got to try this or maybe we should try that, they say no, my father said that.
You can still convince the guy that when his father said that and you say now this, it’s one generation to the other, but when you sit in an area where guys have been farming for a thousand years and you come with a new concept, do you understand, it’s your one generational concept lining up against hundreds or thousands of years of wine making in a certain way. They move much slower. We move incredibly fast in the New World and especially in South Africa.
This country, in politics, everything here moves fast. This is an incredible dynamic, we’re definitely more free in terms of moving with our wines. With that comes some potential threat, because sometimes we move in the New World too fast and especially in SA, maybe we’re moving too fast because there’s not enough bearing to the past.
But I think one must find an equilibrium between yourself and the pace you’re running. I think wine is not a 100m race, I don’t think it’s a 400m race and I don’t think it’s a 10 000m race. Wine is a marathon and it’s a proper long distance marathon, it’s like a Comrades and you’ve got to run that race over a very long time. You’ve got to be in shape of mind, fitness, everything and you’ve got to pace yourself.
I think we’re starting to see the first of the people pacing themselves in SA where thoughts and philosophies and policies and dealings are well thought through, well distilled through and it shows in the wine. So we’re in a good space here.
BB: Eben, you mention how much you’ve learnt from Europe, but you’re at the point now where you need to distil what’s African and what’s European and use the African to obviously create a truly African wine experience. If you could chat to a young up and coming winemaker or someone who is thinking about getting into the industry and would like to become a winemaker, would you advise that they go to Europe? Spend some time there and learn or do you feel that we’ve got enough quality winemakers here in SA that they can learn from and almost not be influenced by what’s happening in Europe?
Should young winemakers stay in SA or travel?
ES: It’s a very good question because it’s almost the question, I’m at the point where I almost can’t answer that question. It think it so much depends on the individual. If the individual has the ability to dissect and not emotionally get muscled over from one thing to the other, I think it’s always good to leave home for a little bit because it just gives a horizon.
I think you need a horizon to have a great view. If the person is to that point, of course, but if it’s a person that completely and utterly immerses himself into things and loses himself, which is a little bit like I am, you potentially stand to never get back to the true line again. I was just lucky.
I would really need to know the individual to give him the sound advice, him or her, for that matter. I think it’s good to leave home, but also you need tutoring. We don’t have enough tutoring in this country. It’s where people that have gone down the line, sit down with people and explain to them how these things work. We don’t get explained things enough. We sort of have to train on the job all the time. I think that’s a big vacuum still here, is that there’s not enough tutoring from generational pass down, but that you see in Europe.
When you sit and eat, I sat with some growers and eat and at the same table there’s the great grandfather, the grandfather, the father and the son, I don’t know how many people in this world sit around tables and eat with four generations. Then you see them talk and you see the hand down, the pass down of information and legacy and tutoring from one generation to the next.
That young guy, the recipient sitting there who is 21 or 22 years old, he doesn’t understand the foundations he’s growing up on. Here, we often sit in a room and you eat on your own and you watch a TV programme and there’s no father even at home. It’s not the same, so we’ve got to learn how to raise generations differently, I think, and I had to do that.
BB: Eben Sadie, it’s been amazing chatting, I love your perspective on wine and life in general. Thank you so much for your time here on Old Mutual Live, I look forward to catching up again soon, best of luck in all your endeavours.
ES: Same to you guys, thank you very much for having us over, for having this talk.