Flagstone – a Bruce Jack project
16 November 2015
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Brad Brown: Welcome back to another edition of Old Mutual Live. Great things start here, great things start now, and it’s time to chat some more wine. We’ve got someone on the podcast, who’s been on a couple of times before. The last time we had him on we spoke a little bit about his wine farm The Drift, or the wine he produces, ‘The Drift’, and an incredible story around the history of that farm. He’s also involved in another winery called Flagstone Wines. It’s a great pleasure to welcome onto the podcast once again, Bruce Jack. Bruce, welcome and nice to touch base again.
Bruce Jack: Brad, thank you very much for having me.
BJ: Bruce, the last couple of times we spoke, you spoke a little bit about the history of South African wine, and you’re obviously a huge fan of history, and where things come from, and I’m pretty much sure Flagstone Wines – there’s an interesting story behind that one too.
The story behind Flagstone
BB: Yes. Thanks Brad. Flagstone has been around for a while. The first vintage was in 1999. It was started in 1998, so it’s certainly has a track record and it has a very loyal following, particularly in South Africa. It’s a winery, which I started with my father in fact.
I had worked overseas, in all sorts of different weird and wonderful places. I had made wine in place like the Sonoma Coast in California, and in Bordeaux. In Australia I had worked in McLaren Vale and the Barossa. I had worked in Spain and it was experiencing all these different countries and people, the histories and the socio-political things, which was really broadening.
I absolutely loved that time, but I got a call and my dad said, “Bruce, it’s time you came home and settle down because I need some cheap wine to drink.” I came home and we started this winery together, and little did he know that, of course, when you start a winery and you build it, and you sink a whole lot of money in it. If you were to do your accounts properly, it is probably the most expensive wine in the world, you’ll ever drink and it remains that way for a while.
To start a small, independent winery, I think had I known of the extent to which it would take its toll, in terms of the emotional strain and the financial strain, I wouldn’t have done it. We did it, I suppose in a way, the right way because we did it with very little money, so we started by buying old milk tanks.
Rustenberg, at that stage, was being rebuilt, and I went to Mr Barlow and I asked him if I could buy his old tanks, and he very generously actually gave me two tanks. I was supported by a lot of different people who, in those days, were very excited to see a new player on the scene.
My timing was pretty good. I was very lucky. It was just after a lot of our laws and regulations within the wine industry were being changed. Now just to put that into context, South Africa is the only wine industry that is governed by a Government Gazette. In fact, there’s a legal framework around how you can grow grapes and how you can make wine.
It was very stifling, right up until 1994. The laws started changing. They were being challenged by people like Charles Back at Fairview, who was questioning why you couldn’t call a wine a certain thing, if the grapes didn’t come from there, etcetera. It was about getting a little bit more clarity and, I would say, practicality into the rules and regulations. He was a real pioneer.
He is Charles Back from Fairview. He is probably one of the greatest pioneers of any wine industry anywhere in the world. We are very fortunate to have someone like that here, so I arrived just after all these things had been changing, and there was a lot more freedom to be able to make wine. But the Government Gazette story and the fact that we make wine within a legal framework is very important because very few other countries have it.
There are a few in Europe that do, but most don’t, which means that if you do something as a South African winemaker, you can get a criminal record if you do something wrong. In other words, if you add something that you shouldn’t add to a wine, you can be criminally prosecuted. This doesn’t happen elsewhere in the world, where you can get away with all sorts of monkey business.
South African wine, from that perspective, has this wonderful inbuilt integrity to it, and it was one of the things that really attracted me home and why I wanted to make wine here, so we started this winery. We begged and/or borrowed all sorts of old equipment. We put it together. I remember when my first grapes arrived. I had ordered a pump from California.
This incredible pump that I had worked with on the Sonoma Coast, which we didn’t have in South Africa at the time and I had ordered one and the container had got stuck somewhere. Probably in Singapore or somewhere, as these things do and I had no pump but my first grapes were arriving.
We have an amazingly supportive indstry
I went to a friend of mine, called Andries Burger, who is the winemaker at Paul Cluver. I said, “Andries, you’re in a cool climate, in the Elgin area. Your grapes are going to be much later.” I was bringing grapes in from the Swartland. They were ripening early. “Can I borrow your pump?” I sent my bakkie out to Elgin and I collected this pump and the first, sort of quarter of harvest I actually made it with a borrowed pump.
The industry really gathered around and supported me. I remember Jeremy Walker from Grangehurst, probably one of the most under-sung, brilliant winemakers in South Africa. He helped me with the minefield of legislation that one has to wade through to get all your certifications and licenses, to produce wine.
We did it in a very unusual place. We started in the Victorian and Alfred Waterfront. My father was involved in the development there, and there was an old, disused diesel depot on the edge of the Waterfront. It was actually part of Portnet’s land. It wasn’t part of Transnet’s land.
It was available for rent, for the first fuve years and it was very cheap, so we were able to put together a business with a very limited budget. Although, obviously when you do that, it puts a lot of strain, there’s a wonderful Afrikaans saying, “Goedkoop is duurkoop,” so you need to be careful about how you do it but we managed to pull it off.
I think that’s what still gives Flagstone the sense of authenticity. That it isn’t a winery that’s had a lot of money thrown at it. There’s an interesting statistic. If you go to Australia they say well, how you build a winery is you put up a couple of tanks, and your winemaking equipment, when you’ve made enough money from the sale of your wine, you then put a roof over those tanks.
When you’ve made even more money, and you’re becoming quite successful then you build a wall around the winery, and you enclose it. When your son or your daughter takes over, and things are really flying you then pave the road, from the winery to the main road. Three generations later, when you’re so famous, you’re in every smart restaurant in the world then you build these big gates at the main road. Of course, in South Africa, the mistake we mostly make is we start with the big gates.
I think it’s very different now. That was 20 years ago. Now you’ll see a lot of these small guys popping up, independent and really focussed on quality, and doing things without having to own a big wine farm, without having to own vineyards and without having a lot of money. I think that’s really the exciting, creative, I’ll almost call it the craft edge of the wine industry and it’s what drives a lot of innovation.
BB: Yes, we’ve spoken to a few of those, up and coming, sort of new winemakers, and it does bode well for the future of South African wine and, also the quality. It’s just fresh ideas and new thinking that’s coming into the industry, which I think is fantastic. But the sort of cornerstones of the industry are there, and things are really starting to, really, I don’t want to say look up. It’s not that things have been bad for South African wine but there’s a lot of optimism in the industry and that’s what I’m picking up.
From a wine perspective the growth is phenomenal
BJ: I think from a production perspective, I couldn’t agree more. In terms of how we’re growing grapes, where we’re growing grapes, and pushing the edge of the envelope, in terms of viticulture and how we’re making wine. The new energy, the new ideas – I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the world that is as exciting, from a wine thing.
We have our other challenges. We’ve got a transformation issue. We’re still predominantly, a white male orientated industry, and that is problematic on a lot of different levels. Transformation is something we are grappling with because not only because we need to grapple with it, but because it is something that means different things to different people.
Government has a very different idea of what transformation means to what the previously disadvantaged workers on our farms feel. We found that that there is very little integration there, of thought processes and expectations, which is actually the words to use. Of course, both of those expectations and ideas of transformation are very different from the farm owners or the brand owners.
There is a dialogue, taking place at the moment. It has been taking place for the last five years. There is a, the Enthoven’s, who own Spier, have been instrumental in this. Mariota Enthoven has kind of kept the light of the dialogue alive and has held, on an ongoing basis, every year people get together, from different stakeholders in the industry. It’s just about talking through what everyone’s expectations are.
For me, although the production side of things is really exciting and I don’t think that there is any other country in the world that is making such interesting wines, and I travel extensively. I also make wine in Spain and France, and I’m in North America, pretty much two or three times a year, visiting that part of the world. Canada is quite exciting but generally, there’s nothing like what’s happening in South Africa.
I think our far more exciting conversation or thing that we need to think about, on a daily basis, is transformation because we can’t, this is an industry that actually, can’t suffer because if it does, in terms of what it brings in for GDP and in terms of job creation and job sustainability, everyone else suffers. It needs to be handled in a very sensitive manner but transformation also has to happen, and it has to happen quickly.
Importance of Transformation
One of the things that, I think has been lacking over the last couple of years, is that while we’ve been making these exciting wines, and wowing wine buyers from around the world, for our value for money, and wowing the opinion makers with our really top-end stuff. There’s been a lagging concern that are farm workers really being treated as well as they could be?
Where does transformation, where does the redressing of the past, of the 350 years of colonialism, of slavery, and apartheid – where does that come into the picture? A lot of it, kind of gets swept under the carpet. Not because things aren’t being done. They are being done but because there hasn’t been a cohesive, communicative voice, which has been about talking about the good stories.
There are outstanding people I mean I’ve mentioned Charles Back. He’s again, a pioneer in transformation in South Africa. He was the first guy to involve those who worked on his farms and with him, in their own brand, etcetera and he really led the way. You have these leading lights. Another one is Solms Delta, Spier of course, with the triple bottom line philosophy, have been leaders in this.
There are these shining examples within the industry. We luckily have an organisation called WIETA (Wine Industry Ethical Trade Agreement), and this is an organisation that has been born out of trying to have a plan of action or a strategy to deal with, not just transformation but the very basics of labour law on farms. I think it’s, you don’t have to join up for it but I think we’ve got something like 900 different farms, who are now members of WIETA, and are in the process of being accredited.
There are huge, positive, and important stories to get out there and I think, for me I suppose it’s because of the stage I’m at in the industry. While the, I expect us in our environment, with our incredible interesting soils and the passion, enthusiasm, and intelligence of our young winemakers to be doing great things. What is, sort of really intriguing to me and, almost more importantly is how we deal with transformation and how we take that forward?
BB: Yes, I think it’s a conversation that’s going to, sort of continue for many, many years. It can’t be changed and fixed over night but it definitely, something does need to give and it will be interesting, and so we’ll follow that one closely as well. Bruce, just with regards to the wines that you guys are creating at Flagstone Wines. Tell us a little bit about what you’ve got on offer and what you create.
What wine you can expect from Flsgstone
BJ: We did something very different, right at the very beginning we said, and this is kind of common knowledge that different varieties perform better in different areas and on different soils. If you plant Sauvignon Blanc – the likelihood is that Shiraz might not do as well in the same spot. We said, let’s rather go out and choose the spots, which produce the best wines, so Sauvignon Blanc we know does really well up in the Darling area, on the West-Coast. It does very well in Elgin, and it does incredibly well at a little place called Elim, just north of the southern tip of Africa, at Cape Agulhas.
We said where does Pinot Noir do really well? Pinot Noir does really well in Elgin. Where does Shiraz do really well? Shiraz does really well in the Swartland, so we went out, and we found places that we thought made the best or grew the best grapes, which would then in turn make the best wine. People hadn’t really being doing that up until then, so that was different, and that’s always been the core philosophy of Flagstone, to take the best grapes from around the Western Cape. Bring them to a central hub. I mean, I see wineries as harbours.
They interface between nature and how one takes nature, and transforms it into something else. If you can imagine the harbour is taking the harvest of the sea, bringing it into a harbour, hopefully a safe harbour, which is what wineries, should be. Then changing it, and transferring it onto land, so it’s far more about where the grapes are grown, how they’re grown. The people that are involved on the land – are they committed to doing things that improves the land? In other words, is it ecologically sustainable? Then all those things, all that energy plays a role, bringing it to a central hub, which is Flagstone. Which is a winery in Somerset West, and then kind of, there’s very little magic or art in wine making.
It’s pretty straightforward. Most of the energy and most of the magic happens in the vineyards, and if you can get that right, all you really have to do is just channel that energy of nature, through the winery, and the results will speak for themselves. That’s what makes Flagstone different.
The wines that we produce are the top tiers. We have a single vineyard Pinotage, which I’m very proud to say has just been nominated one of the Absa Top 10 Pinotages, which is called Writer’s Block. It’s a single vineyard farm, an incredible farm called Silkbush, which is about an hour-and-a-half drive north of Cape Town, in the Breedekloof Valley.
We’ve got a Cabernet called Music Room, which is made from three separate vineyards, all at high altitude, and a Shiraz called Dark Horse. Both of those are incredibly well rated. I think they’re sort of 4.5 star on platter and every vintage has won some gold medal of some description.
Then we’ve got two blends, at what I call our ‘way finder wines’. A lot of people find their way to the Flagstone brand through these. Our blended white is called Noon Gun, which is built on Chenin, so it’s mostly Chenin Blanc or Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. Sauvignon Blanc to give it freshness and zest, and Viognier to give it floridity but the Chenin is, sort of the cornerstone of that wine. It’s, I think that is now sitting at about 40 – 50 thousand cases. Most of that goes to the U.K.
Our entry level red wine is called Longitude. Similarly, a tri-varietal. In other words a blend of three different varietals, built around, well the varieties again all have their different reasons for being there, Cab, Shiraz, and Malbec, and similar to the Noon Gun.
Then in between the really top end and our entry-level wines, we’ve got a white wine called Free Run, which is a Sauvignon Blanc from grapes that are grown in cool climates, Elim and Elgin, and we’ve got a Viognier, which is, we were the first winery in South Africa to bottle a commercial Viognier in 2001.
We’ve been making, so we think we know the variety pretty well, and again, at a high altitude, cool climate, a very crisp, floral Viognier called Word of Mouth. So it’s a range that starts at about R40 a bottle, and our very top Pinotage, which is actually from the Writer’s Block – the top 15 rows of Writer’s Block, it sells for about R900.00 a bottle.
BB: That’s incredible. I mean, I’m just flipping through your website at the moment. Just looking at the awards that you’ve won and there are numerous. Too many to go through but if you want to find out more about Flagstone Wines and what’s on offer, I think you’ve got an incredible array of wines available. The website to get to, flagstonewines.com is where you can get all that info. Bruce, thank you so much for your time, on Old Mutual Live. I love chatting to you and I look forward to our paths crossing again in the future.
BJ: Well, Brad maybe we can go and catch a surf in Muizenberg some time.
BB: It sounds amazing. Excellent stuff. Bruce thanks for your time.
BJ: Thank you, Brad.