From surfer dude to wine maker – Eben Sadie’s story
01 January 1970
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Welcome to yet another edition of Old Mutual Live, I’m Brad Brown, great things start here, great things start now. A few weeks ago we caught up with Eben Sadie who is doing some amazing things in the Swartland, the Sadie Family Wines. I wanted to dig a bit deeper into his story because it is a very interesting one as well. Eben, welcome back, nice to catch up once again, I hope you’re well.
Eben Sadie: It’s fantastic to be back.
BB: Eben, I have to ask, you were a surfer and you’ve now made the switch to wine making, how did that happen?
From surfer dude to wine maker
ES: I don’t know, I ask myself this question every time I sit in the surf because surfing is a wonderful sport and also it’s a lifestyle. I grew up on the West Coast and just grew into the affinity for the ocean. Love being in the ocean, I can spend hours in it. I try to spend hours in it, at some point with setting up the Sadie Family Wines and all of that, I didn’t get all the water time I should have.
But you know, I think SA is different. Surfing, if you look at a country like Australia, surfing is such a big national sport and asset to the country. It’s not in SA. You’ve got to be incredibly good in SA to get the exposure from an early stage, to actually build a career out of it and I was just not that good.
I grew up on the West Coast, went to a normal school, but studied agriculture at school. From agriculture to study agriculture and basically through agriculture my love of the earth and plants and all of that stumbled on the vine.
Unlike vegetables, which could be a three to four month cash crop, vine is now this plant that grows, it can grow for a century, it can grow for more than a century. It can hold information, it can grow from one generation, it’s kind of legacy bound and it’s got huge expression.
I think surfing has got expression, but I think the vine and wine has got incredible expression and also the freedom of expression. Nobody can tell you how to surf and I don’t think anybody can tell you how to produce your wines.
It’s quite free form and they both deal with liquids, which is also free forms and somewhere they meet each other. There’s actually a massive number of wine makers within South African producers that, wine makers and farmers, it’s within the wine fraternity that surfs. It’s almost like these two worlds, they attract each other, so just loving both of them.
BB: There are lots of similarities and the one word I took out of there is ‘lifestyle’ because that’s exactly what they both are. It’s something you need to live if you need to get good at either of them.
You need to be intuitive to what’s going on
ES: Yes, nature doesn’t take a calendar and the ocean for sure doesn’t take a calendar. You must spend the hours and you must be very intuitive to what’s going on out there, to find the great waves. Today it’s much easier with the computers and internet and weather forecasting and swells and buoys all over the ocean, tracking the oceans and satellite imaging.
You can forecast with greater accuracy weather-wise what it’s going to be and whatever, we’ve got lead times of about up to 10 days now that you can almost plan your surfing. When I started surfing, it wasn’t like that at all. You had to look at the clouds in the sky and the wind and your prediction was a day.
The same happened with wine, there’s much more we know but you can look at all of that and still get it wrong, in both, in wine and surfing. Nature will always have the last say and we live in an amazing area. This whole West Coast from Yzerfontein up north is just lying barren, with actually very low community of surfers. If you go to Australia, it’s completely packed. America, Europe, so we still get un-crowded, good surf here. It’s just a bit cold and a bit sharky you know.
BB: Eben, you mention that you grew a love for wines while you were studying agriculture, did you grow up in a wine family? Was wine always on the table around dinner time or not really?
ES: Not much. We had wine, our wine was this, almost was more ceremonial and it was a Sunday lunch kind of thing, it came out on very special occasions. But I think if you look from Biblical times, wine is always with weddings and special days and religious days and festivals. When we grew up, that’s the way I grew up. It only came out on very good occasions.
I think wine kind of made its way into life daily now. I think it’s for the better. The only way you’re ever going to know wine is you’ve actually got to drink a lot of it. It’s like surfing, you can look at the magazines all you want, but at the end of the day, you’ve got to get out there in the ocean. You’ve got to strike into that wave and you’ve got to ride it.
You need to drink wine to learn how to understand it
You can read all you want and whatever and the same with wine. You can read every book about wine, but you’ve got to get that wine through the liver. That’s the only way you’re going to learn and if you only drink wine on Sunday’s, you’re never going to get to know it. It’s so complex and I think a lot of people try and simplify wine and here’s the stat, it’s not simple.
It’s like art, it’s like music, music is not simple. If you listen to a tune that you like, within two minutes of hearing it, the first time, the chance of you throwing that tune out of your car in a month’s time is about 100%. Music runs on deeper ground and I think wine runs on deeper ground and you need to spend an awful lot of time and it’s better now with the internet, you can Google almost everything.
Half of its obviously not proper writing, but you can wiggle through that. There’s great books, there’s great publications and I’m still studying wine every day. I drink maybe a case of our own wine in a year in my house, if that. I drink other people’s wine, daily, because I cannot learn from what I’m doing, I can only learn from what others are doing.
For me, it’s a journey and I haven’t stopped. I’m fascinated by what other people are doing and how good other people are. There’s a string of producers in the world that produce much better wine than I do, for a number of reasons. I’m very well aware of them and for me it’s just daily chipping away at it to try and get better at what I’m doing.
Even though every day, all the exposure I’ve got, I’m still not going to get to the top of it. It’s going to take another generation, hopefully, and I’ve got my sons and my daughter is still very young, but both of my sons seem to want to go forward with wine.
They’re very welcome to change their minds tomorrow as well, but if that succession gets on string, it will be fantastic, because you can’t get to a great wine almost in one generation. You need multiple generations because wines a legacy thing, it’s not a test within one generation.
A number of the great wines that fascinate me are multi-generational, they’ve got huge legacies behind them and that’s what we also need in SA. Anybody can put up a winery and make a couple of good wines here and there, but to grow it into a phenomena of 300-500 years, that’s a whole different thing.
BB: Eben, you mention learning from other people, you’re very well travelled, you spent lots of time in various wine regions, including in Germany, Austria, Italy, Burgundy and Oregon, tell us how that’s impacted what you do back in the Swartland?
How have your travels impacted your wine?
ES: Thank you very much, I think if you look at SA which has got very good schooling, university, colleges, whatever, our educational system, our tertiary systems work very well. But wine, the proponents, two of the most important proponents being history and tradition, you need time for history.
You need time for traditions to really evolve and South Africa is the oldest country in the New World, we’re about 352-355 years, I must do the math, but say we’re just over 350 years old, so we’re still relatively young. We’re the oldest in the New World, but we’re young, wine-wise.
You go to areas like Armenia, Georgia, Greece, those guys has been making wines for 7 000 years. Then when you go to Western Europe, as the Roman Empire expanded and whatever, wine expanded and in most areas there’s been some form of viticulture for 2 000 years. To study history and tradition, it seemed to be the obvious place to go to Europe, the old parts of Europe.
I’ve learnt a lot and I definitely couldn’t have made the wines without the understanding and the philosophy. A lot of that I took from there, but the one thing I realised and I only realised this very late in my life. As recent as in 2008, I came back from Europe and I’m an African, I’m white, but I’m an African and I’m only ever going to be an African. I’m an African, living in Africa, farming African soil and I must make African wine, not European wine.
What often happens is people come from Europe, like myself, you’ve gone there, you’ve trained there, you’ve been equipped there, you come back and you sort of have this inferiority complex to Europe. Europe’s always the superior thing and I had to cut that umbilical cord in the end, with all the good standing and good knowledge, I had to cut it.
So I’m not trying to make European wine in African anymore. I’m not trying to, there’s nothing European I’m trying to be or not to be. I want to just make an African wine. For me now it’s about almost having learned all of that information and now I’ve got to almost go sift through it very, very finely to find out what of it actually does belong here, what does not belong here.
The concept is not to drink a French style wine in Africa, I must make an African wine. Nobody can tell me or anybody on this planet what an African wine must look like, because we haven’t been running long enough, so we don’t know what it looks like. It’s this whole quest for the DNA of this place in a liquid form and that’s basically what I’m busy with.
It gets hell of a complex, but I’m much closer from 2013, having actually come to that understanding in 2008, than I was ever before. I hope that in another, I don’t know how much time I’ve got left, but I hope that in the next 10 years, by the time my sons become involved or whoever becomes involved, that I’ve actually reached a place where I can actually hand over the baton in a good way and that work can just go forward.
BB: I love that philosophy Eben and it’s amazing, like you say, it’s an African wine and it hasn’t been here long enough to dictate what that African wine should be. But maybe in a century or two centuries from now we’ll have, there’ll be another place on the planet that will be trying to emulate African wines by what you’re doing in the Swartland.
ES: Yes. I mean like last week, the first time ever that I can certainly remember, there was a, somebody actually emailed it to me, because I’m not on this other interface, so normally when I get news, I know everybody knows. Because I usually get it last, but they emailed me this publication and it was in the drinks business, it’s an international publication, I think based in London.
There was a reference to a region in Europe and they said that region in Europe is like the Swartland in South Africa. It’s the first time that a European area was referred to South African wine. Normally we get referred to others and it’s a dynamic moment because it means that SA, with some of its regions, we’ve definitely come a long way.
It’s been 20 years in the new SA and it’s exciting. If you go out there today and you look at the guys, the wines they’re making and it’s across regions in SA and the packaging and the design language and everything, it’s coherent to the wine and all of that. SA is in an incredible, I can’t think of a place that is more exciting at the moment.
BB: Eben, then just to finally wrap up, I’m interested to find out a little bit more about the time you spent with Charles back at the spice route, tell us a little bit about that.
Being given freedom allowed me to blossom
ES: I think that was my break. It’s not often that a very young man, I was 25 or whatever when I got that job, for a 25 year old person to have got that job and the freedom. Because that’s the one thing I got, Charles is incredibly generous with the freedom. He let me be and free reign and a lot of that, something that I didn’t experience in any of my other jobs prior to that.
That was incredible because I could develop at such an enormous pace. Nothing was keeping me back and for the first time I felt that the only person keeping me back is me, myself. I still feel that today, obviously, but that’s when I got the first taste of it. Where I didn’t work in an environment where I was dictated to or kept back.
I was left to fly and spice route was an incredible stepping stone for me, not only in terms of wine, but into this region and into myself and my being. I’ll be forever grateful for that moment that I had and that four years there, I learned more than in any other era, for that matter, whatsoever after. I was so young then, to have had that at that young age, it’s very rare.
BB: I love it, Eben Sadie, thank you so much for joining us here today on Old Mutual Live, I can chat to you for hours and hours and I still want to touch on your foray into the international wine space. You’ve obviously got fingers in a few pies, one being in Europe. I want to find out a little bit more about that, but we’ll save that for another day, if that’s good for you. Thank you so much for your time today.
ES: No worries, have a good one.