Meet the men behind Epicurean
29 July 2016
You can also listen to these podcasts directly from the Old Mutual app, which is available here.
Jenny Crwys–Williams : I was at the Butcher Shop & Grill in Johannesburg not that long ago with Mbhazima Shilowa, the former Premier of Gauteng. Alan Pick who owns the Butcher Shop & Grill came and told me that a wine called Epicurean was a wine that outsold every other wine in all of his restaurants.
Whether they are in Dubai or whether they are here in Johannesburg. Epicurean belongs to four men who actually thought up the title and thought up the wine and over the last 10 years. They have developed Epicurean into a wine that actually you’ve got to pay attention to, have I summed it up correctly?
MUTLE: That’s correct Jenny. Our first vintage is actually 2003. So we’ve just had a vertical of 10 year vintages, but we’ve obviously produced 14 wines already here.
JCW: They are all red. Epicurean at the moment is 100% red?
MUTLE: Yes, the focus is on a Bordeaux style red.
JCW: Okay, where did you get the idea of that, was it because you and Mbhazima were travelling, how did that come about?
MBHAZIMA: Well, I think it has been about every wine drinker dreams of owning their own chateaux/wine farm. But we soon realised that look, that’s never possible. Discussion with friends and a beer here and there, we decided we can be able to make a wine. If we’re able to find proper partners.
Not so much partners in the wine making, as in ownership, but partners as in the production. I think Rupert and Rothschild and Schalk as a Cellar Master came in handy. Suddenly we could go on into this wine which, as you were saying, we’re very proud to offer it to South Africans, both locally and internationally.
Partnering with Rupert and Rothschild
JCW: It was a chance encounter with Johan Rupert that actually set you on this track. We’re talking Rupert and Rothschild. Rupert is the part of Rupert and Rothschild that is actually making the wine.
MUTLE: More a chance discussion because we belonged to this wine club with Johan. So we had a frequency of meeting. So it was one of those evenings after a lot of wine where we had a discussion with Johan and kind of said, we want to be your BEE partner. I guess the rest is history.
But essentially what Johan did was he thought about it, came back to us within two weeks. Said: I’ve thought about this, my family shareholdings are quite complicated. However, I will make my facilities available to you and put us in touch with his brother-in-law, Hein Koegelenberg. Who then organised the discussions with Schalk-Willem Joubert, the resident Cellar Master at Rupert Rothschild.
JCW: Did you have a benchmark wine that you were looking to, that you would strive to go to? Was it a French wine, for instance because you’ve both travelled extensively in France?
MBHAZIMA: I think rather than whether it was a French wine or not, it would be that based on the wines we have had both locally and internationally. We had developed a sense that says, if you’re going to do a Bordeaux style wine, it should be more like what they do in Europe. Which is, you try to match elegant, you find power, you find durability. Then out of that we were able to produce the Epicurean.
Of course you want to try and benchmark, but I think trying to benchmark with a specific wine, you may always fall short. Because then people say: This is not how this or that wine tastes. But if you say, my focus on a style of wine which you can be able to say a copious amount of it without really feeling wobbly, is what we went with.
JCW: But without a shadow of a doubt, wines of the moment, people seem to be moving away from those great, big blockbuster wines. To wines that are more elegant, possibly slightly lower in alcohol and actually quite easy to drink. No matter how complex they are. You both had that in your head and of course you’ve got two other partners don’t you?
MUTLE: Yes, Ron Gault and Moss Ngoasheng. I think the South African wine industry has evolved since 1994. I think as things started to open up, the focus on the style of wine making also changed. I think access to different markets, access to new wines made people sit up and review what they were doing. Which is where we started, essentially.
The taste is a testament to the production value
Because we now only started in 2003 to say, it’s not a question of lack of complexity or power. So you can have elegance with complexity. This is what we’ve achieved with Epicurean and in fact our 2006 vintage was put blind in a tasting in Bordeaux and they couldn’t even tell that it was from outside of the region.
JCW: That’s an incredible instantaneous success, especially as the vineyards are not necessarily all Rupert and Rothschild property. Vines are bought in, but they’re carefully looked after, obviously by Rupert and Rothschild. It’s not happenstance, it’s a great deal of care.
MBHAZIMA: Indeed, it’s not like they go out every year to say where can we get the vines from. Is that they’ve already identified over time which vines give them what kind of wine making. With what pruning, with what care and when to harvest. I think what we have now been able to do is not only that they do that careful selection, is that we get involved as well in the blending.
So, the wine itself reflects not just the grapes that comes into Rupert and Rothschild, but also gives a sense of what kind of wine we want to produce. We want to sell to the South African public. One in which we can be able to stand up and explain how it’s being made. Without having to think about notes and/or referral to the resident Cellar Master at Rupert and Rothschild.
JCW: Obviously one of my questions is, with four partners, do you all have a similar sense of what you want to get out of it. Because maybe you go along and you are standing there and you’re helping with the blending and you’ve got a clear idea of what you want Mutle and Mbhazima. But Ron Gault, how involved is he? If he turned around and said: No, it sucks, I want something else. How have you managed this?
We form a great quartet
MUTLE: I think in the beginning, obviously you work through all of that stuff. But we’re fairly close friends and we tend to drink fairly similar wines. So that makes it a lot easier. It’s not like Muts is drinking Australian wines. We all kind of drink fairly similar wines. The palate is fairly similar. But again, just in terms of what we promise the customers, what we want to put on the table is this whole concept of finesse, of elegance, of complexity. That gives you your parameters to work on.
Working with the winemakers, the Cellar Masters at the time of harvest. Because obviously you’re trying to pick at the right time to make sure that they’re not over-ripe but just right. They’re still a little bit green. So you just find that right moment. I think it’s been amazing and it’s been absolutely a great opportunity to work with the team at Rupert and Rothschild.
JCW: Do you enjoy it?
MUTLE: It’s a fantastic experience. We look forward to it, it’s one of the highlights of the year for us. To go through the barrel selection, blending, playing around with the blends and finally finding something that actually works.
MBHAZIMA: I think also what is more important is you decide in 2012 that look, this 2010, we’ll like it, but it’s two years later when you launch it. When it’s out in the market where there’s now a match between what you thought during the blending, as you were bottling and now that it’s out there in the public. Which I think for me it’s more satisfying.
When we knew we were on to something
JCW: When do you know and particularly with your first vintage, when did you realise that you had something good going? Was it when you got the first reviews in or did you just know because both of you are very experienced wine tasters.
MUTLE: I think wine evolves over time, so you make those calls when you do your blending. But we really thought, the 2003 was really special and it was proven by the market. In fact, the longevity of the wine has been amazing for a first attempt. But obviously working under the expert guidance of Schalk at Rupert and Rothschild, that’s been fantastic.
JCW: You, being Mbhazima, when you do your tasting, when you are busy blending it, is there something that sings to you? Is it the deep notes that sing to you, what are you looking for?
MBHAZIMA: I think as Mutle was saying, you have to be first guided. Not by what wine I prefer, but what is the wine I want to take to the South Africa market. What gets me going is to be able to say both in the nose, in the palate, in how harmonious it is.
Does it give that sense of elegance? Does it give power without being overpowering? Is it likely to be enduring? Is it a wine that I can be able to drink and not just suddenly fall asleep after a glass or two. All of those things I try and take into account. I put myself into the shoes of a wine drinker who once they have tried one Epicurean, expect similar deliveries. Obviously with different changes because of the years, the climate and/or the blend that may be in it.
MUTLE: Jenny, this is also a reflection of the friendship amongst the partners. Because at the end of the day I believe wine has to have soul. You can make a technically perfect wine because the pH is X, the acid is X, so it’s almost like a technical formula. So you can taste a wine and tell whether it’s drinkable or not. But the issue of taste lies elsewhere which is what we do and gives the soul to the wine. The question around how you get to the wine with three or four partners, that’s what makes Epicurean special like that.
MBHAZIMA: But also you see, one of the things we do, we don’t only meet when we are going to do the blending. Even if we’re drinking either wines, as long as the partners that are available. We try and talk about what are we getting from it? What do we think about it? Is there anything wrong – not technically – but in terms of what we think about it? Over time, even though your palates and preferences are different, but you also know that look, this kind of path in which we travel, just keep the DNA in it.
The availability of Epicurean
JCW: I noticed with the material that Mbhazima sent me yesterday evening, that actually Epicurean is not available in all that many restaurants. It’s certainly not available in all that many outlets, why is that? is that a deliberate choice?
MUTLE: It is a deliberate choice Jenny, but it’s also a small production. We only product 6 000 bottles, the first four vintages we only made 3 000 bottles, so it’s very limited. We’re really trying to find fine food establishments because we believe it’s where our wine works well, with very good culinary experiences. That’s how we target our market and that’s the kind of market we’re targeting.
JCW: And the same thing goes for your sales outlets, you’re just restricting them, not hideously so. But they are restricted because first of all the number of bottles you’ve got, but also you want the right establishments to sell them.
MBHAZIMA: Not only that, but also that what I wouldn’t want to have is where someone suddenly thinks we can use Epicurean as a loss leader. Loss leader being that you can sell it any floor price to bring people in. But then really your primary aim is to sell other wines that are there. It’s a friendship as well with the people that are there, but we also know the kind of market that they have, yes.
JCW: It’s 2016 now, the brand is well established, it’s well-known, are you going to expand?
MUTLE: Very good question. We’re in discussion at the moment to look at a white wine. I think, my preference would have been to do a Bordeaux white, a Bordeaux blend. But it’s also very difficult sometimes to sell Sauvignon Blanc blends. We obviously also are very partial to white Burgundy’s. We’ll probably end up with somewhere along the Burgundy lines.
JCW: Is there a time frame for that or does it not matter?
MBHAZIMA: It does matter in so far as, once we have made a decision, we are swift in moving. We are very slow in making the decision, but now that we have decided, we’re now in discussion. Not just amongst ourselves, but also with Schalk as to what kind of white we’re going to do. I think in a year or 18 months, it’s more likely to be there.
The relationship with the Butcher Shop & Grill
JCW: Expanding, but ever so slowly and to a market that is familiar with Epicurean and pulling more people on board. What is your biggest market? Is it here at the Butcher Shop & Grill for instance?
MUTLE: It’s across various restaurants. The Butcher Shop is obviously one of the top restaurants in the country and they sell a lot of our wine. Amongst our top distributors if you like.
JCW: When I came into the Butcher Shop & Grill earlier on, there were piles and piles of boxes with your wine in it.
MUTLE: I think the biggest thing Jenny is that the Butcher Shop takes their wines seriously. Just having a sommelier, it’s a very different experience when you buy wine as opposed to just going through the list. I think our wine is suited to that kind of selling. It’s actually mostly kind of hand selling, if you like, that’s how our wine works.
MBHAZIMA: I think you also have to think in terms of the wine, not just our wine. The wine drinking market of a discerning palate is in Gauteng. The bulk of that being in Gauteng is in Johannesburg. I think the kind of interest you’re going to find will range from what you find here. What you find at the Saxon all of those. Similarly, if you’re really just looking at outlets, it’s more likely to range between Norman Goodfellows, Rivonia Cellars and so forth. But also because they too have people, when you come in and say: This is the kind of wine I prefer, they’re able to guide you through into some of those wines. some of them will also include the Epicurean.
Possibly live the wine farm dream later
JCW: Listen, it’s lovely talking to you and it’s lovely seeing the brand doing well with four people at the helm. Four people who are passionate about wines. If we go back to the very beginning of this discussion Mutle, you wanted your own farm, you wanted your own land, you wanted to look over your own vines. Possibly play music to them at the same time, it’s the thing isn’t it? You have to, otherwise you won’t win prizes and things like. Do you regret that in any way at all, with the way Epicurean has developed with your original concept. Maybe you Mbhazima also thought of your own little estate?
MBHAZIMA: You see, with me being in politics, I would never have been able to afford any wine farming, so I think this works out well. It does not mean that you may not at some point decide on anything. But I don’t think really the focus is on ownership. I think the focus is on establishing and creating a brand.
MUTLE: Jenny, the issue of buying a farm, I think I’m too much of a banker. Because we’ll probably get there at some stage, we’ll see how it goes. It would be nice to have a home for the wine, where people can visit us in the winelands. But it’s not a priority at the moment. but hopefully we’ll get there at some stage.
JCW: Listen both of you, thank you very much indeed, I’ve enjoyed the lunch, I’ve enjoyed the conversation. I’ve loved getting behind the scenes with Epicurean, thank you.
MUTLE: Thank you very much Jenny. To our customers out there, we’ve been blown away by the way the market has received the wine, so thank you very much.
MBHAZIMA: Thank you.