Murray Barlow – a natural progression
26 October 2015
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Brad Brown: Welcome back to this addition of Old Mutual Live. Great things start here, great things start now. We’re chatting some more wine, and it’s another one of our features of wine people in South Africa. He’s a man who’s no stranger to the industry. He’s pretty much grown up in it. His dad is involved in the industry as well, Murray Barlow from Rustenberg. Murray welcome back onto Old Mutual Live. Good to have you on.
Murray Barlow: Great, it’s good to be here again. Thank you for the invite.
BB: Murray, I wanted to dig a little bit deeper into your story and your journey into wine and how it all began, if that’s good with you today, and let me start off by asking. Can you remember your first introduction to wine? Obviously, you’ve grown up on a wine farm, essentially, so it must be quite difficult to remember, when you actually first of all realised ‘hang on a sec, there’s wine all around me’.
Growing up on a wine farm
MB: Sure, it was very interesting growing up. I grew up actually on a property on the Helderberg Mountain Range, which is an area that grows some fantastic white wine or grapes for white wine. I remember very vividly, as a child, going out with my father to see the pruning. The picking was a particular exciting time of the year, and it’s still a hugely exciting time of the year.
There is nothing, you know it’s incredibly mercantile sort of an occupation being a winemaker. You’re taking something. You’re adding value to it and you’re really getting stuck in. So just picking grapes, it’s a huge amount of fun, or pruning a vine. It’s all very involved in the industry. It must have been from, jeepers, probably six or seven, I have my first memories of going out into the vineyards, and getting stuck in and it is just great fun.
BB: Has wine always been a love for you or, at some stage in your life, did you think you were going to do something else?
MB: My parents never put any pressure on my brother or myself, to get into the industry. When my brother decided to move into the journalism side of industry, and he’s now into publishing, he was 18 at the time, and I was 16. A penny dropped for me then, that there’s this incredible brand.
There’s this wonderful property. It would be silly for me not to get involved in it, and I really started to take things seriously from there. I started to taste some wonderful wines. My father has got a great cellar that he started to share with me, and I think it was really, from about the age of 16 onwards, that I set my mind on working in the family business.
BB: Talk to me about that journey, from when that decision was made. What you had to go through to, you’ve made the decision, and okay we’re going to be involved in the family business. Then it’s a case of there’s lots of different aspects. How do you choose which way to go?
Taking on a role in the family business
MB: Sure, I think my brother, at the time had had chosen his path and for me, it was about looking holistically at the whole operation, and where I’d be best suited, and I sort of decided on winemaking. My father’s speciality in the business is in the vineyards, so I sort of looked around and what I would do to study and how to move forward, in terms of studying to be a winemaker.
There are two major institutions in South Africa that you can study winemaking at. It’s Elsenburg Agricultural College and Stellenbosch University, and the problem there is there’s quite a big focus on maths and science. I was not the strongest maths and science scholastically, so I focussed more on other subjects at school.
I worked out a way that I could study winemaking, as a post-grad, in Australia, interestingly enough. I did my under-grad at Rhodes, unrelated to wine but focussing on organisational psychology in industrial sociology, which I use every day, by dealing with the staff and people. I did a first year chemistry at Stellenbosch University after completing my under-grad. Then I went to Australia and spent 18 months there, doing a post-graduate masters by course work in oenology and by wine making science.
Between the two degrees, I worked two vintages in our cellar, so that was sort of the background, in terms of academics. Beyond that winemaking is about experiencing as much as you can, so I worked while I was in Australia on the university’s vineyards. I worked in a vineyard and a winery up in the Adelaide Hills, which is very close to the town of Adelaide, where I was studying.
Then obviously, coming home and working in the business you learn something. Every year there’s a new challenge, it’s either a very cool year or a wet year, you’ve got too much crop or too little crop, or you’re managing a lot of things. Really, my focus over the last few years has been on a very steep learning curve, and yeah, you’ve got probably 40 vintages in your life to get it right. I’ve got four under my belt now, which is great.
BB: You talk about the 40 in your life. Does that weigh on your mind, as a winemaker? Is that a huge amount of pressure?
MB: I don’t know. I think it’s an exciting challenge, and I think it’s about not having a short memory, you know. I think we often just look at how we approach the weather, and everyone goes ‘oh my gosh, it’s so freezing cold this winter’ but, gosh, we’re going to experience many winters in our lives.
I think that’s been a great learning curve, to actually sit down and keep a basic journal on every week, on what the weather is like. What problems we’re dealing with or how we’ve overcome certain problems, and to learn. There’s a great saying, “There’s a difference between 40 years of experience and one year of experience, repeated 40 times.” I really try and focus on accumulating experience and keeping a bit of a journal on what we do every day.
BB: I love that, and having some experience in Australia and experiencing their wine industry. How different is it? I mean obviously, there are a lot of similarities between Australia and South Africa, but there’s a lot of differences too. Is it vastly different between the two?
Studying in Australia allowed me insight
MB: I think Australia is quite a difficult place to own a business. It’s very expensive to employ people. I think the minimum wage is something like $18 an hour and most people in the agricultural world are paid around about say $25 an hour, so if you put that into Rand terms. It’s probably more than some doctors are making now, which is incredible.
The reality is, is that the Australians are dealing with the same international markets as we are, so they’ve got quite a tough time of it really, in terms of trying to be globally competitive. From a marketing point of view, they’ve really had quite a tough time.
From a production point of view, they do have some advantages. They’re quite mechanised, and they’ve got some fantastic old vineyards as well, which means they can produce some lovely, quality wines, but then they also have completely unique situations.
For example, in parts of Australia, they have quite a lot of salt in the water, a lot of salinity in the water, so they’ve had to deal with that, and to get vines to grow and being irrigated with saline water has been a challenge.
An incredible diverse range of wine growing regions – they grow wine all over Australia, and I think people are very resilient there. They’re really take time to understand what they’re doing, they put a huge amount of focus, and emphasis on the scientific nature of winemaking, and that was something that was profound for me, to get my head around.
It’s not a lot of ‘well my grandfather has done this and my father has done this and I’m just going to keep on going, and I don’t necessarily understand what’s going on, but this is how we’ve always done it.’ There’s always a very, very scientific slant to what they do, and if you don’t have that scientific understanding of what’s going on than they really try and find a focus there, and find out what is going on and why are the interactions you’re experiencing occurring? So that was great to experience.
BB: Murray, as a winemaker, you mention the 40 harvests in your lifetime. You also mentioned the experience, as opposed to doing or having 40 years experience as opposed to one year, 40 times. How difficult is it to get that balance right?
Where you want to try new things but you don’t want to go way out there that sort of alienates everyone and it really pushes you off the edge? Is it a fine line to walk, to almost, you don’t want to reinvent yourself but you don’t want to stagnate. It’s a tough balancing act.
How to strike a production balance
MB: Sure, I think everybody wants to leave a mark on a place and what we try and focus on at Rustenberg is we try and sort of take the egos out of the property as much as possible. So that we try and treat the label and their status bigger than any one person, or the family for that matter, that owns Rustenberg, our family.
There are people, who have been drinking our wines for decades, and they don’t want to, suddenly wake up and we’ve reinvented all of the wines that people know and love, and have grown to know and love over time. What we do every year is we do experiment but it would probably sort of 2% to 3% of our total production that we experiment on.
Those experiments in the past have had really yielded some fantastic changes to what we do, and some efficiencies to what we do. We’re always trying new things but we do them on a level if the experiment goes wrong or it’s not as successful as we’d like, it’s not necessarily going to change what we’re doing drastically. That’s it.
As I say, we’ve done some fantastic trials and changed a few things, we’ve done in the past that have revolutionised the business. Ja, it’s something that we, again, we try not to take it personally but we do try to have a very innovative work environment. That we can experiment, we can try new things, we can do trials, and we’re open to the new technologies that are out there.
BB: Looking ahead, speaking of new technologies. That obviously changes and things are always changing. Where do you want to see yourself going, as far as career wise, at the end of your career? You’re still fairly, young but when we get there, if you had to look back, what would you have liked to have achieved in your career as a winemaker?
MB: Gosh, I just think just to make some great wines along the way. Obviously, the winery as romantic, and as lovely as winemaking is, it’s a business as well, so obviously I look after the business with my father, on behalf of the family, so to make it a great business.
The success of Rustenberg, to create great quality wines, I think just to leave behind a good grounding for the next generation. It’s really something that you never actually own as an individual. The land keeps on going, so I think that would really be it. It would be handing over something great to someone and, ja, looking after the family and keeping the good name of Rustenberg where it is.
BB: Yeah, it’s obviously in a great space at the moment, and it’s growing from strength-to-strength. Murray Barlow, thank you so much for joining us here on Old Mutual Live today, much appreciated. We look forward to chatting again soon, in the future, and ja, all the best in the weeks, months, and years to come.
MB: Super, thank you, always a pleasure.