Porcupine Ridge – South Africa’s literary wine
01 January 1970
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Jenny Crwys–Williams : Old Mutual Live Wine Edition, exclusive to Old Mutual Live, on mobile, on digital, on demand. Mark Kent is the chief winemaker and driving force behind the dynamic Franschhoek wine farm, Boekenhoutskloof.
He’s described as a maverick spirit, unafraid to experiment with the unconventional, with a commitment to quality on every level and wines made at the estate are well known. There’s the Wolf Trap, there’s the Chocolate Block, there’s Boekenhoutskloof itself and then there’s Porcupine Ridge, the book wine. Mark Kent, welcome.
Mark Kent: Thank you Jenny.
JCW: Because you live in Franschhoek, I’m obviously thinking of the Franschhoek Book Festival, the festival that has kind of taken over South Africa. But initially you weren’t one of the sponsors of it, it was a local wine farm that I think did it for two years and then in you came with Porcupine Ridge. Tell me about the thinking originally?
MK: It was started by Mark Solms with Solms Delta and they had it for a couple of years. Mark and I were serving together on the Franschhoek Vineyards and Tourism Board at the time. He mentioned that they had an appetite to continue and I thought, as a brand it’s really grown to one of South Africa’s favourites. Porcupine Ridge, with particularly the Sauvignon Blanc, with the three reds, the Cab, the Merlot and the Syrah.
We thought here’s a real opportunity. We’ve grown a business over the last decade and a half without ever doing any above the line or below the line activity. We thought, let’s put something back. So the Literary Festival came along and we jumped at the opportunity.
A real love of those who read
JCW: One of the first things you see when you drive into Franschhoek, on the left hand side is of course the Town Hall. There is always, during the Franschhoek Literary Festival, there is a gigantic blow-up Porcupine Ridge bottle, but you haven’t just stopped with Franschhoek.
It seems to me that everywhere I go, that there is a book festival. I’m thinking about Kingsmead, I’m thinking about Exclusive Books, I’m thinking about the Bloody Book Week, you actually are supplying the wines. You must be supplying it in vast numbers? Does it actually pay off for you?
MK: I mean it’s hard to quantify the returns, but as I say, we don’t do any other, we don’t go the obvious route of normal above the line activity. We don’t enter any shows or competitions, but we’ve quietly, over the last decade and a half become one of South Africa’s favourite brands. I know my wife, my mom, they’re all members of book clubs and we thought here’s a real opportunity.
It’s kind of South African favourite wine that nobody ever admits to drinking, yet it’s owned the Sauvignon Blanc category in South Africa for three or four years. We’ve recently introduced a Chenin and a Chardonnay. We’ve got a Cab, a Merlot and a Syrah, as I say and there was an opportunity.
Those Thursday nights, as they are in my house once a month and inevitably my wife looks after the wine because obviously of what we do. So there she goes off with a couple of bottles of Porcupine and we saw a nice opportunity with Exclusive for three years now.
We do all their book launches, we give them the wine. As you mentioned, it’s grown beyond Franschhoek. But essentially the Literary Festival for us, it’s an opportunity. It was about increasing reading of books, the distribution of books within our community.
There’s now over 3 000 learners that have the opportunity to have libraries for the first time, that have weekly lessons with librarians in the five or six local schools that we’re supporting. That’s where those funds go, primarily into our community and four primary schools, two high schools. As I say, now 65 classes are directly benefitting in our community in terms of librarians and books.
Then the Kingsmead came along and we just thought, wow, what a lovely opportunity. I was blown away by what I saw there this year. Just an amazing energy and just so encouraging. People talk eBooks, but it’s just so encouraging that books in a traditional sense are still so meaningful and alive and well and growing.
So we had an appetite and then after that, the Sunday Times, who had a tremendous relationship with, at the Franschhoek Literary Festival, then offered us an opportunity to be involved with the Alan Paton and Barry Ronge prizes.
Our generous spirit is why we do it
JCW: Really, for me, when I think of Porcupine Ridge, I genuinely think of books. Because it’s kind of imprinted and it must have been, you must have been doing Franschhoek for at least seven years. So your commitment to books and to conviviality, because that’s what book clubs are all about, they’re about books of course. But they’re also about conviviality and good food and enjoying yourselves. It’s almost like a perfect match.
MK: It feels that way to us and we’re happy to support. It’s been a great initiative from the start, the ladies who initiated and have been running the Franschhoek Literary Festival are festive types themselves. In the spirit, we try to, our mantra at Boekenhoutskloof is a generosity of spirit. We want to be seen to be giving and putting, primarily in our community, but to the greater community too.
It’s been a great vehicle. It was a bit conflicting initially because obviously the focus on the schools and with an alcohol brand, so we try in the school environment to have no presence. But yet in the wider presence, through the festival, you see it as a great vehicle for us.
JCW: I think it’s a fantastic thing that is being done. You won’t reap the rewards, Franschhoek won’t reap the rewards until that class of children passes through. But without a shadow of a doubt, they’ve got a huge advantage with what I have seen happening in Franschhoek. Presumably with other book fairs and things like that, they’ve all got some kind of giving back to the community aspect.
MK: Yes, certainly and I was amazed to see at Kingsmead this time, it was the first year that we were involved, to see all their proceeds are going towards bursaries for learners at their school. People are benefitting at all levels.
JCW: Mark, is there a movement, if you look at normal wine advertising, it’s usually in print, occasionally you hear it on radio. If there are big bucks to be spent, you’ll see a little bit of it on television, but basically it’s word of mouth and articles in magazines, it’s podcasts like I do etc. Do you see things beginning to change in terms of where ad spend is spent? It must cost you something?
An affordable wine for an affordable occasion
MK: Yes, as with two very dynamic advertisers in our ranks as partners in Boekenhoutskloof, people are always amazed that we’ve never done any above the line activity until this year with our association with the Sunday Times Awards. For us, it’s never really been a category on our income statement because we just haven’t spent and this has been a nice vehicle.
This kind of below the line, soft, more lifestyle orientated activity and as I say, Porcupine Ridge Sauvignon is South Africa’s favourite Sauvignon for the last four years now. It definitely reaps rewards and it’s all about over-delivery. I think it’s about great value, when you’re buying a bottle of Porcupine Ridge you know that you’re not going to be let down.
We’re not saying it’s the greatest Syrah or the greatest Sauvignon in the country, but we’re saying at that price point it’s tremendous value. I think ladies going off to their book club evenings and at our festivals, that’s what people want to enjoy.
JCW: Yes, they don’t want anything intellectual. They’ve got it on the pages of the books if that’s what they want. You’re quite right, sales of book-books as opposed to eBooks are just going through the roof. It’s wonderful, so you’ll have the two of them side-by-side. The logo itself, you’ve slightly altered the Porcupine Ridge logo, but in wine circles it has to be one of the best known logos in the country.
MK: Surprisingly and it has worked well for us and it works well for us in our 52 markets worldwide that we’re exporting it to. But yes, it’s fun, it’s not too serious, it’s unpretentious. As I say, one doesn’t need to deliberate and over-intellectualise over each glass. It’s just really good gear.
A wide range on offer from Porcupine Ridge
JCW: Mark, you’ve referred, I’m normally drinking the Sauvignon Blanc and I’m normally drinking one of the reds, just take us through what actually is on offer from Porcupine Ridge?
MK: Yes, historically the backbone of it was always the Sauvignon Blanc. We saw an opportunity with our acquisitions in the Swartland in terms of vineyards that perhaps it was time to introduce a Chenin Blanc. We’ve got a Chenin Blanc which is grown and sourced in the Swartland, in the range and then a lightly oaked Chardonnay.
I remember 20 years ago, my path in wine was setting out, Chardonnay was very much in vogue. Later drinking patterns shifted to Sauvignon, but Chardonnay is coming back in a big way. Not those heavily oaked monsters of 20 years ago, it’s now lightly oaked with generous fruit and unctuous palates. So that’s where we’re aiming at and line priced with a Sauvignon. You’re getting a Swartland Chenin, which is un-oaked and also a nice lightly oaked Chardonnay at the same price point.
JCW: Of course, anything coming from the Swartland has got a kind of je ne sais quoi feeling about it, it’s fantastic. What I’m ever so slightly surprised about is that Reg Lascaris who after all gave Chocolate Block or the name Chocolate Block to the world – didn’t he?
MK: Yes, Reg was involved.
JCW: And he is a man very good with words, but I am surprised that you haven’t dubbed one red wine and one white wine with a book connotation or am I being naïve in terms of marketing?
MK: No, we are busy. I have something in the pipeline. What I didn’t mention, sorry, I was harping on the whites, but we have also the Syrah, obviously, the Cab, the Merlot. Then we do two blends, a Syrah Viognier and Viognier Grenache Blanc.
Then your local favourite food store in Woollies, we’re just about to go with an exclusive for them, a Sauvignon Blanc Semillon and a Cabernet Merlot. Sauvignon Blanc Semillon from Old Vine Franschhoek Semillon and then a Cab Merlot from Stellenbosch, so exciting times.
It’s more than just a marketing tool
JCW: All right, so is there a limit to how much you would be supplying? This is a lot of wine. When I see how the writers drink at Franschhoek, for instance. Because you’ve got lots of evenings in which you need to get to bed feeling light and happy and very happy some people are. But when I see the amounts that are actually go down, it is significant. Is there a limit to this or can you just rise to the occasion because it is such a good marketing tool?
MK: We’re not looking at pure marketing terms, again, it’s something we see as very much doing for our community. Yes, we can, there’s enough juice in the tank for us to continue doing this for some time.
JCW: I think it’s a most fantastic initiative and I’ve been looking forward to this conversation because I’m interested in marketing and I’m very interested in advertising. I think the whole concept of advertising and the whole concept of marketing, it’s beginning to change. I think it’s becoming much more subtle, would you agree?
MK: Absolutely. Those words that were bandied about 10 years ago are finally being realised when people were talking about the experience economy and these grandiose descriptions of this new era of marketing and I think that’s what’s happening.
The traditional heavy spend on TV and you see those numbers are diminishing, more stuff online, more, as you say, podcasts and various other initiatives, I think we’re nicely placed. We’re happy and we think that we can enjoy some nice growth going forward with our brands. Again, if we continue with this generosity of spirit, I think the road ahead for us is positive.
JCW: A final question for you. You’ve got quite a few wines under your belt, Boekenhoutskloof itself, it’s a prestige wine. If you had to choose a wine right now that you would like everybody to drink, from your stable, what would it be?
MK: Without doubt it would be either the Porcupine Sauvignon or the Wolf Trap red. For us to fiddle around and make a couple of barrels of Boekenhoutskloof Syrah at a high end and it sells out the day it’s released or whatever, that’s one thing. But for me, the real challenge in winemaking is to do what we do at the Porcupine and Wolf Trap level, where we can deliver consistently such amazing quality at those price points.
JCW: And get it widely known at the same time. So Mark, lovely discussion and thank you very much indeed.
MK: All right Jenny, take care.
JCW: Thanks Mark, bye.
JCW: Thanks for listening, you can get this and all the previous podcasts on dogreatthings.co.za or sign up for the newsletter on Old Mutual Live Wine edition. On mobile, on digital, on demand.