The ins and outs about running a wine farm
18 November 2015
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Welcome back to another addition of Old Mutual Live. I’m Brad Brown. We often talk about or talk to winemaker, we talk about wine shows and events, but we haven’t give too much focus on what goes into producing a bottle of wine behind the scenes. I thought we would get one of the young, up and coming winemakers here, in South Africa. Murray Barlow is doing some great things at Rustenberg, to come and talk to us a little bit what it takes to actually run a wine estate. Murray, welcome back onto Old Mutual Live, nice to catch up once again.
Murray Barlow: Brad, great to be here.
BB: Murray, there’s lots of moving parts that goes into creating a bottle of wine that, as a consumer, we see in front of us in our local retailers, and it all starts with good grapes, doesn’t it?
It all starts in the vineyard
MB: It does. It starts in the vineyard and we have a large of vineyard planted in this country, all over in the Western Cape and even in the Northern Cape, and there are even producers now, in KwaZulu-Natal, which is fascinating.
Vineyard is a very interesting plant. It takes us about four years, from the time that we’ve planted the vineyard to get it up to speed and to start to produce grapes. Even then, it’s only really in full production at about seven years, after seven years from it being planted.
Then, generally, the average lifespan of a vineyard is around about 25 years. You’re dealing with a fixed plant. It’s not something like sugarcane or mielies or something like that, that you harvest and plant every year. That’s the beginning, and there’s obviously a very big capital outlay that you’ve got to put in there, and you’ve got to manage the vineyard every year.
Vineyards go through a number of cycles, and we get one crop of grapes off them each year, so you’ve got to make sure that the crop that you do get is of the best quality. We do that by a lot of hand tending to the vineyards, and ensuring that they’re healthy and kept free of pests and weeds, and any sort of mould and mild-dews.
The fascination of the winemaking process
From there, once we’ve harvested the fruit, we obviously have to turn it into wine. The winemaking side of things is absolutely, fascinating. We really wouldn’t have wine if we didn’t have yeast, so yeast converts all the sugar into alcohol, and we’re left with the alcohol, which comes out as a result.
Often most people are drinking dry wines, so a very low sugar content. Then the flavour, from the grapes, is really what gives the wine its character, so you’ll often hear people talk about various types of fruits or berries that they can taste in the wine. We don’t add that in. That is all, purely flavours that have derived from the grape.
From there, we then need to take the wine onto its next stage, and either age the wine in the cellar, so one of the main ways of doing that, with certain stuff, some wines are using oak barrels and oak barrels can really just soften a wine, let it mature, and let it develop. That can be anywhere from a few months up to, maybe a few years that you can put the wine in a barrel, and let it age.
From there, we have to obviously get the wine to the consumer, on the table, and we have to bottle wine. We bottle on the estate, and to ensure the wine settles, after bottling, they’re often a little bit shaken around, so that they get a few months at bottle, and then are shipped all over the world.
We supply to about 35 different markets all over the world, and wine is enjoyed everywhere, so it’s quite a long process. I think from a business point of view there’s a lot of capital that’s tied up from the vineyards, into the winery and, again with bottling, all the bottle stock, so it’s a very, big barrier to entry in the business, generally to start a winery.
BB: Murray, you mentioned the exports and selling on the international market. From a winemaker’s perspective, with the Rand/Dollar exchange rate the way it is, it is obviously beneficial to be able to export but you also want to look after your market here, in South Africa. It’s a tough decision, you could possibly export everything, but you don’t really want to. How do you come about deciding what goes and what stays?
You can never ignore your home market
MB: Well, I think it is obviously, the principle thing about selling in South Africa is that that’s where your reputation is built. That’s where people know you. When foreign visitors come and drink the wines or local people drink the wines, a lot of our journalists, obviously, this is the frame of reference that they have. It is important to build your reputation on your home base, in the country of your origin.
We sell about 17% of what we produce in South Africa, that’s growing every year, and I think it is important. We’ve got a very, vibrant wine drinking culture. It’s growing. I think people who traditionally didn’t drink wine are now drinking wine. I think if you look back 10 to 15 years, wine wasn’t something that you took to a braai, and now it’s sort of a staple.
We’re seeing people from a diverse range of cultures are drinking wine as well, so it’s a very exciting market. The African market is also growing, outside of South Africa. It is coming off a small base, but there is an excitement about it, and people are realising the wonderful choice that they have. It is hugely important to be in the local market, and I think it is going to become a more and more important market, as time goes by.
BB: Well, we’ve mentioned the vines, the harvest, and creating the wine, and then bottling it and getting it to peoples’ tables, and into their glasses. But there’s a lot more to it as well, and a lot of other things around the industry that, as a winemaker and as an estate, you need to be out there and take care of.
One of them is shows and competitions and, as much as you’d probably rather just be in the cellar, and tasting and trying things. It’s, I don’t want to say it’s a necessary evil, but you need to get out there and market your wines as well. Tell us a little bit about how, or your feeling of those competitions and shows, from a winemaker’s perspective.
How important are shows ands awards?
MB: Well, I think it’s hugely important. I think the competitions really give the consumer an ability to really look at what’s out there and what’s new, and what’s been sort of commended for, it’s excellence, it’s the same way that you would say, review a car.
If you’re going to buy a car, you’d look that up, or if something new has come out, you’d want some expert to look at it, so that’s hugely important. We do enter a number of international and local shows, and the impact is great. I think the Old Mutual Trophy has been a, it has opened a lot of peoples’ eyes and got people to look at Rustenberg again, so it is very important to have that.
Then the actual wine shows, where we attend and we pour wine for people, and sell wine at the shows. It is also a very, very important avenue to interact with customers. It’s a lot more direct than competitions but we can really interact with people. We can answer their questions. We can introduce them to new wines, and we’re seeing a massive growth in shows, all throughout the country.
You have shows now in all the major townships in South Africa. We have shows in a lot of outlying areas. I recently attended a show two weeks ago in Pietermaritzburg, which was probably one of the best-attended shows I’ve been to in a long time, with a lot of consumer excitement. I think it really leads on from the exciting market that we’re in, in South Africa.
That wine is growing. People want to learn. They’re hungry to learn, and we’ve got to interact with people, so we always send someone from the farm up to the shows, and then people can really learn first hand from them what we do, what our wines are about, and why they taste the way they do.
BB: Murray, it’s an industry and a process that takes a lot of time to create a good wine but the world is changing, and changing quickly, if you think of technology. How’s that affecting what you’re doing with the advent of technology and social media, and the internet and that sort of thing?
What role is technology having?
MB: I think South Africa is a little bit behind the curve, compared to everyone else, and we’re always are. I think it takes us a little while for us to catch up with everything. Overseas we’re seeing the advent of online shopping really, booming. A lot of people in the U.K. just are too busy to go down to the shops and do their grocery shopping, so we’re seeing a huge amount of wine being sold online. We’re starting to see a really, wonderful revolution in this country of wine being sold online.
More and more I’m speaking to online retailers and they’re really growing incredibly every year. Beyond that, I think we’ve got to be conscious of the fact that while we do create this wonderful, luxury product and this lovely foodstuff. It is still alcohol. Too much of it can, if you imbibe it can poison you. There is no running away from that, and we’ve also got to be responsible about what we do.
I know the Government – there are a couple of draft laws and regulations coming in, in terms of alcohol advertising, and we have to be aware that what we are selling can get into the hands of the wrong people. We take, ensuring that minors don’t get their hands on our wines quite carefully, particularly here at the cellar door. I think, while there is more access to information, more access to be able to purchase wines. With a lot of that comes a great responsibility to ensure that it’s done responsibly at the same time.
BB: How does it affect you as well, from a consumer point of view? You talk about the amount of information that people have at their fingertips, and I think of platforms like this, Old Mutual Live, the podcast where people can interact almost directly with the winemaker. There’s lots of apps on the market.
I think of one that I use, Vino, all the time if I’m in a retailer or if I’m in a restaurant. You just scan the label and a lot of people are making wine decisions on what their peers are drinking. It’s no longer you need to look up to a respected wine journalist, who says X, Y, and Z. You can almost pick and choose and have direct access to a winemaker, through this technology. Does that change dynamics slightly for you guys?
MB: I think it does and it doesn’t. I think something like Trip Advisor, which many of the listeners would have used, is a great example. If you look at Trip Advisor and you look at a hotel that you want to stay at – you’ve still got to use your discretion. Some people are permanently negative, and have a bit of an axe grind, and you will see that with some of these consumer reviews but, generally, if you look at the averages of what people are saying and what they’re doing – you can’t fool everyone.
You can fool some people, some of the time, but not everyone all the time, so very much, it is the true, for me, the true litmus test of what people think of your wines, the most important people in our value chain, being the consumer. You really can’t reach out and speak to every, single one of them. You’ve got to put the right wine in the bottle. That speaks to the consumer, and they’ve got to feel they’re paying the right price for it as well.
It’s a very true and very honest way of sort of having your wine criticised and rated, and there’s no hiding. You’ve got to just put the best product in there, so it’s great to see, but I’d also get people to look at it, look at all the reviews, from an actual point of view as well. You do get people who are just maybe having a bad day or having a rant or they don’t particularly like the brand, so again, look at it from a well-rounded perspective.
BB: Murray, I’m going to let you get back to what you do best, and that’s creating wonderful wines. Thank you so much for chatting to us, once again here, on Old Mutual Live. Always great to catch up and I love shooting the breeze with you. Thanks for your time.
MB: Brad, it’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much.