The making of an extraordinary winemaker
11 November 2015
You can also listen to these podcasts directly from the Old Mutual App, which is available here.
Brad Brown: Welcome onto another edition of Old Mutual Live. It’s great to have you with us and we’ve got a returning guest once again on the podcast today and we spoke to him a while ago about his latest venture called Fram Wines.
Creating some fantastic, fantastic wines and I said in that podcast we’d delve a bit deeper the next time we spoke about his winemaking journey began and it’s a great pleasure to welcome back onto the podcast, Thinus Kruger. Thinus welcome, thanks for taking the time to chat with us again today.
Thinus Kruger: Ja, thanks for having me again and we explore what goes into making wine.
BB: Ja, Thinus I mean we spoke at length about Fram Wines and what you’re up to the last time we spoke but I wanted to go back and find out where this entire journey began. Can you, is it a vivid memory, the first time you were exposed to wine or were you one of those guys that sort of fell into it by accident?
The making of an extraordinary winemaker
TK: Ja, I can’t really have a vivid memory or recall of the first time that I, I mean at home we used to drink wine and maybe at Sunday lunch or something like that growing up but I mean it was just something that was in a bottle. I didn’t really ever thought about how it was made or whether or not one could one day do that as a job.
But as you know it’s one of the real ironies of life is, you have to decide what you’re going to do the rest of your life when you’re 17 or 18 years old and you basically have no idea what the real world is like. Then I decided to study agriculture at University of Stellenbosch.
I had a look at the different agriculture options that was available and one of them said winemaking and you know to a young 18 year old that seems like a pretty good way. It certainly looked more attractive to me than being an accountant or a lawyer or an engineer or something like that.
BB: You made that decision and haven’t looked back since. Do you sometimes think gee maybe I should have been an accountant or I mean obviously when times are tough in making wine and seasons aren’t playing along the way they should be do you sometimes go gee maybe I should have made a different decision?
TK: Well, I still have a lot of good friends from varsity days that are accountants and I’m sure when I have a look at when month-end comes, I’m sure that they’re more often than not happy to be accountants and not winemakers.
But I mean it’s, you also, you make the decision and I’ve been doing it for 15 years now so I suppose working in a big corporate company so I had the opportunities to go into the different side of business and wear a jacket and long pants to work every day and well I chose not to do that but I’m still quite happy with the choice I made.
BB: Thinus let’s talk about out of varsity, obviously studying, you did what you needed to do to get that degree to be able to afford you the opportunity to make wine but where did the journey take you to once you left Stellenbosch?
My first job in the wine industry
TK: Well I didn’t actually leave Stellenbosch. I moved like a kilometre or two down the road from where I was in koshuis and then I just started making wine at the Bergkelder which is, I mean it’s right in Stellenbosch. It’s just below the van der Stel sports fields just across the railway so that was the first job I had.
I was the assistant winemaker there for two years at Bergkelder and then I became the head winemaker or whatever looking after the red wine production and being a young kid, I was like 24 years old and I was responsible for all the red wines.
You know you learn a lot in a big company like Distell because obviously you’d have lunch or you’d have a cup of tea and around the table there’d be three or four other guys with 100 years’ worth of winemaking experience that have made all the mistakes that you could possibly think of making.
They’d advise you, they’d say to you, “You know, I wouldn’t try that if I were you because we tried it in 1982 as well but you know, if you want to go ahead but we’re just going to laugh when it’s a disaster” and so it was nice to…sometimes I would listen to their advice and not do it.
Sometimes I wouldn’t listen to the advice and I think every single time what they said would happen actually did happen so that was a great opportunity to learn from a lot of those old people. Make mistakes and learn on somebody else’s account and not on my own account.
BB: You mentioned the last time we spoke that there’s no secrets in the wine industry and that sort of epitomises exactly that, that people who’ve been in the industry for a while are always willing to sort of, I don’t want to say lend a hand but perhaps lend a ear if you’ve got any questions. If there’s things that you’re struggling with and the longer you’re in the industry the roles are then reversed. You’ve got a bit more experience now and there’s probably younger winemakers that you could help out a little bit. It’s a wonderful industry in that sense, isn’t it?
Wine industry is about sharing experience
TK: Ja and also because every winery is different and your approach to winemaking is different and as I mentioned in our previous podcast we start with the same grapes and we’ll end up with sometimes more or less similar products and sometimes completely different products when it comes to bottling the wine.
That’s why you know if you have to phone up like a very famous winemaker in Burgundy in France and make the world’s most expensive and the world’s most sought after Pinot Noir’s, I mean he’d most likely at the drop of the hat give you all the information on what he’s doing to his grapes. To his wine to arrive at the final product because he knows we’re on a completely situation. We have different climate, we have different soil.
Our grapes will look completely different, so even if we could copy everything he does its not a danger it is a completely different wine at the end of the day. I think that’s why a lot of people in the wine industry are so willing to share a bit of information because they know you absorb that information and you incorporate it into what we’re doing at the moment and then most often you’ll just make a better wine. But not a wine that’s a copy of the guy that gave you a hint or two initially.
BB: Thinus the time at Distell, I mean you talk about working for a large organisation like that. It’s very different to being on your own. You mentioned almost the brains, trust that you get to pick. What are some of the downsides of working for a big organisation? Not to knock Distell but I think there are a few big producers out there. Is it sort of difficult to pivot and change what you want to do in a big sort of corporate environment like that and is there a lot of red tape?
The struggles of working for a big corporation
TK: No, I think the only thing that could be frustrating or that was frustrating for winemakers often are red tape. So you’d have a splendid batch or something you know, a floret of wine and you’d think of doing a special or a limited release or call it whatever you like. Then you know it takes a long time for a big ship to turn so in the end of the day people might think about it and six months later they’d say okay, no, we’re not going to do it anymore.
As you know wine is quite a light product so often it’s, one of the advantages that you have when you’re on your own or when you’re in a small company, it’s quick to get something new to the market. Obviously when a big guy like that’s got a lot more backing, they’ve got a nice big marketing budget so for them, they have those advantages over smaller producers.
I think we must use as smaller producers, our advantages and ja but to come back to the big companies, I think the main thing is that they often, their focus is spread across a big range of products and it’s difficult to focus on each and every one of those to make sure that they are truly unique and true to the origin of the grapes.
I think ja, like I said, I really enjoyed working at those places and the opportunities they afforded in order to make me the boss. I think I tried to get more focused onto the different wines because some of them you know, are potentially and some are really good wines so nearly up once again the different sizes and the different corporations.
BB: Ja, I think it’s difficult to compare. I mean you’ve got to compare apples with apples and I mean yes, like you say they each have their advantages and they each have their disadvantages as well so without a doubt, Thinus, it’s been fantastic chatting. Unfortunately the line’s not the greatest in the last couple of minutes so I’m going to wrap things up there.
Much appreciate your time and best of luck. If people want to find out what you’re doing now, the website to get to framwines.co.za, I’ll pop those details in the show notes to this episode of Old Mutual Live as well. It’s been great catching up and I really do appreciate your time. Thank you very much.
TK: All right Brad, have a good day. Talk to you again. Cheers.