Vivienne Kleynhans and Seven Sisters Wines
01 January 1970
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Brad Brown: Welcome onto this edition of Old Mutual Live, it’s time to chat some more wine. I love the stories around wine and the South African wine industry and our next guest has got an incredible story, and I can’t wait to share it with you today. It’s a great pleasure to welcome onto the show Vivienne Kleynhans. Vivienne, thanks for taking the time to chat to us, welcome.
Vivienne Kleynhans: Thank you Brad. It’s a pleasure.
BB: Vivienne, your journey into wine is a fascinating one and you grew up in a little fishing village called Paternoster, which is not wine country, is it?
From fishing stock in Paternoster
VK: No, not at all. It’s all fishing. When I grew up in Paternoster we were about 800 inhabitants and I lived there for about 18 years, which after we were evicted from the little town. My father lost his job, so we had to move out of the town.
BB: Vivienne, it’s interesting a little place like Paternoster, you mentioned a fishing village, and often it becomes almost your destiny, growing up in a place like that. That that’s where you’re going to end up staying and you end up working in that industry, and your children end up working in that industry, and that’s sort of how it goes but it was a horrible time. Like you say, your dad lost his job. You got evicted but that sort of changed your star, so to speak. Often bad things happen for a reason. Do you look back at that time and think well, if that hadn’t happened, where would I be right now?
VK: Yes it was. At the time, it was very sad for us, as children. Like you said, it becomes your destiny and for us it was like the end of the world. You could not, when you come to Paternoster, it seems like you could not go any further, so we were quite isolated in this little town but it was a home, and we loved it. When we lost it and we had to move away, we were heart sore because we could not go back.
It was like the people had turned their backs on us. Yes, we went through a horrible time but then, you know, in hindsight, if you look back, it was actually God’s grace upon us because it made us become more creative. I think look out for our families and our sisters, and that is also the reason maybe, why we grew closer. It had a good effect on our lives I think.
BB: Where did the wine seed get planted, so to speak for you?
How my wine journey began
VK: I became involved. Well, I ventured into all kinds of businesses when I started my working career, and I was busy in a recruitment human resources company where I worked as a consultant, at different companies. Then I was invited with one of my clients to the American Ambassador’s dinner, and I met up with people who were in the wine industry and also looking at farm evictions.
I was more into looking at how we could maybe assist farm workers, when they get evicted and I was interested in seeing how it started out, why they were evicted, and those kinds of things, so I was busy with an organisation looking into that.
When the Minister of Agriculture made a call on the black people in business to look at venturing into the wine industry, which was a very white, male dominated industry. She was making the call to all business people, black business people. Then the South African Wine Industry Trust was established by her.
I cannot remember if her name was, at the time, Minister Thoko Didiza, I think it was her name. Then the Trust was supposed to develop black businesses and it was short lived because I think it was after a year the money was then spent back into purchasing the 25% equity into KWV, so we were pretty much left on our own. It was a battle and a challenge throughout our wine career or business.
BB: Let’s talk about some of those challenges. You mentioned that the wine industry has long been a white, male dominated industry. Someone coming in there who’s different obviously, there was a lot of resistance. What were some of the things you’ve had to overcome to get to where you are right now, Vivienne?
The challenge to compete with the establishment
VK: Yes, absolutely it was very challenging. We were not well accepted. What were we doing in a wine industry that we have no knowledge of? You had to go find somebody to work with, where you could purchase your wines from. I was green. I didn’t know anything about wine.
For the first two years or after the first two years of my wine business, I was bankrupt because I took out a second bond on my property. I cashed in all the policies that I had and the family, who produced my wines basically gave me a bad wine, so after two years of marketing this wine it was never sellable.
I could not understand why did people not buy the wines, and then it was my first trip to London, the International Wine Fair, when my wines were tasted by the London Wine Society and I was told that there is something wrong with these wines. Then I came back. I had a blind tasting done by wine professionals, and yes the report came back that my wines were oxidised and all sorts of bad things. That was the part of the cruelty of the wine industry, at the time.
A lot has changed since then I think. I think the thought was that we are coming to mess up the industry and bring bad reputation, and all kinds of perceptions were made, and we sort of owned our credibility by persevering.
I then also had to do a one-year wine management course at the University of Stellenbosch, Business School, so to make sure that I know my products, and I know about the wine business, so that nobody could ever do that to me again, but it does not stop. It is in the whole value chain of the wine industry we pick up challenges.
We have been talking to the local retailers for all these years, 11 years, and we’re not getting entry into the retail stores because we get told that they have to lay off other brands, in order to take our brands on but we see that so many new, virtual companies, white virtual companies get established. Then in the next month, their wines go on the shelves, so that is the battle, an ongoing battle over the past 11 years.
Then the other arm is distribution. If we don’t have a reputable distributor, we cannot get entry into the retailers, and then we do get a reputable distributor and then we’ve been waiting for the past year, to get onto the local market. Yes, that’s the sad part about the space in time that we are in, in our country. We’ve decided that now, we have to find alternative markets to get our products out there, and this is where we would maybe have a wine shop on the farm, and we could do online sales.
Finding a place in the American market
BB: You’ve also, sort of moved offshore. A lot of your wines get drunk overseas in America being one of the countries, and you export a lot of your wine to the States and you’ve been able to achieve some great things there.
VK: Yes, that’s the sad part about our country. That we have to first find ourselves or have ourselves made credible in other countries, before we get looked at. Our first port of entry was America. We are now listed in 42 States. We then was listed by Walmart stores two years ago, so we are successfully selling through the Walmart stores and a lot of other retailers, like Whole Foods and Super Value and Jewel-Osco, etcetera.
Then we were also the first South African wine company to be served on American Airlines and first in business class since 2009 – 2012. Yes, so we have built a very successful I think, and loyal market in America. We have then also gone to Nigeria. We are also selling in Canada, through the LCBO’s, and we are now getting into China. I just came back from a Chinese wine exhibition in Shanghai.
BB: Lots of exciting things on the boil for Seven Sisters Wines. It sounds incredible. Vivienne, what I’m going to do is I’m going to get you back onto the podcast to talk a little bit more about the brand itself. The Seven Sisters, and your seven sisters because it’s a family affair.
I want to find out a little bit about the wines themselves and just find out where you’re going with these wines, and find out about the farm as well. We’ll save that for another time, here at Old Mutual Live. I want to thank you for your time today. Thank you so much.
VK: Thank you. Keep well. Bye.