Pondering what a sale of Vergelegen by Anglo American would mean to SA wine, I came across a story I wrote on the disposal of Boschendal back in 2004, which for reasons long forgotten, never saw the light of day.
A lot of H2O has flown into the Skuifraamdam since then: Julius Malema has replaced Lungu Ncwana as the head of the ANC Youth League, Mike Spicer (who co-ordinated the sale) has departed 44 Main Street, as has his boss Tony Traher and of course Brett Kebble is no longer around.
Reading about some of the bizarre sharks this feeding frenzy attracted to the quiet Franschhoek Valley, I realized the Boschendal disposal encapsulates many features of the BEE/transformation processes in SA wine being played out in the boardroom of KWV and elsewhere.
Separating Siamese twins was a popular pastime for celebrity surgeons and management consultants back in 2004, although the operation can have tragic consequences when vital organs are shared. Which made the separation of vinous twins Boschendal and Vergelegen a case study for management trainees, Bain boffins McKinsey meddlers and Boston Consulting… consultants.
In selling Boschendal, the less fashionable part of its mini wine empire, “in order to concentrate on core business”, corporate parent Anglo American would ironically have to invest more money to keep remaining twin Vergelegen afloat as many of the less glamorous functions involved in making wine (maintenance, vineyard management, grape procurement and product distribution) were historically handled by Boschendal.
With Vergelegen voted the Cape’s top producer by wine insiders back in 2004, the fact that only 20% of the stuff bottled under the Vergelegen label came from grapes grown on the farm (with the balance sourced by Boschendal) was testimony to the invaluable support provided by a less fashionable sister. “Of course Vergelegen should be an estate” said Boschendal winemaker JC Bekker, “as all their best wine comes from grapes grown on the farm.” And “best” is no understatement, with Vergelegen the best rated producer in the Platter sighted wine guide and the Fairbairn Capital [now Old Mutual] Trophy Wine Show.
Sold to an exotic consortium of foreign and local investors with 30% of the equity allocated to black economic empowerment (BEE) interests, Boschendal, a 270 000 case producer and SA’s biggest independent wine brand, was most definitely under new management. For starters, the new proprietors were culturally about as far removed from 44 Main Street as the Bahamas are from Boschendal, which is where the foreign interests were based.
Craig Symonette, son of Sir Roland, former prime minister (’55-’67) of the Bahamas, was one of the new landlords, along with Juan Bacardi, scion of the Cuban rum dynasty. Liquor importer Juan also ran a sideline in “sentimental journeys” for Miami matrons with $20 000 to spare for a week at his Bahamanian “grand cottage” called Xanadu (“fine enough to impress Kubla Khan”) including drinks at the Old Fort Bay Club and dinner with the “handsome young” Juan, subject to availability.
Add to this exotic Caribbean cocktail the twenty-something empowerment entrepreneur and empowerment consortium deputy chair Lungu Ncwana and crane-hire mogul Harold Johnson and the result was a dynamic new deal indeed, a million miles away from the Anglo Jermyn Street suits. This new guard were fitting successors to that previous swashbuckling owner Cecil John Rhodes and brought down the curtain on a respectable, if staid, interregnum of mining moguls.
Boschendal’s new MD was Franco Barocas. He was born in the Eastern Highlands of Rhodes’ namesake country in what was then Umtali and now is Mutare, coincidentally one of the regions which used to produce that rare and wonderful elixir, Rhodesian Wine. After a spell running Dashing Office Furniture and sports marketer Octagon, Barocas exchanged blond wood computer workstations for yellow wood armoires (some which later pitched up in coastal antique shops), hundred year old oaks and an all-round bucolic lifestyle although celebrity sporting contacts from his previous life could come in useful in ambitious plans to raise the profile of Boschendal wines. With bottles labeled “Ernie Els” demanding top dollar on the US circuit, the market for SA celebrity wine was hardly tapped.
Compatriot Clive Venning was the brains behind plans to open up some of the farm’s 2240 hectares for property development, bringing full circle the process started by the first Rhodesian, Cecil John, who bought up and amalgamated farms in the valley which had been devastated by phylloxera in the 19th century. Earlier sales by Anglo of Rhodes’ Fruit Farms had already brought several welcome breaths of fresh air into the valley: neuro-psychologist Mark Solms and philanthropist Richard Astor of the fabulous Astor dynasty.
By way of contrast, Harold Johnson was still in the old agglomeration mode, as seigneur of one of the Cape’s prime producers, Zevenwacht, which he was developing like a 19th century pioneer with a mission. For a hard nosed businessman, Boschendal was an obvious steal at R323 million – especially if you believe the report in the June 2004 edition of Winelands magazine that “a red wine cellar was built 8 years ago at a cost of R500 million.”
Foreign investment in Boschendal was always first prize for Anglo and the Caribbean connection was a vote of confidence in the product as Bacardi’s Bristol Wines and Spirits company imported Boschendal into the Bahamas, where they played a starring role in the island’s annual Wine and Art Festival which featured 55 wines from around the world and art from people like Lou Cuevas AKA “the Glass lady” who “turned recycled bits and pieces of broken glass and beach debris into impressionistic works of art.”
From French first growth Château Mouton, which annually commissions an artist to design its label, all the way to the glass of Nederburg on offer at exhibition openings, the connection between fine art and fine wine is clear. On the local scene, mining magnifico Brett Kebble was a good example of this phenomenon.
The Brett Kebble Awards with a R200 000 first prize, were the richest purse in SA fine art back then while Kebble’s cellar was legendary with Brett and dad Roger among the best customer’s at Norman Goodfellow’s, purveyors of the where-with-all to the spiteratti and snifferati of Johannesburg. Kebble was a friend and business associate of Ncwana, and was largely responsible for the latter’s then recently discovered passion for wine.
Before he met Kebble, French Champagne was all the ANC Youth League stalwart drank (as they do). “Brett forced me to drink wine”, he remembered, with Meerlust Rubicon now a firm favourite, something MD Barocas was trying hard to change to a more patriotic brand.
Champagne could have provided another inspiration for Ncwana to climb on board as Boschendal imported Pol Roger, Winston Churchill’s favourite fizz and Harry Oppenheimer’s annual Christmas present to Anglo senior management, as well as San Pellegrino, the iconic Italian mineral water. Which was itself quite ironic as the neighbouring Franschhoek valley produces some of the country’s finest mineral waters with most of it produced by another famous Italian, Signor Vito Palazzolo.
Ncwana timeshared between Johannesburg and Cape Town but found the commuting “a bit of a strain” and wished he had “the small six-seater Lear jet” like that other new wine entrepreneur in the neighbourhood, Tokyo Sexwale, who bought retired Premier chairman Peter Wrighton’s Franschhoek boutique wine farm in 2002 and had it delisted from Platter, tout de suite.
The new Boschendal team was anxious that the BEE initiative be more than enrichment of the few or tokenism and regarded the transformation process as a riempiestoel with three legs: shareholding, management and suppliers. With 30% of equity safely in black hands and an impressively black and white organogram, the hardest part of the equation to balance was the supply side with black bottle and cork manufacturers thin on the ground, although with the Franschhoek valley the preferred address for black grape farmers like Rwandan cell phone magnate Miko Rwayitare and Congolese diamantaire André Action Jackson, sourcing grapes from more appropriate suppliers should not have been a problem.
Working on a farm with obvious natural assets that have been compared to the Garden of Eden, the temptation to kick back and coast was strong, but not an option for a group that promised its investors a 10% annual return. One thing working in their favour was the tried and tested ability to produce value for money wine that over-delivers in the quality department. With an annual production of around 3 million bottles (that could easily be scaled up by a factor of four), three quarters of which were sold within SA, Boschendal wines have always been a safe bet on a restaurant wine list.
Boschendal Grand Vin Blanc (known universally by its nickname, GVB) was a case in point. “A wine which fits the shape of the bottle” (i.e. round) says Bekker. Originally made for the farm’s tercentenary two decades ago, it was still going strong and at around the R40 mark in 2004, less than half the price paid by north London trendies and trustafarians while Bahama babes and Juan’s dates, paid even more.
Factor in a Caribbean connection, serious BEE credentials and a talented wine making team freed from excessive corporate shackles, that should have been more than enough to transform “boring Boschendal” into the most exciting brand in SA wine.
PS. Well it wasn’t and the Boschendal brand was later snapped up by DGB (who recently also gobbled up Simon Barlow’s Brampton, too) and continues as a leading brand in SA.