It’s not all that easy to turn a passion into a profession. The number of very competent home cooks who have tried their hands at the restaurant business only to have burnt more than their fingers cannot be counted on an abacus. The danger of assuming that what you like will appeal to enough people to create an economically viable enterprise is always under-estimated by those for whom wishful thinking trumps lustreless reality.
On the other hand, it is those who are most passionate who are also most persuasive: people who love what they do communicate their enthusiasm to everyone around them. Nowhere is this more evident than in the world of boutique wine production. The financial arithmetic alone should make this clear. A small cellar operation cannot crush, vinify and bottle wine under about R320 per case – not including amortisation of equipment, or labour cost.
Around 15% of the country’s wineries make fewer than 1500 dozen cases per year. Even this small volume of wine cannot be produced with less than three or four employees – excluding seasonal labour. By the time you add the wage bill and finance charges you can’t ship from your cellar door for less than R60 per bottle. The problem is that big producers use their economies of scale to put perfectly good drinking wine on retailers’ shelves at less than this price point. For consumers who focus on the price-value nexus, it’s difficult to contemplate the premium required by the passionate solo operator just aiming to break even.
Despite these difficulties, many small-scale producers stay the course and finally get some traction in the market place. You can’t sell 1000+ cases a year to friends and family. You finally need to tie up with a dedicated distributor, who is driven as much by passion (rather than profit) as you. And then you have to put boot leather to the pavement to persuade retailers and restaurateurs to stock your chenin or shiraz, even though it costs a lot more than its big brand competitors.
Elmarie Minnaar has set up Sourced Wines as a vehicle for several of these small scale producers, providing Gauteng wine enthusiasts with access to wines which are usually sold closer to the cellar door. I came across several noteworthy discoveries at a range tasting she hosted recently in Johannesburg. Almost all the wines were finely crafted and restrained, rather than overly showy, with purity and linearity their hallmark features.
Justin van Wyk has a selection of five wines, sourced from a variety of appellations ranging from Darling, Breedekloof and Wellington to Stellenbosch, Constantia Nek and Elgin. It includes a spectacularly good non-vintage Riesling (which also graces his Olivia Grace white blend) from a vineyard which is now almost 40 years old. There’s also a delicious red blend comprising cinsaut, syrah and grenache and sold under the proprietary name of Rebecca May.
The Wine Thief’s line-up on the day included a savoury, an almost meaty Mourvedre, a promising Marsanne and a fabulous Colombard made from a 36 year old block in Slanghoek. His Cape White 2018, chenin, blanc fume and some Rhone varieties, is also very good: tautly structured, but with great intensity and poise.
Hughes Family have been producing organically farmed Swartland wines for about 20 years. The drought took its toll on supplies even before a fire at the bottling facility in 2018 destroyed most of the finished wines. Now they are back in business with a beautifully integrated 2019 Nativo white blend – finely handled viognier lifted by roussanne and grenache blanc. Also look for the 2015 Nativo red, a survivor from the pre-fire era: shiraz-based with mourvedre adding real breadth to the blend.
Finally, there were two wines from Koelfontein in Ceres worth seeking out: a savoury shiraz and an extraordinarily well-priced, thoughtfully oaked Chardonnay. Whereas most of the examples on offer sell for upwards of R150 per bottle, the Koelfontein Chardonnay retails for less than R100 – a great bargain by any standard.