Neil Ellis 2 October 2019

The much-abused term “reinventing the wheel” – together with near synonyms such as “shape-shifter” and “pathfinder” – implies a change so significant that the place arrived at is qualitatively different from wherever anyone had been before. Not just a better wheel, but a wholly re-invented one, an undiscovered country, another dimension. If these terms are not devalued to insignificance, there can be very few re-inventors or shape-shifters in a generation. The metaphorical producer of the “better mousetrap” is unlikely to deserve the sobriquet; Kalashnikov’s tweak to automatic assault rifles was commercially significant – which is why the AK 47 has been so successful – but it was hardly a game-changer compared with the invention of gunpowder or the atomic bomb. Real – rather than incremental – change is rare: Gutenberg and printing, Morse and telecommunications, some unknown ancestor and the wheel.

Sometimes it’s difficult to know at the time the importance of the change: did Gutenberg tap himself on the back and say “I guess that this little invention of mine has vouchsafed me a place in history ahead of Charlemagne, Julius Caesar and Genghis Khan.” Today it’s difficult enough for us to imagine a world without the internet: how would we manage the transmission of knowledge if we still depended on scribes?

Some 35 years ago Neil Ellis came up with a idea which suited his particular needs and launched a business on the back of it. In an era when hand-crafted wines could only come from cellars of premium (usually estate) producers, he formulated a plan which enabled him to source the very best grapes and to use them to make wines to sell under his own name. John Platter described back then as “a pioneering concept in the Cape….The rationale is that he can specialise in the cellar while the grower devotes his energies to the vineyard.”

I remember thinking at the time that this was clever, but not all that innovative. Wholesale wineries bought fruit all the time, using their production facilities to make big blends, but also to craft small volume reserve wines. Neil’s point of difference lay in real commitment to vineyards owned by others. In time he attached the identity of the site (as far as the law allowed) to the final bottled product. This was widely done in Burgundy (and still is) and on a small scale in California. I don’t think that he imagined he was creating a model which would lead – through various later innovations – to the single most important transformational change in the modern South African wine industry.

Most of what he produced in those early days was single variety wine: cabernet, riesling and sauvignon blanc. At times he had to blend from two different sites within an area of origin, either to make up volume, or because he needed the flavours and textures of grapes from one producer to complement the fruit from another.

Ellis soon discovered you can’t make good wine without control over the vineyards. His association with Hans-Peter Schroder’s Oude Nektar property – which endured for two decades – yielded palpable improvements. Suddenly there was a solution to the quandary of not owning land. By the late 1990s, when Eben Sadie was ready to create his own enterprise, he knew what was possible. His innovation was qualitative rather than quantitative: taking tiny parcels of single site Swartland grapes, he imbued Cape wines with the excitement and credibility the international market had been waiting for, and providing vital inspiration to the next generation of producers.

Today’s “New Wave” winemakers – of whom the international press has been unstinting in its praise – are the direct descendants of this innovation. It may not be quite the same thing as inventing movable type – but the Neil Ellis’s creative solution to becoming an entrepreneur rather than an employee did more than establish one of the Cape’s great modern cellars: it transformed the wine industry and its international profile.

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