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Interview: Les Sweidan of The High Road

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Les Sweidan, co-owner of The High Road.
Les Sweidan, co-owner of The High Road.

From the June issue of Business Day WANTED: Les Sweidan spent 37 years in the short term insurance industry focused on the transport sector before selling his business to multinational insurance broker Aon in 1998. During this process, he met Mike Church, another prominent figure in insurance, and when the two discovered their mutual interest in wine, decided to found a négociant label called The High Road.

Experienced winemaker Mark Carmichael-Green was appointed winemaker and first bottling was in 2003. The focus at the High Road is on making small volumes of Bordeaux-style red blends and grapes are sourced from select vineyards in Stellenbosch. “Cab is arguably South Africa’s strongest cultivar and we wanted this to be the crux of our wines,” says Sweidan.

Now 60, Sweidan is married to Rhoda. “She is a teetotaller and is currently employed as my designated driver!” he jokes. They have three children Mike (aged 30), Loren (28) and Claire (24) and live in the Cape Town suburb of Fresnaye.

From short-term insurance to wine. What prompted the switch?
I entered the insurance industry by default not design and once I had sold the business I had some time on my hands and came to a conclusion that if I had my life over, I would’ve loved to produce fine red wine.

You have two wines, the Classique 2010, at R115 a bottle, and the Director’s Reserve, at R240 a bottle. What’s the difference between the two?
The difference between the two is in the oaking regime, the Director’s Reserve maturing for up to 18 months in 100% new French oak barrels and the Classique for up to 12 months in second- and third-fill barrels. So expect an easier drinking wine in the Classique and a more sophisticated, age-worthy wine in the Director’s Reserve.

Is it possible to make money from fine wine?
Anything is possible! Should I have invested in First Growths instead of starting The High Road? Perhaps but it wouldn’t have been half the fun.

You’re a keen golfer. Favourite local course and why?
This has to be King David in Belville. It’s got a great layout so you can play week-in and week-out without getting bored.

Tell us about playing The Bear’s Club in Florida.
This is the home course of Jack Nicklaus, arguably the finest golfer after Gary Player! His clothing brand sponsors a competition, the Jack Nicklaus International Invitational, which sees recreational golfers from around the world playing against each other. Entrants play the Nicklaus courses in their home countries and then there’s a final to determine the national winners. A friend and I were fortunate to become the SA representatives to play against nine other countries, all expenses paid and none spared! We were accommodated, kitted out, given tour caddies, you name it, to play on one of the world’s finest courses and we got to meet the Golden Bear himself. An unforgettable experience.

You like Italian food. Best local restaurant?
Magica Roma in Pinelands. Try our Classique with the veal meatballs in a light tomato and herb sauce over spaghetti and sprinkled with Parmesan.

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