Tim James: On lawyers in wine
By Christian Eedes, 4 July 2016
I confess to a little knowledge of lawyers at their sharp end – the part that sends out invoices for services rendered. Mostly, I’m proud to say, to do with my being threatened with libel suits, but once – well, I try not to remember that one, but the charges were also dropped in that case. My point is, that when it comes to the questions of lawyers as owners of brands and estates, I might not understand exactly why there are so many of them (maybe even a few dozen in the Cape), but I do understand how this is the case – lawyers make a lot of money. As do specialist doctors, for example, but I can’t immediately think of any doctors in wine. Lawyers might not always have as much as bankers or golfers or IT entrepreneurs to lavish on handsome estates in Stellenbosch, but enough to dabble and occasionally a bit more. Especially advocates, of course.
I don’t want to be unfair. Many lawyerly ventures are small, even minuscule, and characterised more by the love of the owners for wine, than by the money invested in a business notoriously mean in returning profit. I recently quoted, however, a remark by advocate Pierre Rabie that he was lucky enough to be in a position at The Giant Periwinkle “to make wine to consume primarily … not to chase sales” – and, so, to experiment and make wines according to what his passion dictates. Something of a luxury, then.
Far from all lawyer brands have their own cellars (let alone vineyards). Pierre is a member of the Garagiste Movement, and now makes his reds alongside those of another member and legal practitioner, Susan van Aswegen of Enfin Wines in Franschhoek. Other lawyers have teamed up to a greater or lesser extent with established winemakers: the Litigo Pinot Noir, of trademark lawyer Eben van Wyk, is very close to Peter-Allan Finlayson’s Crystallum Peter Max. The AD Wines Skylark, one of the new-wave cinsauts, is associated with the illustrious new-wave name of Alheit – while “AD” stands modestly for advocate Adrian Dommisse. We can only hope that, when youngish lawyers like Eben and Adrian become very rich, they will lavish – sorry, invest – even more of their ill-gotten gains in pursuing their wine passions.
Ah! I’ve found a medical doctor: at the rather enormous Alvi’s Drift in Worcester, where the current Alvi van der Merwe (doctor) and lawyer Johan van der Merwe are in partnership – but that involvement happened by inheritance. Rather smaller, Sterhuis has been owned by lawyer André Kruger since the early 1980s, but only started its own label when son Johan got the wine bug in a serious way. Stephan du Toit, an advocate from Johannesburg for a change, though with long family roots in Cape wine, was one of the first lawyers in more recent times to get involved here, when he established Mont du Toit in Wellington two decades ago. Given that it has both vineyards and winery, this is another of the larger legal investments. So are two establishments in Tulbagh: Montpellier (owned by another up-country advocate, Lucas van Tonder), and Oude Compagnies Post, with advocate Jerry Swanepoel also the vintner.
Others look to me to be very small, and I cannot claim to know much (a synonym for practically nothing) about them: Nietgegund, Entre Nous (with three of the five owners being lawyers, apparently), Flying Cloud, Carisbrooke, Brenthust (these latter two being a few decades old and having small vineyard holdings). Land-owning lawyers are also involved as partners in some ventures, as between Des Kruger of Paardebosch in the Swartland with David & Nadia Sadie.
There are no doubt other legal types lurking with intent in and around the vineyards, in many ways enriching the industry, unbeknownst to me. In some of the most interesting cases of lawyerly connection with wineries in the Cape, however, the links have got broken or obscured, and some associated gossip (such as it is) nearly forgotten. I’ll remind you next week of the tales of the senior counsel who wanted to sue me for half a million, and of the hanging judge and the judge president.
- Tim James is founder of Grape.co.za and contributes to various local and international wine publications. He is a taster (and associate editor) for Platter’s. His book Wines of South Africa – Tradition and Revolution appeared in 2013.