Melvyn Minnaar: When wine applauded the arts

By , 2 June 2024



Oude Libertas ampitheatre.

There was just a slight crescent to the moon on that wonderful December night in 1977 when the world famous pianist Vladimir Ashkenazy sat down at the brand-new Steinway in all its glimmering black to open the Oude Libertas Amphitheatre.

It was a glorious moment in the history of South African art sponsorship – and clever cultural product branding. It was a triumph for the then Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery. And the 430 invited VIPs rose from their cement seats to cheer not only the enchantment of Chopin’s sweeping music under the starts, but the bold move by the very home-grown wine company that conceived and constructed the place and the occasion. And the joy that it would bring over many years.

Afterwards that audience stood around on the cobbled space that would for some decades be the foyer and forum where chitchat about performance excellence would be energetically pursued over glasses of Oude Libertas wines.

Yes, Oude Libertas. The brand was launched in 1974 when wines-of-origin came into play and SFW saw the market valuet. Among those wines were Dry Steen, Late Harvest, Muscat d’Alexandrie, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage and, yes, Tinta Barocca and Cinsaut. Those were the days.

All this feels like a dream today.

The beautiful building is still there. Unused, it is a simulacra of a culture ghost house with memories of opera, music, ballet, drama – in short all matters of performance that drew crowds to this open-air jewel and featured in the CVs of many, many South African artists.

Thoughts of the glorious Oude Libertas summer seasons were briefly evoked last year when Heineken, the new owners of Distell (which, previously, also had swallowed Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery), used the venue for the annual Fleur du Cap theatre awards event. 

Intrepid theatrical nostalgists like me already found it amusing that, while the Oude Libertas label had disappeared years ago already, some classy Fleur du Cap wines (even vintage ones) were offered to us patrons on that evening.

This year the Fleur du Cape awards were handed over at The Baxter. No Fleur du Cap wines were served at the green-tinged event. For all we know there are no more FdC wines.

This brings me to the question of sponsorship, whether it will continue and the value of such product branding.

But back to the founding of the Oude Libertas Amphitheatre.

In the 1970s the Cape was a busy place of cultural energy and invention. Both the biggest Stellenbosch wine companies, Rupert-led Distillers Corporation and SFW (I always loved the unstated ‘farmers’ bit in the company name!) were led by people – like the then SFW managing director Lothar Barth – who knew and realised the investment in culture. The association of wine and art is not a cliché, and an excellent way of building an audience for a brand.

The Oude Libertas wines, a middle-price tier range was promoted with a ‘cultural’ image. Fleur du Cap was sort-of Distillers’ version. (Zonnebloem was the SFW prestige range, and, in 1996 launched an ‘Art Collection’ series. It played that specific audience well too.)

SFW extended the Oude Libertas branding by allocating a specific vineyard and a pretty house Mon Repos, opposite its headquarters, to it. In other words, it then had a home. What better idea then to add a cultural hub, and so the open-air theatre on the slopes of the Papegaaiberg became a beacon.

In 1984, my friend from the theatre world, Marietha Channel, became the manager and steered one great summer season of concerts after another over the years. Both the person and place became legends. But it was not to last.

With all those glasses of Oude Libertas wines poured at that event in the years when SFW still nurtured the brand, you can image the impact of the label in the world of theatre and music.

With Fleur du Cap wines poured at many a jovial celebration of theatrical achievement, you can image the extend of the fan club of those practising the performance arts. (Not to mention the painters during the Zonnebloem ‘Art Collection’ days).

The question hanging in the air is whether any of this will still be…

  • Melvyn Minnaar has written about art and wine for various local and international publications over the years. The creativity that underpins these subjects is an enduring personal passion. He has served on a few “cultural committees”.


3 comment(s)

Please read our Comments Policy here.

    Fiona Grayer | 5 June 2024

    Why are the concerts not continuing? Funding? Personnel?

    I am interested to run the Summer Concerts Series again but don’t know who contact.

    Can you please advise?

    Kwispedoor | 2 June 2024

    Having culled the Monis brand already, it seems like the Heineken bigwigs care zilch about wine or our heritage. Perhaps they’ll burn down The Tabernacle next.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Like our content?

Show your support.