Michael Fridjhon: Understanding the divide between corporate and independent wine production in SA

By , 15 February 2023

Stellenbosch Farners’ Winery was founded in 1935, its HQ situated at Oude Libertas.

The death of Dave Hughes a little over a week ago was hardly unexpected, but it brought with it a very clear sense of the gates swinging shut on an era. His was the last visible presence of a remarkable band of people who shaped the wine industry as we know it today. Mostly they shared a stint at Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery (SFW) in the days when the company (owned at the time by South African Breweries) transformed the consumption of wine from a regional – largely fortified – beverage to a drink that enjoyed middle class respectability.

They did so by making wines which could be enjoyed easily, without the hype and arcane bumpf that thrives today, and then by getting these new styles of unfortified wines into the national market. They could never have done that without the marketing power and consumer-facing skills of SAB. But SAB could never have done it without their vision, and their ability to take the best of whatever was planted in reasonable proximity to their Stellenbosch cellars and turn the fruit into quaffable but not inconsequential wine.

The heyday of the trade built by SFW was the first half of the 1960s. Its high-volume brands included many names which are still with us (some in a much attenuated form). Chateau Libertas, Tassenberg, Zonnebloem, Nederburg, but also Virginia, Oom Tas and Lieberstein, the latter three sold in returnable glass and in quantities which have never really been rivalled since. Ronnie Melck (who died in the 1990s) and Duimpie Bailey (who died in 2021) built the production side of the wine business. Dave Hughes, who arrived in the Cape from what was then Rhodesia, focussed on consumer engagement.

It was a time of great transition in the wine industry: legislation drafted in the late 1960s/early 1970s, and which became law in 1973, facilitated the development of independent wineries and the establishment of wine estates. Even before the concept was fully understood, the estate wine trade began to grow, led by a triumvirate of rebels (Delheim’s Spatz Sterling, Spier’s Niel Joubert and Simonsig’s Frans Malan). They launched the Stellenbosch Wine Route in competition with the brands with which SFW had built the wine market. Initially SFW tried to stifle them, boycotting their fruit in an endeavour to kill the threat posed by the estate wine trade. This was not SFW’s finest moment, and it was doomed to failure.

Suddenly the historic properties which hitherto had depended on the beneficence of SFW simply to survive had their own route to market. As they grew, SFW lost access to some of the Coastal Region’s finest vineyards. Its response was to industrialise the production of even its most prestigious wines: the dichotomy between perceived artisanal and perceived commercial dates from this quite recent moment in our modern wine history. Consider this: in 1973 Kanonkop bottled its first wines under its own label. As a consequence, and over time, this deprived SFW of the fruit it had used to make some of its best wines in the 1950s and 1960s.

Initially the change was slow, even tentative. The wholesale merchants focused on their growing bag-in-box business, the estates on their wine routes, their mail-and-rail. By the 1980s, as international markets began to close, the pressure cooker of isolation played its own crucial role. So did domestic wine tourism. Looking back, it all seems so obvious.

It’s easy to blame the clumsy protectionism of SFW and SAB as they tried to close down the independents before their offerings obtained traction in the market. It was how they did business, and it fitted well with the general kragdadigheid of the era. By 1979, when PW Botha overruled his own Minister of Trade and Industry and allowed the creation of Cape Wines and Distillers – a virtual monopoly in the wine and spirits production sector – there was no place left for nuanced engagement. The massive corporatised machine was always going to move across the battlefield like a tank, expecting to mow down whatever stood in its path. The best growers, on the best sites, became the guerillas, agile, fleet-of-foot, able to hide in the mountains and the impenetrable jungle where marketing departments and large advertising agencies never go. We all know how these war-games end.

  • Michael Fridjhon has over thirty-five years’ experience in the liquor industry. He is the founder of Winewizard.co.za and holds various positions including Visiting Professor of Wine Business at the University of Cape Town; founder and director of WineX – the largest consumer wine show in the Southern Hemisphere and chairman of The Trophy Wine Show.


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