Tim James: A Revisioning of Solms-Delta
By Tim James, 4 December 2023
It has to be said that, while many observers at home and abroad were greatly upset by the collapse (pretty definitive a half-decade back) of the grand social scheme at Solms-Delta wine estate in Franschhoek, there was undoubtedly some satisfaction around here. In an industry that had managed to resist anything like wide and deep social transformation in the years since 1994, the loudly proclaimed attempt to address a painful history of slavery, apartheid and dispossession was too implicitly accusatory to be comfortable to all. Many critics, including some also making genuine efforts to redress the past, also pointed out – with admitted prescience – that the ambitious socio-business model was not soundly based.
Mark Solms (a neuroscientist of the highest international repute) put a lot of money (including that of his friend, the now late British philanthopist Richard Astor), and effort into realising his vision: ownership was to be shared with the black workers living there; they, instead of tourists, were the centre of an annual harvest festival; the history of the place was fully and movingly portrayed in a museum, with another museum focusing on a musical history. Wine, culture, history, community upliftment, and ownership were the cornerstones of the vision.
But the cornerstones crumbled. Solms is forthright in admitting that his great scheme was not accompanied by sufficient business sense. It all became too complex a story to rehearse here, but the state later stepping in to pay for the farm that was being assigned to the workers, apparently to save the project, seemed to only make things worse. Then a “business rescue” strategy inaugurated five years back has clearly done quite the reverse: things have been run into the ground, no wine has been made for some years, the vineyards have been abandoned.
Happily, one person who was impressed by the vision after seeing the Solms-Delta story described in a documentary was a rich American businessman named Tommy Hall. That he is Black is not irrelevant to what eventually transpired, nor is it that he and his wife, Crystal, have clearly grown pretty disenchanted with what is happening in their home country. They were seeking a new chapter in their lives, in “a continent with which they feel a deep kinship”.
The failing experiment at this farm in Franschhoek clearly struck home and he contacted Mark Solms and found out more – including, Solms assures me, about the substantial challenges to be faced, both on the property and nationally.
Speaking at a function on the Franschhoek farm in late November, Hall announced the founding of the Solms Delta Wine Company, a wholly new venture, entirely Hall-owned. “Something was lost with Solms-Delta”, he said. “We felt we could do something about it … we could restart something that’s very important.” A later press release quotes him as saying that “This is a separate company that has many of the same goals as Mark Solms, in terms of community upliftment, skills development and employment opportunities. However, we want to make sure that we do it in a manner which is both socially equitable and financially viable over the long term.”
Viability is, of course, the crucial concept here. Hall is making a substantial investment in this corner of the South African wine industry (where local big money was not, when the crunch came, willing to venture), but he brings a wealth of expertise and business experience too. I suspect he is starting to have a better understanding of some of the problems inherent in dealing with the national government, as he negotiates and discusses the question of the workers’ farm (which is still in the ownership of the state, according to an understanding that it would be released to the worker’s trust after showing five years of viability – viability which was effectively refused).
The plan going forward revolves around the Company taking long-term leases on the two Solms-Delta farms: the one owned largely by Mark Solms (Hall will also have an ownership stake there; Solms will continue to have residence rights) and the farm that will soon, hopefully, be fully owned by the workers’ trust. The wine cellar, in need of major renovation, is on that second farm, with most of the other buildings, including the museum and the restaurant, on the Solms farm. Revival of all those activities, including getting the vineyards back into productive condition, will provide much-needed employment and income. Hall also plans to revive the ambitious programme of human development and educational projects.
It’s altogether an exciting prospect, full of hope. Mark Solms, who will continue to be deeply involved in all this work, is enormously relieved. Ebulliently so! I would describe the failures of the past decade at Solms-Delta as crushing, if I thought that Mark could be easily crushed, but he is all about energetically pushing forward, and delighted at the arrival of Tommy Hall, who came to the public launch with Crystal and son Gavin (about to start college in the USA, I gather).
This whole development has happened remarkably quickly – testament to the energy of the owner of the Solms-Delta Wine Company. But part of this can-do pace comes from the South African wine industry, which has cooperated in producing two very good wines, reviving names and styles from the old Solms-Delta days: the white blend Amalie, and the red blend Hiervandaan.
It’s not three months since Francois Haasbroek (the nonchalant intellectual of Blackwater Wines) was introduced to Hall and Solms as someone who could perhaps help in making a few wines for them … next year. Instead a deal was struck in short order and, somehow, in record time two blends were made and bottled, capsuled and certified – with new labels printed. The wines are from the 2023 vintage, and both remarkably drinkable for such young wines with a real seriousness to them.
Characteristically Haasbroek they are, in combining delicious drinkability and charm with sufficient gravitas. Syrah-based Hiervandaan, largely from Tulbagh, brings in grenache, mourvèdre and cinsault. It needs a few years to show its best, but it’s fresh and lively, with a depth of character and flavour. The aromatic Amalie is all those things too, with an added charm: a light-feeling but substantial Swartland blend of grenache blanc, marsanne and viognier. Both should be available shortly at around R200 – very decent value – including from the farm, which should be opening in February.
By that time Francois could have the next vintage of those wines fermenting or in tank. He’s agreed to stay on as a consultant, also looking into other aspects of reviving wine production at Solms-Delta itself, for at least the next year or two. That’s a big positive for a project whose revival can only be good for the South African wine industry, and the country as a whole. There will be international as well as local eyes on these developments in Franschhoek – somewhat counter to the usual billionnaire activity in that luxurious and lovely quarter.
- Tim James is one of South Africa’s leading wine commentators, contributing 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.
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