Tim James: Why do winemakers move?
By Tim James, 11 August 2022
The decisions of other people – especially those we scarcely know – are always pretty strange, I suppose, by definition. Because they’re made according to principles and personal histories that we don’t know; let alone do we know all the circumstances involved. Unless we can ask those people and expect an honest answer, we can only speculate according to our own possible responses to those situations and choices.
I’ve been thinking about the latest bit of musical chairs in Cape winemaking at properties of arguably not greatly different levels of prestige: André van Rensburg leaves Vergelegen, Luke O’Cuinneagain leaves Glenelly in order to go to Vergelegen, Dirk van Zyl leaves Saxenburg to go to Glenelly…. Who I wonder will be leaving where to go to Saxenburg? It must be under urgent discussion right now.
Of course, I can’t ask those people about their motives (I anyway decided not to even try), because they are somewhat less than likely to give me – on the record at least – anything other than PR blandishments about the excitement of new challenges, sadness at leaving the old place, etc, etc. They’re unlikely to say: well, I’d come to find it hard to work with the MD at the previous place; or, I’ll be earning a whack more here than I did under the tight-fisted regime back there. And maybe the PR story is the true one, anyway.
I suppose we’re all likely to immediately speculate that there must be money at the root of these moves. But maybe not. If not, then it is sometimes difficult to uderstand. And, possibly it should be taken for granted that it is nobody’s business except for those concerned in the moves. But winemakers are important figures in the New World set-up, where, despite all the claims, terroir doesn’t yet dictate things, but only circumscribes possibilities for winemakers. They are to an extent heroic public figures who must cope with being looked at.
Anyway, I can’t help wondering about the latest chair-swopping – because I don’t understand it. Not only because it seems probable that Glenelly and Saxenburg were stumping up pretty competitive salaries to the winemakers who moved on. Of course, I don’t know that. Sadly, the most apparently understandable move is the one that started the chain reaction – André van Rensburg leaving the place he had occupied for 25 years with apparently total devotion and identification. It seems he had to go because he’d reached the retirement age decreed by the property’s corporate owner. I trust that Anglo are giving him a big party to publicly celebrate his achievements.
Luke O’Cuinneagain had been at Glenelly for 15 years, responsible for its slowly building up a substantial reputation for comparatively elegant, restrained, dry wines of high quality. Did he feel that he’d done the basic groundwork there, and that it would only be refinement from now on, and he felt the need for a new challenge? There are more wines made at his new place, certainly, and it’s in all ways bigger – but not any more prestigious an estate these days, I’d have thought. His move to Vergelegen is actually a fascinating one, and I look forward tremendously to see what happens to the wines – the reds especially. Under André they seem to have been growing ever riper and bigger and bolder – always excellently made, but…. The style has been different from Luke’s at Glenelly, and either the Vergelegen style or the Luke style will now have to shift.
A different story at Saxenburg – though I can’t see a real clash of styles between what Dirk van Zyl was starting to do there and what, surely, Glenelly will want to maintain. But his leaving Saxenburg is, to me, more difficult to understand. He’d been effectively there only since the 2020 harvest, and seemed genuinely excited by the scope he was being given to slowly lighten up the wines and focus on elegantly expressing terroir rather than ripeness and power. He’d begun this work and was achieving results that, at the least, impressed the highly sophisticated palates at Glenelly (as well as my own modest one). And surely the chance of building something fine, as was happening under the direction of the owners at Saxenburg, in the Polkadraai Hills, which is one of the most exciting terroirs in the Cape right now – surely that chance would be, for a winemaker, a most marvellous one. At Glenelly, by contrast, the winemaking challenge will likely be to continue the work that has been done. That Saxenburg job is going to be a great one for whoever gets it.
Let’s wish them all well in their new slots, anyway, whatever their motives and whatever they hope to achieve. And the other less high-profile moves too. There’s Adam Mason (who left big business winemaking to join Klein Constantia in 2003, and then moved back to mostly larger-scale work at Mulderbosch at the end of 2011, and then on to fill the gap at DeMorgenzon in 2020, involving teamwork with owner Wendy Appelbaum that lasted a time scarcely worth noting). Since then he’s been reportedly happy as an occasional consultant, and now has been announced as consulting winemaker for what looks like a typical mega-rich person’s estate in plush Franschhoek – you know the sort of thing, with restaurant, art-gallery, expensive PR, and generally stuff to appeal to moneyed tourists, including a bit of wine. Let’s see how that goes, before any speculation is allowed to happen.
- 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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