Tim James: Wine families, real and imaginary
By Tim James, 1 November 2021
Last time I was in a properly curmudgeonly mood I wrote some stuff about labels that irritated me for some or other reason. This time when I didn’t feel like indulging my well-known commitment to sunshine journalism I thought of extending my friendlier examination of foreign languages on local labels and looking at those which illiterately mangle those languages (most stupidly Le Belle Rebelle – it should be “La”). But that seemed to have the prospect of too much investigative work, and when I’m grumpy I’m also lazy.
And then, just in time, something clicked, and I realised I needed to revisit one of my prime irritations, the growing obsession in South African wine with invoking “family” wherever possible – and often when it shouldn’t be possible. What clicked was reading something about the Back family’s sale of the Backsberg brand to big-business DGB (the land was previously sold to neighbour Babylonstoren). Backsberg was officially Backsberg Estate Cellars, but it was usually just Backsberg on the labels. The Back family sells up, and guess what the new owners are rebranding the range? Yes, Backsberg Family Wines, despite there never having been such thing as a “Backsberg” family and despite the owners now being about as far from a family as you can get. Is that cynical or what?
It does fit in with another subgrouping of the burgeoning “Family Wines/Vineyards” thing: the use of the word alongside a name which isn’t the name of a family, as though there is such am entity as a “family wine” or a “family vineyard” which is independent of any family being involved. I’ve niggled before at Mullineux and Leeu Family Wines, but that’s an innocent misuse compared with many. Another big business that can also surely be accused of cynicism and a flagrant violation of the word is Leopard’s Leap Family Vineyards. The brand is owned by the Rupert-Koegelenbergs, but what of the numerous vineyards producing grapes for the millions of bottles? In fact, the FV bit was only added fairly recently – presumably the marketers (like those of DGB) thought that invoking a family would help to sell some wine to gullible sentimentalists. I’m surprised Distell hasn’t leapt on this clearly useful train and given us, for example, Nederburg Family Wines. Or how about KWV The Mentors Family Vineyards?
MAN Family Wines is another big business (millions of bottles to dozens of countries) which found it expedient to change its name as it got larger – it used to be MAN Vintners. Need I point out that there is no MAN family involved – all-capital letters or not? And yet another is Leeuwenkuil Family Vineyards (though at least there the owner is one family, despite the vast landholdings, as is the case with Boplaas Family Vineyards – but, again, what on earth is a “family vineyard”?). As for those using the sacred word in connection with no actual family, I could also mention smaller concerns, such as Stellenbosch Family Wines, Stettyn Family Vineyards, Olifantsberg Family Vineyards and most ludicrously of all, M’hudi Boutique Family Wines: there’s no M’hudi family and what the hell are “boutique family wines” anyway?
That concern used to be simply M’hudi Wines, and there are a handful of wineries that have rebranded to include the F-word, including Nelson Family Vineyards (it was Nelson’s Creek), Schultz Family Wines (was Rudi Schultz Wines), and Beaumont Family Wines (was Beaumont Wines). There must be other rebrandings to account for the massive growth in the number of F Wines and Vineyards in recent years. The current edition of Platter’s lists nearly 50 of them as far as I can tell; ten years ago there were about 15.
And in Platter’s 2004 there were only five – and curiously enough, three of them no longer exist under that name: Simonsig Family Vineyards (perhaps the first to make use of this formulation involving a not-family name) reverted to Simonsig Estate, and Bartho Eksteen Family Wines seemed to disappear and then re-emerge, against the trend, as plain Bartho Eksteen. And Royle Family Vineyards (then owned by someone called Noel Woods – I’ve no idea about the Royle bit) later changed its name to Arra.
The other two in Platter’s 2004 were newish names of unimportant little wineries, somewhat less known than they are today: Sadie Family Wines and Raats Family Wines, who I think must share the honour (if that’s the word I really must use) of pioneering the formulation in this country. Perhaps, given the great success of Sadie and Raats, the ever-growing fashionability of invoking the family is explained. As to where the idea came from in the first place – I suspect California, where it was certainly an established practice. European family estates seem (happily!) to be content with just the family name and don’t anxiously underline the familiness. Now there are similar namings in Australia and New Zealand – I don’t know if the practice has moved outside of the Anglo-Saxon bits of the New World.
I could stop there, irritated but exhausted. But I fear I must also point to a related development that seems to be picking up pace: naming individual wines after family members, usually children. I can’t list even all that I know of, but perhaps those of Miles Mossop (wines called Sam, Max, Saskia and Kika) are the best known. And I’m guessing that Ambeloui was the first to do this in a systematic way, more than two decades back. It might all be rather twee, but at least – far as I know – they’re all real children and the occasional spouse. But I suppose DGB might well start naming some of the Backsberg Family wines after imaginary ones. Why not if there’s already an imaginary family?
- 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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