Reflections of a Fine Wine Merchant

There’s an art to being highly dedicated ‘bon vivants’ as well as hard workers and Wine Cellar fine wine merchants Roland Peens and James Pietersen have got that nailed. As well as providing top South African and international fine wine with expert advice to private customers, Wine Cellar is also the largest private wine storage facility in Africa managing 25 000 cases at any given time.

Their penchant for seeking out delicious wines to suit any pocket is the stuff of wine enthusiasts’ dreams and their extensive wine list boasts some of the finest and rarest vintages in the land. Wine Cellar is able to offer the largest allocations of South Africa’s most sought-after wines thanks to close connections to South Africa’s best wine producers and is often the first to release to market. And with 30 years combined tasting and judging experience resulting in 2 vastly experienced palates, it’s no small wonder that Wine Cellar offers one of South Africa’s most comprehensive wine lists online, specialising in SA leading winemaking regions and Europe’s finest too.

But what does it really take to curate and maintain such a devastatingly tempting range of rare, vintage and well-priced wines? We speak to Roland about the joys and challenges of being so deeply invested in the Nectar of the Gods…

 

Q: For the second year in a row, you’re the auctioneer at the Nederburg Charity Auction. Tell us a bit about your involvement?

A: We operate in a top-end luxury environment and it’s difficult to give back to the community. The Nederburg Charity Auction is an awesome platform for me to contribute with my fine wine knowledge and sales ability. The lots are often really exciting too, such as trips overseas and 100 year old wines. We managed to raise R500,000 last year and this year will hopefully be more. The funds go to wine industry community projects around the wine regions and are desperately needed.

 

Q: Roland, tell us, how did life lead you into the business of fine wine?

A:  Having grown up in Jo’burg, I had no background in wine until I reached Stellenbosch University. Ironically it was Tassenberg that got me questioning what I was drinking. The June 2000 batch, noted in very small letters on the side of the bottle, somehow tasted much better than any other. Asking the barmen at a late night ‘jol’ which batch they had on offer was a tricky question. From there I joined the wine society and started tasting as much wine as I could. I was fascinated by how all the contributing factors in wine lead to countless different experiences in the glass. Wine is an amazing industry and your senses become elated with fine experiences.

 

Q: Who were your mentors along your journey into the world of wine?

A: My colleague James was in fact was my first real mentor 15 years ago, as we worked together in my last year of university. He had, and still has, an unparalleled passion for wine and was able to communicate wine better than anyone I had ever met. Though my career I have got to know many local and international wine professionals, but David Brice, the founder of Wine Cellar and Cathy van Zyl, a Master of Wine, have also had great influence.

 

Q: What would you say has been your singular most impressive wine experience along the way?

A: On one of my regular Bordeaux trips, I was lucky enough to go to a dinner where we tasted and drank all the Bordeaux First Growths from 1982, not only a great vintage but my birth year too. Some of those bottles such as Petrus 1982 are over R100k per bottle. A hedonistic experience!

 

Q: What are the greatest rewards of turning your passion into your career?

A: Work becomes your life, which means you are generally immersed in activities that you enjoy. This also has its downsides of struggling to shut-off, but my routine each day is completely different and I get to taste my way around the world. Fine food is another benefit of trading in fine wine…

 

Q: How do you see the role of an online fine wine merchant as opposed to a traditional retailer?

A: The world is changing quickly and therefore you need to keep up to date with technology. The online business also means that you constantly have your shop front ‘open’ and there is always work to be done.

The down side is that you don’t get to meet customers often, which is one of the best parts of selling fine wine. We therefore host around 60 tasting events per year in order to promote our wines and build relationships. Tastings and events which we host and which we attend, become invaluable to the business. Our tasting events in Joburg and Cape Town vary from 10 pax to 200 pax and this takes a huge amount of management. We cater to different consumers too in order for the customer to always feel comfortable at each event. We try steer away from ‘snooty-style’ tastings and really make the tastings accessible to all.

 

Q: Wine Cellar is known to import fine wines from Europe. How do you view the evolution and growth of wine production in other parts of the world? Any favourite regions? Producers?

A: Although that’s quite a broad question, I find that all regions change over generations, through economic cycles, customer trends and now climate change. Wine regions such as Bordeaux and Burgundy have changed dramatically due to the East, mainly China, gaining the love and culture of fine wine. This has pushed up the prices of benchmark wines to stratospheric levels, making them largely unaffordable. In traditional parts of the wine world, fine wine can’t be replicated. As the consuming base becomes bigger, the demand for fine European wine grows. My other favourite region is Barolo. Bordeaux, Burgundy and Barolo, the 3 Bs’! There are too many great producers to mention, but I tend to like wines made in a traditional way, that have been producing wine in the same way for generations.

 

Q: As a merchant, you have seen consumers’ tastes change over the years. What has been most notable to you?

A: Consumers are for the first time open to experimenting with new varieties, styles and flavours. The world is bigger than Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot and there are a lot more exciting wines out there today than 10 years ago. Another big change is that consumers want to know the back story behind the wine. Where is it made, how is it made and who are the characters behind the wine. These questions are similar to the revolution happening in cheese, beer, coffee, meat and many artisanal products in South Africa. It’s an exciting time. We want wine to be authentic, sustainable and delicious.

 

Q: According to Knight Frank’s latest Luxury Index (KFLII), wine has finally overtaken collectable cars as the most popular luxury investment for the world’s super-rich. Any advice for those looking to invest in South African fine wine?

A: Taste as much wine as you can. You can’t make investment decisions without knowing the product well and wine offers an abyss of information to discover. Find a merchant you trust and then most importantly, ALWAYS store your wines in perfect conditions between 13-16 degrees constantly. This is another part of our business and one that we are absolute experts in as we know how important wine storage is to maintain the quality of a fine wine.

 

Q: Tell us Roland, what does a week in the life of a fine wine merchant look like? 

A: Each day is different, which makes my job so exciting. The best part is probably the international buying trips throughout Europe in order to meet suppliers and taste new wines and vintages. I can never convince my friends that eating and drink through France is work, but it can be taxing on the body!

Locally, I am usually in the vineyards a couple times a week. This involves tasting with the winemaker and offering feedback or attending a wine launch. Then there are many dinners and evening tastings which make the days rather long and irritate my wife. I recently attended the launch of the most luxurious dinner in Africa, a 5 course pairing at Nobu with Louis XIII, arguably the finest spirit in the world.

Once a month we do category tastings, where we will taste South Africa’s finest wines in a certain category, such as Pinot Noir. This is a blind tasting of up to 80 wines, taking 5 hours and a huge amount of concentration.

Daily, James and I have a few wines to taste in the office in order to consider them for the website.

I often travel to personal cellars to evaluate them for purchase and also attend auctions in order to find valuable stocks.

This all happens in conjunction with managing a growing wine merchant business and I usually need to catch up with work on the weekend. Weekends also give me time to attend to the Swartland wine project I am involved in.

 

Q: We heard about some exciting new developments through the grapevine, what’s next for Wine Cellar?

 

A: Online is set to gain more traction in South Africa and we are hoping to offer our wine selection to a larger audience, especially at the every-day wine level. We also see big potential in investing in fine SA wines, with an exciting offering coming up in that space shortly!

 

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About Wine Cellar

 

Wine Cellar fine wine merchants was established in 2000. What was primarily a wine storage operation housed in an old candle factory below ground, with a small offering of fine wines from Europe, developed into a leading fine wine importer, traditional wine merchant and, now manages 25 000 cases at any given time, the largest private wine storage facility in Africa. Wine Cellar offers one of South Africa’s greatest wine lists online, with free delivery (on orders over R1500) throughout South Africa. Based on a unique and diverse portfolio, an uncompromising commitment to quality, and a standard of service second to none, Wine Cellar has earned an acclaimed presence and a loyal client base through the development of trusted relationships and exemplary professionalism.

 

To order Wine Cellar Fine Wines, visit http://www.winecellar.co.za/

 

About Roland Peens

 

Studying economics at the University of Stellenbosch meant that Roland was surrounded by wine. He gave in to its lures and, as soon as he had finished his degree, found his way into the industry. Roland worked in marketing, retail, exports and as a sommelier before joining Wine Cellar – one of South Africa’s foremost importers and retailers of fine wines. He is a partner and has been the Director since 2005. Local and international study as well as regular travel have added to his extensive insight into the wine world. You will find Roland at most of South Africa’s top wine events, judging, learning and exploring the world of wine, forever expanding his palate. When he isn’t popping corks, he enjoys cooking, writing about wine as well as running on the beautiful Cape mountain trails.

 

  • Director of Wine Cellar – Fine wine merchants
  • Director of Terracura and Silwervis, Swartland Wine Project
  • Platter’s wine guide contributor 2007-2010 and current 5-Star panel member taster
  • Panel member of Christian Eedes / Winemag.com category tastings 2011-2017
  • Panel member and consultant to the Nederburg Auction
  • Charity Auctioneer for the Nederburg Auction
  • Participant in the World Wine Tasting Championships in Bordeaux with Team South Africa in 2013
  • Diploma in Wine and BComm in Economics
  • Wine Consultant to leading wineries
  • Wine Educator
  • Founder of Young Guns
  • Journalist and industry commentator
  • 15 years International fine wine experience, tasting on average 5 000 wines per year

 

About James Pietersen

 

James manages the South African wine portfolio at Wine Cellar and was enticed into the world of wine whilst studying law at the University of Stellenbosch. An encounter with some Château Lynch-Bages 1982 led to an epiphany and a life-long journey in wine ensued. This has included stints in retail, wine buying and recently as Head Sommelier for the Slick Restaurant Group. As a professional wine taster with experience including Platter’s South African Wine Guide (since 2007), Wine Magazine, Classic Wine Magazine, Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show, Amorim Cap Classic Challenge and much more, James has forged a deep and respected knowledge of South African wines. Together with Roland and Christian Eedes, he is part of the three-person panel on the Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay Reports, and he is a board member of SASA (South African Sommeliers Association). A keen film photographer, James loves all elements of fine food and wine and never tires of learning more.

  • SA Wine Portfolio – Wine Cellar Fine wine merchants
  • Platter’s wine guide contributor 2007- 2014, currently Roving Chair for the Platter 5-Star tasting
  • Panel member of Christian Eedes / Winemag.com category tastings 2011- 2017
  • Panel Chairman at the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show
  • Previous Board member of the South African Sommeliers Association
  • Cape Wine Academy Diploma
  • Michael Fridjhon Wine Judging Academy Graduate with distinction 2007
  • Wine Consultant and writer
  • Diners Club Winemaker of the Year Judge
  • Standard Bank Chenin Blanc Challenge Judge
  • 20 years international fine wine experience, tasting on average 5 000 wines per year