Taken for granted today, Stellenbosch Wine Routes is a concept that has had a somewhat bumpy and disjointed ride. EMILE JOUBERT explains how it almost fell apart – and how it came back together.
Since its inception 50 years ago, the Stellenbosch Wine Routes has evolved in two important phases. Its initial founding in 1971 by Frans Malan, Niel Joubert and Spatz Sperling was the first and more significant. Then, when it found itself at a crossroads as the new millennium was about to begin, 1999 marked the beginning of a second chapter.
The catalyst for this was Pietman Retief, a well-known Stellenbosch personality and stalwart of the tourism association, as well as the director of the South African Brandy Foundation, a body committed to the generic promotion of brandy and the culture around it. In spring 2000, Pietman was invited to address local wine industry dignitaries and attendees at the Stellenbosch Food and Wine Festival, at that time the region’s premier social event. Here he took the opportunity to raise certain issues of concern about the road the Stellenbosch Wine Routes, and the tourism community in general, had embarked upon.
For although the organisation had been founded as an inclusive body representing all Stellenbosch wine cellars, the character of Stellenbosch wine tourism had morphed over 28 years into a disjointed and disparate entity. Due to the proliferation of cellars and confident individual voices, Stellenbosch had been broken up into a number of wine routes, each wishing to promote its specific region. Whereas cellars in Helderberg, Bottelary and Simonsberg – all blue-chip Stellenbosch wine regions – had once happily settled under the umbrella body of the Stellenbosch Wine Routes, by 1999 these areas were running their own wine routes. What was left of the original enterprise comprised only some 40 of the then 100 cellars, the balance eschewing a bond with Stellenbosch and preferring to fall under one of the aforementioned sub-regions.
As a seasoned expert in the tourism industry and a respected member of the Stellenbosch community, Pietman took to the podium on that warm spring evening and let rip with a stirring speech, demanding more than encouraging that Stellenbosch get its act together by making sure all the region’s producers work together under one banner. And that banner was to be Stellenbosch.
“How could we have allowed this venerable institution of Stellenbosch Wine Routes, founded in 1971 by people united in promoting this wonderful wine region, to break into soulless fragments?” asked Pietman. “South Africa is on the cusp of becoming a major player in international and local wine tourism, the potential benefits of which are enormous to a community such as Stellenbosch, whose soul is immersed in wine.
“If Stellenbosch is to be South Africa’s leading wine tourism body and wine region, which it deserves to be for historical reasons as well as the fact that the nation’s best wines are made here, we must get off of our petty individual pedestals and have one united wine route: Stellenbosch Wine Routes.”
Once Pietman’s impassioned speech had brought the sentiments of many in the Stellenbosch wine world out into the open, local wine figures decided to act on the scenario he had sketched. Bennie Howard, then communications director of Stellenbosch Farmers Winery, set up a brainstorming session attended by some heavyweights of the local wine industry, including Ken Forrester, Johann Krige of Kanonkop and grape-grower Johan Gerber, as well as myself as communications consultant.
Before he knew it, Johann Krige was tasked with chairing the movement towards a greater, inclusive Stellenbosch Wine Routes. “Initially this was a job I was not particularly looking forward to,” he recalls. “The breakaway groupings that had formed wine routes in Helderberg, Simonsberg and Bottelary were quite rightly protective of what they had established and were doing a good job. I expected the task of uniting the more than 100 wineries from various of Stellenbosch’s sub-regions to be like herding cats.”
But once the various groupings got together to thrash out synergies and opportunities, and to reconnect with the importance of the Wine of Origins Stellenbosch certification, the ball began rolling towards unification. The whole, after all, is greater than the sum of its parts.
Johann had two trump cards to discourage any wineries from sticking to a sub-region instead of being corralled together with Stellenbosch. Firstly, he managed to convince the more than 200 grape farmers who grow grapes for selling to wineries making Wine of Origin Stellenbosch products to become wine route members, thereby ensuring a substantial boost to the Stellenbosch Wine Routes’ kitty through the collection of these extra levies. The second play saw him ensuring a sponsorship from American Express, making Stellenbosch the first local wine route to benefit from any form of commercial sponsorship.
At the official launch of the new Stellenbosch Wine Routes in 2002, Johann said, “The formation of the new, all-inclusive wine route is a leap of faith by the entire region’s wine industry players to promote their area and their product unilaterally.”
What he didn’t add was that South African wine tourism had now entered a new era, one dominated by a tourism powerhouse called the Stellenbosch American Express Wine Routes that comprised more than 300 wineries and grape growers and had a full-time CEO in the form of Nicolette Waterford and a lucrative sponsorship from an established brand synonymous with local and international tourism.
This new face of wine tourism in South Africa’s wine capital showed the way in a dynamic and important part of the wine industry. A new, larger Stellenbosch Wine Festival was held. Proactive efforts to target the wine drinkers in Gauteng with Stellenbosch wine were embarked upon with great success, ensuring a greater awareness of the Stellenbosch brand and its status as the centre of wine excellence. Media campaigns aimed at connecting Stellenbosch with fine wine to local and global audiences had this region leapfrogging other regional wine routes and taking its place as the country’s leading wine tourism exponent, a position held to this day.
And in the current climate where the focus is on the premiumisation of wine and excellence in tourism offerings, the adage created during the Wine Routes’ second phase is more relevant than ever. Simply: “Think quality, drink Stellenbosch.”