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Stellenbosch Wine Routes: the first 50 years

Today the Stellenbosch Wine Routes collective seems to have been around forever, writes EMILE JOUBERT. But just 50 years ago, it was a novel concept and one that was greeted with scepticism, if not downright hostility.

Wine might be made in the vineyard, as most modest winemakers like to say. It is people, though, who create wine legends. Today’s Stellenbosch Wine Routes, the largest wine tourism collective in South Africa and renowned throughout the world, began 50 years ago with three people and one idea. This idea was to create an organisation that allows members of the public to visit Stellenbosch’s wineries to taste and buy wine, as well as to experience the Winelands’ hospitality and atmosphere at a more personal level.

Stellenbosch Wine Routes
This calls for a toast… The three men behind the creation of the Stellenbosch Wine Routes lift their glasses in celebration of their dream come true. At the inauguration ceremony, 50 years ago, from left: Niel Joubert (Spier Wine Estates), Frans Malan (Simonsig) and Spatz Sperling (Delheim).

All three people behind this idea were iconoclasts, with such forward-thinking and determined mindsets, they could have started a wine route in Botswana and it still would have been a success. It all began in 1969 when two of the threesome – Frans Malan of Simonsig and Spier Wine Estate’s Niel Joubert – were visiting the winelands of France. They found themselves in Burgundy’s Morey St Denis appellation, which had a modest Route des Vins along which participating domains opened their doors to visitors such as Frans and Niel.

Recalling this visit, Frans told Wynboer magazine in 1992 that experiencing the French efforts to promote wine tourism immediately set his famously inquiring mind abuzz. “I had previously seen something similar during a visit to Bordeaux and it suddenly struck me that Stellenbosch was the ideal district in which to create a wine route,” he explained.

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Back in South Africa, Frans and Niel canvassed the support of their friend and fellow pioneer Spatz Sperling of Delheim, who immediately latched onto the idea. In his memoirs, published in 2005, Spatz wrote: “At that time very little was happening on the wine farms in the way of public relations, marketing or providing facilities to welcome visitors to the farms, be it tastings or lunches.” Like Frans and Niel, he saw a potential wine route not only as an effective sales channel through which Stellenbosch’s private wine cellars could sell their produce, but also as an opportunity to foster a better understanding of wine and the wine culture among people in general. This would lead to a greater appreciation for the product of the vine and thus a regular market.

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Spatz was tasked with recruiting members for the proposed wine route. This meant sending a questionnaire to the 15 wine farms that were trading as private cellars to gauge interest in the concept. After waiting for a long time, he received a show of interest from one single wine farm. He wrote, “I was distraught! Malan, however, comforted me: ‘Jy ken nie my mense nie. Hulle sal nooit ’n brief beantwoord nie.’ So we got into a car and went canvassing, door to door… Often it felt like selling chewing gum, so gluey and gummed up were my fellow wine producers in this supposedly most culturally progressive wine district of South Africa!”

As Frans had predicted, the personal lobbying worked. In April 1971, the authorities granted official approval for the formation of the Stellenbosch Wine Route, consisting of 11 members. The renowned bureaucracy surrounding South Africa’s liquor legislation made initial progress slow, however, and it was only in 1975 that permission was given to erect signposts along the wine route. Another six years passed before the first signs bearing the Stellenbosch Wine Route’s logo were approved for placing at the designated farms.

State officialdom was not the only challenge the wine route pioneers had to face: the protectionist ethos of wine merchants themselves also proved to be a stumbling block. Bottle stores and other traders were not keen that the wine-loving public should flock to Stellenbosch wine farms to stock up, thereby bypassing their own outlets. After its initial approval as a tourism body, the 11 members of the Stellenbosch Wine Route were allowed to sell a combined volume of only 3,000 12-bottle cases of wine at the cellar door. This was ludicrous, as Spier, Simonsig and Delheim were each producing far more wine than that individually.

Other hard-headed restrictions the initial wine route members, as well as their guests, had to contend with were that wine tastings could not be held and people buying wine had to purchase a minimum of 12 bottles. Fortunately, Spatz, Frans and Niel not only were well connected with the liquor authorities, but they possessed immense powers of persuasion, ensuring these restrictions and limitations were eventually relaxed. 

In 1992, at the celebration of the 21st anniversary of the Stellenbosch Wine Route, Frans said, “I believe the current laws pertaining to the wine industry are a direct result of the efforts of the Stellenbosch Wine Route’s members.”

At that time, the Stellenbosch Wine Route sported 24 wine farm members. The 21st anniversary also coincided with the dawn of the new democratic South Africa, which saw not only international markets opening to wines from Stellenbosch, but a proliferation of wine farms in the region due to the greater opportunity the industry now offered. At the turn of the millennium, there were some 120 wine producing farms around Stellenbosch. However, the sudden growth in the number of wineries and the individualistic mindsets of their owners led to stagnation for the Stellenbosch Wine Route, with only 40 estates participating in the oldest wine route in South Africa, representing the country’s leading wine region.

A new dawn began in 2000 when members of the Stellenbosch Wine Route realised that if the dynamic opportunities of wine tourism were to be harnessed for the benefit of the entire Stellenbosch region, a more inclusive and commercially astute organisation had to be established. Under chairman Johann Krige of Kanonkop, the Stellenbosch Wine Routes became a Section 21 company, drew the majority of the region’s farms into the fold and obtained a lucrative sponsorship from American Express. These steps allowed the organisation, which now had 140 members, to lead the way in local wine tourism and become one of the greatest wine tourism brands in the New World wine countries.

The leading role the region has played, and continues to play, in broadening the parameters and unleashing further opportunities in wine tourism has ensured legendary status for Stellenbosch; a status that, like the legacy of the three pioneers, ensures the legend continues.

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