The Cape Winemakers Guild and its annual auction have been key to improving the recognition and quality of South African wine. But critics say members have forgotten that aim, describing an elitist club happy to promote mainstream styles. Christian Eedes reports
How much of a premium would you pay for a limited-release, quality-controlled South African wine? The Cape Winemakers Guild Auction can be considered a barometer for top-end South African wine. In October, the 26th such event saw 2,298 six-bottle cases sold at an average price per bottle of R280 (£25). Sales were down 25% on 2009, which had seen the highest-ever earnings in the auction’s history, with an average bottle price of R381 (£34).
The Cape Winemakers Guild (CWG) came about in 1982, firstly as a means to exchange knowledge among quality-minded producers, and secondly in reaction to the concentration of power in the wine and spirits industry that existed at the time.
The introduction of Wine of Origin legislation in 1973 focused attention in South Africa on the potential of the individual property, rather than multi-regional, branded wine. Whereas low-price table wine made by large producer-wholesalers had long been the hallmark of the South African industry, there was now a movement towards quality, sitespecific wines, hence the need for a forum for likeminded winemakers to exchange ideas. ‘The profile of South African wine was low,’ says Johan Malan, current CWG chairman and cellarmaster at Simonsig ‘The idea behind the Guild was to raise the bar and promote the industry’s image nationally and globally.’
Inspiration & aspiration
There is also a strong sense of social responsibility that pervades the Guild’s activities. Established in 1999, The Guild’s Development Trust provides social development investment for school children in the winelands. These children from disadvantaged communities can attend local high schools via subsidies from the Trust. It has also provided funds for other educational facilities in the winelands. The Trust is funded by donations and proceeds raised atGuild events as well as from special charity sales held during the main auction.
Then there’s the CWG Protégé Programme, launched in 2006 with the aim of mentoring winemakers from previously disadvantaged groups. Only final-year students who have studied oenology and viticulture at Stellenbosch University or Elsenburg Agricultural College can apply. During the three-year internship, protégés work alongside Guild members, spending a minimum of six months at any one cellar. Howard Booysen, the first graduate, already has a 2010 Riesling on the market under his own label. But ask any member or aspirant member about the value of Guild membership and it comes down to theexchange of information. ‘I’ve got 40 colleagues on speed-dial that I can ask for advice at any time,’ says Teddy Hall of Teddy Hall Wines. ‘The technical tastings are great but the networking opportunities are almost more valuable,’ says Carl Schultz of Hartenberg. ‘It’s a chance to catch up with colleagues I otherwise hardly ever see due to work commitments.’
While much is admirable about the CWG, it’s not without controversy. One issue is membership. There’s a tension between limiting numbers to keep the Guild exclusive versus the need to bring in new talent lest the grouping become irrelevant. ‘There’s no need to set targets; the Guild will grow organically,’ says Malan. ‘As the industry grows, so will the CWG. It will make it harder to run, but that’s the nature of these things,’ says Schultz, a former chairman.
Today, the Guild has 41 members (there were eight originally) comprising many, but not all, of South
Africa’s most talented winemakers. Members must attend a minimum number of technical tastings in a year plus be involved in promotional activities for the auction. André van Rensburg of Vergelegen says of his recent resignation that he ‘got hauled over the coals’ for not attending functions. ‘Who do you think has first call on my time – Vergelegen or the CWG? The Guild operates as if it owns the individual, which I found arrogant.’ Van Rensburg also refers to
the Guild as an ‘old boys club’ with certain factions ‘pushing their friends and affiliations’. Eben Sadie, meanwhile, who makes Columella and Palladius in Swartland and another range of wines under the Sequillo label, as well as working in Priorat, Spain, has been invited to join but declined. ‘It’s simply a matter of time. If I get a spare moment, then it’s going to be spent improving plant quality.’
The most contentious issue of all, though, is the annual auction. The first one took place in 1985 in Johannesburg with the then head of Sotheby’s wine department David Molyneux-Berry MW conducting the bidding process. It was a route to market for South Africa’s fledgling independent winemaking sector and largely incidental to the main aims of the Guild, which were to elevate the standards of South African winemaking and to gain international recognition. Today it is inconceivable that the Guild would not conduct an annual auction – it has simply become far too commercially important for its members. The question is: does it still serve toimprove South African wine quality?
Wines that appear at auction must be ‘different’ to a member’s standard offering. Wines also have to be approved by fellow Guild members at a blind tasting. Whereas the auction could be a means of showcasing more experimental wines, it seems to foster very ‘safe’ cuvées as winemakers try not to offend the delicate sensibilities of the punter.
‘Much of what gets sold at auction is mainstream,’ says Schultz. ‘If you’re too alternative, you’re on thin ice in terms of getting a wine selected. The biggest danger the Guild faces is conformity. I’d love to see members operating with more spirit of adventure.’ A particular criticism is that Guild members favour big, bold reds over more elegant, classic-style wines.
In addition, many of the wines that get selected are simply a barrel selection from a standard
production. Do these wines really deserve CWG auction status? ‘You’re at the end of the market where the law of diminishing returns is a big factor. You have to pay a lot more to get a minute improvement in quality but that improvement is definitely there,’ says Hall. ‘The fact that all the wines at auction have undergone peer review is
precisely what gives the whole thing legitimacy.’
Malan agrees there may be issues over the wines getting into the auction, and says the selection process is under review. What’s mooted is that each member will be automatically allowed one wine each at auction, presuming it meets some minimum standards in terms of technical analysis. But will this happen? Hall has the last word: ‘We realise a crucial purpose of the Guild has to be to push the envelope. Everything we do is totally transparent. AGMs are open to the media. We’re not the Broederbond or the Ku Klux Klan.’
Written by Christian Eedes