Cape Winemakers Guild celebrates 30 years of winemaking excellence
Innovation, benchmarking and the sharing of knowledge spanning three decades of winemaking excellence, is the proud accomplishment of the Cape Winemakers Guild, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this year.
The Guild, an association of some of the finest winemakers recognised for their high standards of craftsmanship, has evolved over the past 30 years into a body of 45 members who jointly represent the pinnacle of South African wine achievement. All experts in their respective fields, Guild members have played a significant role in the development of the South African wine industry. From the introduction of small oak barrels, the making of champion port-style wines, the establishment of Méthode Cap Classique and the creation of Bordeaux-style and above all, Cape blends, to the opening up of new, cooler wine regions, improvements in plant material and the introduction of sustainable farming and environmentally responsible wines, Guild members have always been at the forefront of innovation.
It all began on 24 August 1982 when eight enthusiastic winemakers with a singular vision got together in the home of the Guild’s founding chairman, Billy Hofmeyr, at Welgemeend in Paarl to establish the Cape Independent Winemakers Guild. A ground-breaking association of independent winemakers, the Guild had one objective in mind – to pool their resources and knowledge in order to craft great South African wines that would stand out amongst the best in the world. Five of the founding members, Kevin Arnold, Jan Boland Coetzee, Etienne le Riche, Peter Finlayson and Braam van Velden remain active members of the Guild today, the others being Billy Hofmeyr, Walter Finlayson and Achim von Arnim. Professor Joel van Wyk, who attended the first meeting as an invited guest, became the Guild’s first honorary life member. From the onset, knowledge sharing and benchmarking was the major focus of the Guild and members would taste wines from around the world and compare them to their own wines.
At the time of the Guild’s establishment, the wine industry was dominated by the large conglomerates, KWV, Stellenbosch Farmers Winery and Gilbeys and South Africa was immersed in a period of isolation and sanctions. Kevin Arnold, appointed secretary at the Guild’s first formal meeting, recalls that during that time, few wines were exported and South African wines did not enjoy international acclaim. Imported wines were also hard to come by and only a select few had the privilege of owning a private wine collection.
The establishment of the Guild gave independent winemakers a collective voice and opportunity to change the status quo. As a result stringent membership criteria were adopted restricting membership to independent winemakers who were wholly involved in the vineyards, winemaking and bottling as well as marketing their own wines themselves.
Keen to encourage exports and fill their empty containers, Safmarine became the Guild’s first sponsor, helping members to ship their wines to the United Kingdom through the London based marketing company, Southern Hemisphere Wines. Guild wines were even showcased at the London Trade Fair during the early years. At the 1990 International Wine and Spirit Competition, eight Guild wines were awarded gold medals, the highest number attained by any one South African organisation participating in this prestigious competition at the time. In addition, the Guild brought home the Packaging Trophy for its Auction wine label.
Cape Winemakers Guild Auction
The first Guild Auction took place in September 1985 in Rosebank, Johannesburg, in association with Sotheby’s with seasoned wine auctioneer David Molyneux-Berry who would preside over the first seven Guild Auctions all held in Johannesburg, tasked with selling the wines. Walter Finlayson, who was manager of the Guild’s first six auctions, recalls the nervous anticipation leading up to that first auction and describes the bidding process as “very exciting”. Renowned auctioneer, Stephan Welz teamed up with Sotheby’s to host the auction in 1988. Nedbank American Express sponsored the last two Johannesburg auctions in 1990 and 1991.
Back then already the preceding auction week created a great sense of excitement, with a “family-like” atmosphere as families played golf and attended the Stephan Welz dinner, drawing great interest from winemakers and local residents. Today still, the preceding auction week creates a hive of activity with the Guild Sports Day where the public can join members for a game of golf or boules or attend dinners with the winemakers at winery restaurants.
In 1992, the Guild Auction moved to Cape Town under the management of Robin Grier, late father of longstanding Guild member, Jeff Grier, with well-known South African wine personality, Dave Hughes, conducting the auction. For the next five years, the Michael James Organisation took charge of the auction before handing over the gavel to the Guild’s current auctioneer, Henré Hablutzel of Hofmeyr Mills in 1998.
1996 saw the start of a 17 year association with Nedbank, who became the official sponsor of the Cape Winemakers Guild and its Auction. It was not until 2000 that the Guild changed its name, under the chairmanship of Carl Schultz, from the Cape Independent Winemakers Guild to Cape Winemakers Guild. This opened the door to prominent winemakers employed by the larger organisations to become members of the Guild. Carl recalls how the lifting of sanctions in the post-democracy years brought about a new buoyancy in the market and the word “independent” began to lose its value as trading opened up.
In the 1990’s, which heralded major transformation and the end of sanctions against South Africa, international buyers began showing an interest in the Guild Auction and by 1999, 50% of all the auction purchases came from overseas buyers. Today the interest from local buyers exceeds the international contingent with 70% of the total auction sales of over R5-million going to local buyers in 2011.
Despite the huge success of these auctions, Etienne le Riche states that it was not intended for the Guild to have any commercial function and that the auction was incidental, and secondary, to those primary objectives of the Guild, namely to elevate the quality standards of South African winemaking and to gain international recognition.
All wines that go under the hammer at the Nedbank Cape Winemakers Guild Auction are made exclusively for the auction by members of the Guild. Until 2010 wines were selected meticulously by a tasting panel but under the Chairmanship of Louis Strydom, new selection criteria were adopted the following year in an effort to boost creativity and achieve greater diversity of wine styles. In terms of the new criteria members themselves can now decide whether or not to submit a wine for the auction provided it is free of any technical defects and the highest standards of wine health measurement are met.
Membership of the Cape Winemakers Guild
The new millennium saw the Cape Winemakers Guild evolve into an association with newfound energy, fervour and business acumen to raise the bar in South African winemaking. The name change and new admission criteria heralded a new generation of young winemakers into the Guild bringing new expertise and perspectives into the organisation. During the first decade of the newly constituted Cape Winemakers Guild, the membership grew by an astounding 80%. The Guild Auction also grew in stature from a niche event to the country’s definitive public wine action with annual Showcases launched in in Cape Town in 2001 followed by Johannesburg in 2002 to enable the public to taste the Auction wines. The new Guild logo, the iconic key, gave the Guild wines a unique brand identity and the appointment of a business advisor in 2004 created a solid business platform for the Guild.
While the Guild has defined clear business objectives with its annual Auction, the sharing of knowledge is as important today as it was 30 years ago and monthly technical tastings of local and international wines remain a major priority for the members.
Today, the 45 top winemakers who make up the Cape Winemakers Guild continue to raise wine standards higher than ever before, single-mindedly striving to extract the full potential from the unique South African terroir and to set new world-class benchmarks for South African winemaking. Membership of the Guild is by invitation only and is extended to winemakers who have been responsible for the production of outstanding wines for a minimum of five years.
Over the past three decades some of the original stalwarts have reached a stage in their careers, where they are no longer at the coalface in the wineries but continue to make a crucial contribution as respected authorities to the industry as a whole. To ensure that this valuable expertise and knowledge is safeguarded within the Guild, provision was made at the end of 2011 for an additional membership category of Technical Member. This enables members who no longer fulfil the requirements of the Producing Membership category to remain active members of the Guild even though they will no longer submit wines to the annual Guild Auction.
Acknowledging its trailblazers is enshrined in the very fabric of the Guild, whose list of Honorary Members includes Francois Naude, Norma Ratcliffe, Johann Krige, Walter Finlayson and Lynne Sherriff.
Nedbank Cape Winemakers Guild Development Trust and Protégé Programme
In 1999 in association with Nedbank, the Nedbank Cape Winemakers Guild Development Trust was established to support social development through education in wineland communities. Over the years the Development Trust has supported numerous learners at schools such as the Landbouskool Boland and Jan Kriel School amongst others.
In 2006 under the chairmanship of Philip Costandius, the Cape Winemakers Guild Protégé Programme, a first for the wine industry, was launched with the goal of bringing about transformation by cultivating, nurturing and empowering promising individuals to become winemakers of excellence. The mentorship programme gives Viticulture and Oenology graduates the opportunity to work alongside and learn from Guild members. To date eight Protégés have participated in the programme, including Howard Booysen and Praisy Dlamini who have both graduated from the programme. The Guild currently has six protégés completing the three year internship programme.
In addition to the internships, the Protégé Programme also offers bursaries to final year Viticulture and Oenology students at Stellenbosch University and Elsenburg Agricultural College.
The 28th annual Nedbank Cape Winemakers Guild Auction takes place on Saturday, 6 October 2012 at 09h00 at Spier Conference Centre in the Stellenbosch Winelands.