Legends walk among us

by | Mar 1, 2018 | Business and Marketing

AS WE CELEBRATE KWV’S CENTENARY, THE LEGENDS WHO HELPED SHAPE IT, REFLECT ON ITS HISTORY AND, MORE IMPORTANTLY, ITS IMPACT ON THE SOUTH AFRICAN WINE INDUSTRY.

Nothing and nobody is immune to change. This holds true for the South African wine industry which has seen its fair share of change over the years. KWV (Ko-operatieve Wijnbouwers Vereniging) played an inextricable role in the South African wine industry and had to adapt in order to survive the ever-present challenges the local and global wine markets presented.

One of the biggest changes KWV underwent was the move from regulatory body to wine producer. This was a gradual change, ushered in by the historical 1994 election. The wine quota system was abandoned two years before the election and in 1994 time was called on minimum pricing. KWV was ultimately converted into a private concern in 1997. Grape growers and wine producers, who in the past were rewarded for quantity, could now also focus on quality. This change in emphasis also served as the driving force for experimenting with new methods and varietals in vineyards.

KNOWLEDGE IS POWER

You could easily surmise that increased global competitiveness challenged an ingrained traiditional system. But Danie de Wet, owner of De Wetshof Estate and KWV director from 1995 to 2004, is quick to point out the success of the highly acclaimed South African Wine of Origin (WO) scheme that was initiated by KWV in 1972 and officially implemented in 1973. “Back then it was a certification system that merely indicated the region, variety and vintage of a wine,” he says. “This was done in close cooperation between KWV and several work groups. I was on the committee that was tasked with the WO.”

Danie speaks with great pride when asked why our WO system is so highly rated. “Thanks to a group of industry experts who contributed a vast amount of time and knowledge towards developing the WO, it’s truly one of the very best certification systems in the world. We had work groups that travelled to several of the world’s wine regions to see how their origin systems worked. Demarcation committee chairman Duimpie Bayly and former Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery CEO Lothar Barth are just two names that come to mind when thinking of people involved in these groups.” The WO system changed from a certification system to an origin system in 1979 and, thanks to its various contributors, has continued to evolve into the highly lauded tour de force we know today.

MAKING A CONTRIBUTION

KWV’s range of services to the wine farmer and the industry as a whole is well documented in the book by Prof Diko van Zyl, History of the KWV, published in 1993 when the organisation was 75 years old, says former CEO Ritzema de la Bat. “It ranges fom viticutural services to farmers, generic promotion of wine in South Africa, wine courses, festivals, regional young wine shows and the publishing of a whole series of wine educational booklets. Two major books stand out.
Andre P Brink’s ‘Brandy’, and DJ Opperman’s ‘Spirit of the wine’.

“It is often overlooked that KWV started to export well matured brandies in the 1920s and in the next decade, huge amounts of quality ports and dessert wines to mainly Scandinavia, Canada and UK. Sherry exports to the UK came in the 1950s. It was then when KWV developed a full range of products of the vine, later exporting bottled and branded wines to some 55 countries. Bulk exports were still done whenever necessary. KWV’s products became legendary for quality. The awarding of gold medals at wine shows in SA and internationally, speaks for itself. But from where this quest for quality?

“I believe it started with three wine scientists who for 58 years, almost consecutively, were the executives at the helm of KWV’s formidable production teams. By employing Prof Abraham Izak Perold (1928-1941), Dr Charles Niehaus (1942-1969) and Dr Pan van Zyl (1973-1986), former director of the Research Institute for Wine and Viticulture at Nietvoorbij, the foundation for quality was solidly laid for the future.”

Weltevrede Estate owner Lourens Jonker is another legend who helped shape KWV from the early ’80s to just after the turn of the century. “I was elected as director of KWV for the Robertson district in 1981 and in 1990 I was elected as vice-chairman, with the chair at that time being Pietman Hugo,” he says. “In 1994 the board of directors appointed me as chairman, a role I fulfilled until my retirement from the board of directors in 2003.”

Lourens says KWV was able to stay ahead of trends in the wine industry by adapting to change. “One thing KWV has always been able to do extremely well is respond to change. Over the course of my 23 years on KWV’s board I saw how this acclimatisation to change was due to close cooperation and camaraderie, not only among board members, but management in general.

“But success also requires hard work and we did our fair share. The wine industry remains a difficult business and hard work, dedication and focus serve young and old. These principles also served me well and saw the Jonker family go from strength to strength with Weltevrede. KWV’s centennial celebration is a monumental milestone in our country’s wine story.”

ON CRAFTINESS, MENTORSHIP AND CHALLENGES

Kanonkop Wine Estate co-owner Johann Krige, who was also a director of KWV before it became a company, first started working at KWV in 1981 after deciding to put practising law on the backburner in order to pursue his long-time passion – wine. “Back then I only worked two and a half days a week and started by doing local marketing. Later I started dealing with the African market and the challenge here was to market wines at a time when sanctions were imposed on South Africa.
“Conventional marketing didn’t appeal to me and I flourished in a sanction environment where rules or regulations were sometimes whimsically adhered to and at other times flouted. We had to be crafty as South African passport holders were personae non gratae in many places. In these cases our products were even more unwelcome. This means we had to become super creative as a marketing team to keep heads above water at the time.”

Johann says KWV played a major role in establishing the importance of mentorship. “Organisations such as Vinpro, Winetech, Wosa and Sawis all had their origins in KWV. The same goes for regulatory activities in the wine industry. KWV, as an organisation, is probably the biggest mentor the wine industry has ever had. As an employee of KWV I found myself in an environment where exposure to the many facets of the industry was a daily occurrence. KWV was my biggest mentor ever.”
There will always be challenges in this industry, Danie says. “The biggest being that South Africa has to build its image. It can learn from KWV, seeing that it always maintained the high image that was built. We can follow this example by focusing less on cheaper wines. You cannot be cheap, but expect image, respect and high prices for your products at the same time.”

The KWV legends’ legacy provides much food for thought and is perhaps best digested with Ritzema’s parting words. “My centennial wish for KWV is that the drive for quality that began with Dr Perold will be maintained,” he says. “Young professionals and technical people are excellent leaders and a great asset, hence the need to keep on investing in people.”

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