Making it big abroad

by | Mar 1, 2018 | Business and Marketing

The global wine scene is overflowing with viticulturists, winemakers, scientists and marketers from a vast variety of countries. South Africans are also part of this well-travelled group and proud contributors to the international wine scene.

In this Q&A with WineLand four South Africans reveal more about their work abroad, the challenges they face and how their travels to foreign wine countries have enriched their lives.

Ronald du Preez – general manager/head winemaker at Sugarloaf Crush, California, America

WL  What first attracted you to America?

RdP: The evolution of the winemaking techniques and especially the development in viticulture. You can pretty much do whatever you want here. The wines are spectacular and the marketing of wine as mainstream consumer product is something to admire and probably among the best in the world. It’s safe here, I mean really safe – I leave my house and my car open. People help each other, just like they do in South Africa.

WL  What was the biggest mind shift you had to make when you started working in America?

RdP: It’s very competitive here, so you always have to prove yourself to get ahead. There’s no chance to rest on your laurels here. And you have to follow the rules. There are many rules and 99% of people stick to them. Some say you probably break at least three laws a day without knowing they even exist. Cumbersome as they may be, they do help some of the time. We live in a wealthy area and everyone is fairly well educated down to the worker level and wants to succeed, no matter what.

WL  Did you have a mentor or is there somebody you’d like to single out who has helped you?

RdP: Yes, Rob Davis, the head winemaker at Jordan Winery where I used to work. He’s helped me a lot to become a great manager. And John Jordan, owner of Jordan Winery, for teaching me to cut through the c**p and get to what is going to add to the bottom line. Finding the balance between practising your craft and paying the bills is tough.

Jolene Hunter – export manager at Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, Alsace, France

WL  Like Ronald, you also have a BSc Agric in viticulture and oenology from Stellenbosch University. Give us a brief outline of your career after completing your studies?

JH: I worked as a cellar hand and vineyard worker at De Trafford in Stellenbosch for eight months in 2008 before moving to France to start a master’s degree at Groupe Ecole supérieure d’Agricultures d’Angers. As part of my master’s I completed an eight-month internship at Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, a world-renowned biodynamic winery in Alsace, France, where I studied the effects of various forms of viticulture, such as organic, biodynamic and conventional viticulture, on soil structure and soil water retention. At the conclusion of my internship I was offered a position by Domaine Zind-Humbrecht as an assistant to the Chef de Cave and viticulturist. In 2013, after three and a half years on the production team,  got the opportunity to move to the commercial sphere of the business as export manager, a position I still hold today.

WL  Was there a specific breakthrough moment or epiphany in your career?

JH: I think it must have been at a Chenin Blanc tasting hosted at Caroline’s Fine Wine Cellar in Cape Town in 2008. During the course of the evening we compared a handful of local and international Chenins and finished with a Domaine Huet Vouvray from the late ’50s. I was amazed by the vibrancy and layers of complexity still to be found in this wine. It was unlike anything I’d ever tasted and sparked my interest in the notion of terroir. This experience also motivated me to travel and a few months later I was studying at the Groupe Ecole supérieure d’Agricultures d’Angers in the Loire Valley, which is about an hour’s drive from Vouvray.

WL  What message would you like to give to young winemakers, viticulturists, scientists and marketers who are thinking about travelling and working abroad?

JH: Travel is an essential and enriching experience. There are many similarities in wine regions and wine industries all over the world, however travelling gives you the opportunity to pick up on the nuances and small details which make any particular region, winery or wine unique. It can broaden your horizons, but probably most importantly it highlights what’s unique about where you come from and what you work with. There’s a fantastic dynamism and momentum in the South African wine industry at the moment which can in part be attributed to the open-mindedness of many South African wine professionals who’ve not only travelled abroad, but invested time and money in tasting and drinking wines from all over the world.

Andy Kilian – consultant for Independent Vignerons, Luxembourg

WL  You’ve racked up quite a few travel miles. Which countries have you lived in since leaving South Africa in 1988?

AK: England, Greece, Germany, America, Portugal, Italy, New Zealand, Kosovo and Luxembourg. I worked in viticulture or oenology in most of these countries. Obviously one of the reasons I moved overseas was to gain experience and study, while at the same time fulfilling one of my favourite pastimes, namely travelling.

WL  What were the biggest obstacles while working in Germany and Luxembourg? And the biggest surprises?

AK: For me it was the language, as I couldn’t speak a word of German. Then there were the cultural differences and difference in traditions relating to wine in general. I was surprised by the immense selection of wine you could taste and enjoy compared with South Africa in 1990, the year I arrived here. Since leaving South Africa all those years ago the country’s wine industry has really grown and now has so much to offer when it comes to quality and diversity. I enjoy visiting as often as I can.

WL  What can you tell WL readers about Luxembourg that they probably don’t know?

AK: Luxembourg is best known for its banks and insurance houses, but few people know it shares the Mosel Valley with France and Germany. The region along the Mosel is approximately 40 km in length, with about 1 300 ha under vine. We have wonderful soils, pretty decent weather, the Mosel River’s incredible microclimate and some great varietals of which my favourites are Riesling, Auxerrois and Pinot Noir. We’re probably one of the countries producing the most Auxerrois as a single varietal and when made well it has wonderful ageing potential. And being so close to France, means great food and wine play a huge role in Luxembourg.

Etienne Neethling – permanent lecturer in the viticulture and oenology department at Groupe Ecole Supérieure d’Agricultures and head of the International Vintage Master course, Angers, France

WL  You completed a BSc Agric in viticulture and oenology at Stellenbosch University in 2007. What came next?

EN: From 2008 to 2010 I studied towards the International Vintage Master in Angers, France. The course focused on viticulture and oenology, and esentially, on the concept and characterisation of terroir wines in Europe. From 2011 to 2012 I worked on an international project called GICC-TERVICLIM at the French National Institute for Agricultural Research (INRA), also in Angers. I registered for a PhD in 2012 which I completed in 2016. It was titled “Adapting viticulture to climate change: Towards high-resolution strategies” and financed by INRA and CNRS (the French National Centre for Scientific Research).

WL  What made you further your studies overseas?

EN: I was awarded a European bursary towards an MSc degree in Angers in 2007. Two other South Africans, Alma Henning who works for Amgo Beverages and Jolene Hunter who’s at Domaine Zind-Humbrecht, were also selected for this bursary. The decision to move abroad was easy because like many students I wanted to gain experience overseas. Looking back, it was a very good decision as there’s so much to learn about the international wine industry, particularly in traditional European wine regions.

WL  What can South Africa learn from France when it comes to its wine industry?

EN: The French have an incredible passion for producing quality and distinctive wines. As one of the biggest role players in the global wine industry they’re always looking for ways to stay ahead. One way of achieving this is to ensure all wine research projects have a common goal, namely the progress of all producers. No project will be financed unless it complies with this collective requirement, as most farmers work together to improve and promote their wines. Tradition is also very important – farmers fiercely back their local grape varietals.

Most farmers work together in their respective areas and want to improve their wine. Tradition is also very important – farmers fiercely back their local grape varietals.

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