Charles Hopkins

Industry blank slate – WineLand asks industry thought leaders to speak their mind.

Twelve years ago, after presenting a tasting in Stockholm, I was interviewed by a beautiful blonde Swedish journalist, who posed the question, “Charles what gives you a kick as a winemaker” De Grendel cellarmaster, CHARLES HOPKINS looks back at the biggest kick he got from three decades of making wine.

My answer included, “loading 1 000 cases in a container; getting a call at midnight from a friend who is celebrating his birthday, enjoying my wine; standing on a virgin piece of land, speculating on what to plant; and being called to the podium to receive an accolade for winemaking decisions that I made seven years ago.”

But looking back, the biggest privilege of working in the wine industry was working with 41 young student winemakers over a period of 29 vintages. Some of these winemakers seemingly disappeared, but 11 are now world-class winemakers and at least five have the potential of being at the top. Every now and then my name is mentioned when they are asked who played a role in their career. This gives me the biggest kick of them all.

In my opinion, there is a difference between cult winemakers, role models and wine personalities on the one hand and mentors on the other. We need all of them and I believe there is a lack in our industry for all four of the above. My definition of mentoring is to work shoulder to shoulder with a student/winemaker and guide him or her in all the dimensions of the wine industry – to become not only a better winemaker, but also a better person.

However, I can assure you that seasoned veterans can certainly also learn from young inexperienced winemakers. This is partly why I get immensely excited about initiatives like the protégé programme at the Cape Winemakers Guild and the SKOP course, presented by EKOV. One of our big industry challenges is the ability to take an experienced and responsible cellar worker with limited formal training and develop him/her into an assistant winemaker and eventually a winemaker in his or her own right.

Personally, I find it inconceivable that an experienced winemaker that is blessed with a wealth of knowledge and experience would not share it. Our industry does not have the government support and funding for research and training that some of our competitors have. Therefore it’s an absolute necessity to share knowledge and to guide each other.

I am part of a tasting group in Paarl that consists of an equal number of winemakers and viticulturists. It gives me a real thrill when the presenter at one of these tastings happens to be a student that worked under my guidance, and who has subsequently developed from a shy rookie to a confident expert in the field.

Mentorship should certainly not be limited to winemaking. With my involvement in the Young Wine Show and Veritas, a serious need to develop wine judges also became apparent. The associate tasters are often young, inexperienced winemakers and I’m always amazed by the questions asked during and after training presentations and tastings. These guys have an absolute hunger for learning!

Some of the significant challenges facing the wine industry include fragmentation, wine quality, profitability and motivating grape growers to start planting again. A good place to start in order to address all of these in the long run, is for senior winemakers to provide the next generation with the skills and knowledge they need, by taking ownership and responsibility of mentorship.


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