The VinPro Consultation Service – formerly known as the KWV Extension Service – has undergone many changes since its inception on 1 February 1979 and has grown into a division that has made a gigantic contribution to technology transfer in the South African wine industry. The team, which in 1979 consisted of a manager, 4 extension officers, 1 agricultural economist and 1 secretary, has grown to a team that currently consists of a manager, 4 regional managers/viticultural consultants, 11 viticultural consultants, 2 agricultural economists and 4 secretaries. The growth of the division reflects not only the increasing demand for viticultural and financial advice in the wine industry over the past 21 years, but also the success with which it has been provided to the wine producers – “we did something right”. Naturally this success is also thanks to former colleagues who contributed a lot of hard work and great dedication.
VinPro’s consultation team currently provides a service to the wine producers of 48 co-operative wine cellars and 44 estates and/or private producers representing 62% of the total production of the wine industry. The regions where the service is provided range from Vaalharts in the Northern Cape to De Rust in the Southern Cape. The fact that there are viticultural consultants in all the wine regions who convene on a regular basis to exchange knowledge and experience is definitely one of the division’s strong features. In this way new ideas, experience, successes and/or failures are shared with each other and mutual support is provided.
With regard to modus operandi, the division has also seen a number of changes. Until 1995 the service was offered free of charge. As an extension service, its aim was to advise producers so that they may help themselves. Advice was given mainly on an ad hoc basis (at the producer’s request), while new technology was transferred to the wine producers by means of mass communication methods such as discussion groups and workshops. Extension officers were serving large areas with numerous producers and often it was merely a case of “putting out fires”.
Over the past 4 years this modus operandi has seen a lot of changes, many of which have been closely linked to the transformations in the South African wine industry. So, for example, the focus has shifted to market driven and quality production and a bigger awareness that wine is made in the vineyard. Managers, wine makers and producers have come to realise that one of the important prerequisites for survival in a competitive global market is for a vineyard to be planted and managed for a specific end product and that this requires a pro-active approach. More intensive and personal attention was required to ensure production of the right wine products and for each vineyard block to be managed to its full potential and profitability. Cellars started moving away from pooling and started selecting vineyard blocks for a specific wine goal, resulting in closer collaboration between wine makers, viticulturists and marketers.
The demand for viticultural advice increased rapidly in this period and as a direct result, so too did the extension service. In 1994 the KWV Board decided that the basic infrastructure with regard to viticultural extension had been supplied to the industry and that further continuance would have to be financed by those requiring the additional service. In 1995 another step was taken with the decision that the free extension service would be completely transformed to a consultation service that would have to be paid for. All producers making use of the service therefore pay an hourly tariff for services rendered and are also able to contract a specific consultant for a specific amount of time. Over the past four years the transformation process has been a difficult time for both the producer and the consultant, but as a lot of people have remarked – “now that producers are paying for advice, they are listening and reacting much better”.
Today more intensive work is being done, involving fewer producers. Some co-operative wine cellars have already contracted out or appointed their own viticulturist, which to me seems the correct path to follow. The present more intensive and active approach is also more effective with regard to technology transfer and has already paid good dividends. Actions and/or projects which have been highlighted over the past few years and which have now become standard practice, are inter alia:
- Strategic planning exercises such as cultivar planning; 5 year replacement and planting programmes and production projections per cultivar are revised annually and adjusted according to changes in market trends.
- Advisory visits for new establishment, when the soil is analysed physically as well as chemically, and in terms of which recommendations are made with regard to cultivar, rootstock, clone and row width options, is standard practice today.
- The principle of managing a vineyard block for a specific wine goal and applying specific practices such as foliage management has been reasonably established.
- The selection of vineyard blocks for a specific wine goal is already being practiced on a large scale.
- Ground soil monitoring to ensure judicious irrigation management has become standard practice, especially in irrigation areas.
- Techniques to monitor ripening have been enhanced to ensure that grapes are pressed at optimal ripeness for a specific wine style.
In his article Schalk du Toit discusses initiatives and projects undertaken by VinPro’s viticultural consultants to ensure that all wine producers are exposed to the latest information and technology.
It is generally accepted that wine cellars in South Africa are extremely well equipped with some of the most modern cellar technology available. In this regard, South Africa is therefore evenly matched with, and in some instances even better off than some of our international competitors. We also have wine makers who can compete with the best in the world – a fact which is regularly proven by the prestigious awards being won by our wine makers at international wine shows. Considering that these two important factors were already in place, it makes sense for the emphasis to have shifted in recent years to the quality of the grapes (raw material), or for that matter the influence played by the vineyard and the role of the producer and the viticulturist to ensure grape and wine quality. Sayings such as “wine is made in the vineyard” and “wine makers cannot make good wine from bad grapes” are already becoming hackneyed in the South African wine industry, even though we still have a long way to go before this is actually applied everywhere. To quote the well-known Australian viticulturist Dr Richard Smart, “viticulture is a practice of creation, oenology is a practice of conservation”. There is no doubt in my mind that the viticulturist will have to play an increasingly significant role in the South African wine industry and the wine businesses that are going to enjoy a winning advantage will be those who invest in expertise on the viticultural side. Viticulturists deserve equal status to wine makers and should also share in the credit when it comes to wine achievements and/or sales successes.
Challenges for VinPro: Consultation Services in the new millennium are too many to mention in the scope of this article. However, to highlight a few of the focus areas that will be concentrated on in the next few years:
- Familiarising ourselves with cutting edge technology
- Becoming more skilled at market driven production and the implementation thereof
- Establishment advice to recommend the right cultivar/rootstock combination and clone selection per terrain unit remains vitally important
- Expanding block selection and grading projects for specific wine goals and/or styles.
- Monitoring ripeness and the determination of the optimum degree of ripeness for each individual vineyard block
- Involvement in the organisation of the harvest and intake of the crop
- Irrigation management with the emphasis on the improvement of grape quality
- Remuneration systems to encourage quality production in particular
- Supporting strategic planning exercises at all levels
- Profitability analyses down to vineyard block level
It is the mission of VinPro: Consultation Service to play an increasingly important role in the South African wine industry and to help establish South Africa as a world player by producing high quality wine products through the application of cutting edge technology. It is therefore our goal to assist those producers with whom we have a working relationship to establish a commercial advantage.
My philosophy to ensure future success in the wine industry is that it can be obtained only by means of team effort in which each role player acknowledges his/her dependency on the others in the value chain. In short, the chain consists of:
The viticulturist and producer must make the wine in the vineyard;
The wine maker must get the vineyard in the wine and
The marketer must get the vineyard wine in the consumer’s glass.