The research and queries have been exhaustive and all-encompassing. Final decision-making was stress-inducing, meticulous and thorough. Profound insights gained. So, after all that, WineGoggle and its team of assistants in the fields of retail, journalism, hospitality, wine critics, high-end consumers and psycho-analysts brings you the 11 Most Influential People in South African Wine. (Commercially involved, not industry bodies.) Right here, and right now. In no specific order of importance, or relevance, that is. Here goes:
- Johann Rupert
A relevant accolade on this, South Africa’s Heritage Day, as the Rupert Family have been committed to the history, legacy and culture of the country’s wine since the 1940s through patriarch Dr Anton Rupert. Johann’s substantial business interests include direct wine ventures Anthonij Rupert, Rupert & Rothschild Vignerons and L’Ormarins, as well as through RCI’s (Remgro-Capevin Investments) majority shareholding in corporate liquor giant Distell. Despite the engagement at corporate level, Johann’s genuine attachment to wine can be illustrated through, inter alia, his initiation of the country’s Old Vines Project. Through his presence in and friendships with international business dynasties, as well as his celebrity mates in the sports and entertainment world, Johann is arguably the biggest influencer of the quality and legacy of South African wine. A self-deprecating sense of humour and larger than life personality most definitely also helps.
- Michael Fridjhon
There have been many pretenders to the throne of South African wine journalism held by Michael for four decades, but these wannabes have come and gone in the way a bottle of Cristal loses its fizz after a few days. He remains at the top of the pile in terms of encyclopaedic wine knowledge as well as an understanding of wine business, something he also astutely applies through various of his own commercial ventures. The voice of South African wine to the international world, Michael’s influence stretches to introducing wine’s culture and fun in wine shows, as well as presiding over the Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show. Also tells a good joke and knows his cricket.
- Jean Engelbrecht
A pioneer since the 1990s in convincing the American market to take South African wine seriously in being a premium product associated with luxury and provenance. Hanging out with Wine Spectator publisher Marvin Shanken and a pal of internationally renowned golf superstar Ernie Els, as well as a true connection with the soul of the States’s food and wine scene, made Jean the go-to-guy for matters Cape Wine with Uncle Sam. He also continues to play a role in promoting Stellenbosch as quality head-quarters for Brand SA, as well as driving a presence of his own and other brands through a growing hospitality empire. The guy also talks sense, has no time for fools and knows French Champagne better than any other local I’ve spent time with.
- Carina Gous
The leading face and voice in the country’s wine marketing end. Carina garnered a formidable reputation for brand-building and marketing strategy through, among others, an eye for aesthetics, understanding consumer needs and executing brand offerings at various price-points. Upon leaving Distell in 2017 her phone burned with in-coming calls requesting her services and insights before being snapped-up last year by Kleine Zalze. As chairperson of Wosa, Carina’s voice is, fortunately, still available to the greater wine industry. In the re-building of Brand SA in a changed global wine environment, it is hoped she’ll find time to energise Wosa in reaching for the stars. As this is the only way forward, now that the world is reconstructing itself: wine included. Fiercely intelligent and a witty conversationalist, Gous admits to “wine being what I am”. If only we had another ten of her in the batting line-up. She also likes scarves and flowers.
- Danie de Wet
Sure, Danie has slackened the reins for sons Johann and Peter de Wet to officially take-over at De Wetshof, the Robertson Chardonnay house he spent the past forty years building. But, for a number of reasons Danie’s influence over South African wine is going to be around for some time. Together with the ingrained soul of a wine-farmer, the true understanding of vines, soil and wine, as well as pride in the industry he has played such a formidable part in, Danie has the wisdom of an eagle-owl and the natural intelligence of an Apple computer micro-chip. Being a true people’s person, too, Danie remains a port-of-call for many young and not-so-young viticulturists and winemakers with whom he eagerly shares insights and disseminates information. A man of stature and a natural leader, he garners respect in local and international wine circles and most of all, his mind remains open to learning the changing ways of the wine world in which he will forever walk tall.
- Thys Louw
The only sub-40-year-old on the list, Louw’s status as a successful all-rounder in wine makes him one of the future industry leaders. He understands legacy and provenance being non-negotiable to any sensical wine narrative, hence his keen promoting of the heritage of his own Diemersdal – where he is the sixth generation Louw to farm – as well as the importance of established family-owned Cape wineries. Louw played and continues to play a leading role in the growth in volume, reputation and quality of Sauvignon Blanc, helping make it South Africa’s number one selling varietal wine. Since farming on Diemersdal in 2005, Thys has shown others how to grow a brand which is now among the top local marques commercially, whilst at the same time consistently winning major competition awards for Sauvignon Blanc, Pinotage and Bordeaux red blends. The vineyard and cellar are where he prefers to be, but his business acumen sees him often being shuffled to the board-room of retailers. Insight and presence, as well as wine industry DNA running through his veins, has seen him join the board of Wosa, Sauvignon Blanc Interest Group as well as the Cape Vintner Classification. Likes to develop wine brands, push the limits of Sauvignon Blanc and get his Diemersdal wines listed at restaurants while talking to the owner between main-course and dessert.
- Rebecca Constable
All wine-buyers are important and influential. In the current lay of the land, however, Rebecca’s position as senior wine-buyer for Woolworths gives her a nudge above the rest. Woolworths retail-chain has led the way in its making wine a premium proposition, as this places it in-line with the chain’s ethos. Here Rebecca plays a leading role, encouraging customers to approach wine with the same search for quality and deliciousness as it does its food products. This has changed many a consumer who now sees wine worthy of commanding the same commercial gravitas and inherent quality as Woolworths offering of Spanish high-mountain Chorizo, cold-water farmed organic rainbow trout, yellow-fleshed free-range chickens and dew-fresh cucumbers. Rebecca is also spearheading the development of some exciting house-brands with premier wine estates and lives her job through ensuring wine is seen as an essential part of a good and healthy life-style.
- Marc Kent
An all-round power-house spoken of in tones of reverence by any wine industry player worth his or her salt, and is over 35 years old. There are the world-famous brands Marc built-up – perhaps not single-handedly, but the vision behind them were his: Boekenhoutskloof, Chocolate Block and Porseleinberg, as well as the accessible quality-to-price ratio delivered by Wolftrap and Porcupine Ridge. The status of these brands and their commercial success are a PR’s nightmare, as self-promotion and press-hype are not part of Marc’s lexicon. It is about quality and brand-appeal, and here the fact that he is an extremely skilled winemaker and taster, along with being an astute businessman, is often forgotten. Making wine is one thing, but Marc knows the real thing is selling it, and that “there is no supplement for shelf-space”. All this is backed by firm leadership skills, a commanding presence and a wine fanatic who is also, to put it bluntly, a no-shit guy.
- Tim Hutchinson
Now executive chairman of DGB, Tim and CEO Ricardo Ferreira run one of South Africa’s largest liquor companies, producing local wines and liquors and distributing some global behemoths such as Bombay Sapphire and Jägermeister. Tim, though, is at heart a wine person, who has led to DGB becoming a major player on the wine front as a local corporate truly committed to selling and promoting the premium side of South African wine. DGB brands Boschendal, Bellingham and Douglas Green remain high-trees in the local wine forest, with Boschendal especially making a play to be counted among the best Brand SA has to offer. Which it does with great Cap Classique, robustly elegant reds and bracing, terroir-driven Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Tim continues to invest in the industry with new vineyards and brands, the Old Road Wine Co. being a relatively new offering, with one or three exciting new announcements on the way. Out of the boardroom, Tim’s a charming, no-nonsense and easy-going guy who throws great parties and has the disarming charm of a business hero who lives his wine brands.
- Eben Sadie
The lead-guitarist of the rock-star, new wave revolution that hit South Africa 15 years ago, Sadie is a pioneer, a voice and an inspiration to many. His wines grab as much imagination as they do attention. But it is his approach as a son of the soil, tiller of the land and trimmer of the vine that serves to remind the ever-newer generation of winemakers and viticulturists that terroir and plant lie at the heart of any bottle of wine wishing to express a sense of individuality. Over the past decade Eben has generated more engaging and positive international media exposure for South African wine than anybody else, and in that sense alone deserves to be seen as a true local wine industry hero. A charming personality, great sense of humour and a collector of historical facts on South African wine like few other, he is the real deal and a force upon which the future of the local industry will depend going forward.
- Gavin Dittmar
CEO of local wine distributor Meridian, and a guy as sharp as a Laguoile knife made for slicing through heavy-lead wine bottle caps. Meridian not only represents various top South African wine brands. Through Gavin’s inspired and energetic leadership he has helped many to grow to unprecedented levels, not only to the benefit of these brand-owners, but also by generating a buzz of wine excitement among consumers becoming bored with the wine scene, as well as attracting new throats to vino. Meridian now also owns the Cape Wine Academy, underscoring Dittmar’s belief in the importance of continued education in growing a base of knowledgeable consumers who can in turn inspire others to drink more better wine. A team-player, fun and engaging, but with a serious business-side and the convincing verbal skills of a QC advocate.
Note from Editor: As Emile Joubert, editor of WineGoggle, is the official biographer of Kanonkop Estate, his choice of that estate’s owner Johann Krige was excluded from this list so as to maintain a semblance of impartiality.
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