Stellenbosch Wine Routes: The Second Wave that Saved the Day

The evolution of the Stellenbosch Wine Routes included two important phases, its initial founding in 1971 by Frans Malan, Niel Joubert and Spatz Sperling being the first and most significant. With the advent of the new millennium and said Wine Routes now finding itself at a crossroads, the second chapter for Stellenbosch began in 1999.

The catalyst was Pietman Retief, well-known Stellenbosch personality, Tourism Association stalwart and former director of the South African Brandy Foundation, a body committed to the generic promotion of brandy and brandy culture. Retief had been invited to address local wine industry dignitaries and attendees at the Stellenbosch Food and Wine Festival in the spring of 1999, at that time the region’s premier social event.

Here Pietman took the opportunity to raise certain issues of concern at the road the Stellenbosch Wine Routes and the general tourism community had embarked upon. For although the organisation was founded in 1971 as an inclusive body representing all Stellenbosch wine cellars, the character of Stellenbosch wine tourism had over 28 years morphed into a disjointed and disparate entity. Due to the proliferation of wine cellars and confident individual voices, Stellenbosch had been broken into a number of wine routes each wishing to promote their specific regions. Where cellars in Helderberg, Bottelary and Simonsberg – all blue-chip Stellenbosch wine regions – had once happily settled under the umbrella body of the Stellenbosch Wine Routes, by 1999 these areas were running their own wine tourism gigs.

What was left of the original Stellenbosch Wine Routes comprised only some 40 of the then 100 cellars, the balance eschewing a bond with Stellenbosch preferring to fall under one of the aforementioned sub-regions.

As a seasoned tourism industry specialist and a respected part of the Stellenbosch community, Retief took to the podium and let rip with a stirring speech demanding, more than encouraging, Stellenbosch to get its act together by ensuring all the region’s producers work together under one banner. And that banner is to be Stellenbosch.

“How could we have allowed this venerable institution of Stellenbosch Wine Routes, founded in 1971 by people united in promoting this wonderful wine region, to break up into suchnsoulless, disjointed fragments?” asked Retief. “South Africa is at the cusp of becoming a major player in international and local wine tourism, the potential benefits of which are enormous to a community such as Stellenbosch which has its soul immersed in wine.

Pietman Retief, Mr Stellenbosch.

“If Stellenbosch is to be South Africa’s leading wine tourism body and wine region, which it deserves to be through historical reasons as well as the fact the nation’s best wines are made here, we must get off of our petty individual pedestals and have one united Wine Route – Stellenbosch Wine Routes.”

The sentiments of many in the Stellenbosch wine world were now out in the open thanks to Retief’s impassioned speech, causing local wine figures to act on the scenario sketched in the Stellenbosch Town Hall on that warm spring night of 1999.

Bennie Howard, then communications director of Stellenbosch Farmers Winery, set-up a brainstorming session attended by some of local wine industry heavyweights including Ken Forrester, Johann Krige of Kanonkop and grape-grower Johan Gerber.

Nicolette Waterford, first CEO of the American Express Stellenbosch Wine Routes.

Before he knew it, Krige was tasked with chairing the movement towards a greater, inclusive Stellenbosch Wine Routes.

“Initially this was a job that I was not particularly looking forward to,” recalls Krige. “The break-way groupings who had formed wine routes in Helderberg, Simonsberg and Bottelary were quite rightly protective over what they had established and were doing a good job. I expected the job of uniting the more than 100 wineries from various of Stellenbosch’s sub-regions to be like herding cats.”

But once the various groupings got together to thrash out synergies and opportunities, as well as re-connecting with the importance of the Wine of Origins Stellenbosch certification, the ball towards unification began rolling. The whole is, after all, greater than the sum of its parts.

Krige had two trump-cards to discourage any wineries from sticking to a sub-region instead of being corralled together with greater Stellenbosch. Firstly, Krige managed to convince the more than 200 grape farmers who grow grapes for selling to wineries making Wine of Origin Stellenbosch products to become wine route members, thereby ensuring a substantial boost to the Wine Routes kitty through the collection of these extra levies.

The second play saw Krige ensuring a sponsorship from American Express, making Stellenbosch the first local wine route to benefit from any form of commercial partnering.

At the official launch of the new Stellenbosch Wine Routes in 2002, Krige said: “The formation of the new, all-inclusive wine route is a leap of faith by the entire region’s wine industry players to promote their area and their product unilaterally.”

Johann Krige, at the helm of the New Stellenbosch Wine Routes.

What he didn’t add, was that South African wine tourism had now entered a new era with a tourism powerhouse called the Stellenbosch American Express Wine Routes comprising over 300 wineries and grape growers, a full time CEO in the form of Nicolette Waterford and a lucrative sponsorship from an established brand synonymous with local and international tourism.

This new face of wine tourism in South Africa’s wine capital showed the way in a dynamic and important part of the wine industry. A new, larger Stellenbosch Wine Festival was held. Proactive actions targeting the wine drinkers in Gauteng with Stellenbosch wine were embarked upon with great success, ensuring a greater awareness of the Stellenbosch brand and its status as the centre of wine excellence. Media campaigns aimed at connecting Stellenbosch with fine wine to local and global audiences saw this region leapfrogging other regional wine routes and taking its place as the country’s leading wine tourism exponent, a position held until this day.

And in the current climate where focus is on premiumisation of wine and excellence in tourism offerings, the adage created during the Wine Routes’ second phase is more relevant than ever. Simply: “Think quality, drink Stellenbosch.”

  • Emile Joubert for Stellenbosch VISIO

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