Naretha Ricome: Advini’s Eagle Eye on Cape Wine

The first French invasion of the South African winelands was back in 1688 when those Protestant Huguenots fled their motherland for the Cape, bringing a much-needed Gallic influence on the VOC’s Dutch-Germanic attempts to get a wine culture going down south. And this influence proved to play a significant role in establishing vines and making decent wine in Cape Town and the Boland.

A more recent French wine wave has been from the French south, down Montpellier way – but with a decent dose of influence from Pretoria. And this is something Naretha Ricome would not have seen coming when the Pretoria-born blonde began working in the French wine industry after studying politics and economics at the University of Nimes.

Today Naretha – a maiden Smit – is the link between the Cape winelands and the French wine behemoth Advini, Frances’s third largest wine company outside of Champagne, which 11 years ago began investing in Cape wine properties and currently owns five substantial Stellenbosch wine businesses. Naretha’s head-office might be in the Advini home-town of Saint Felix de Lodez outside Montpellier, but from that base she plies her trade as the person responsible for Advini’s South African portfolio constituting L’Avenir, Le Bonheur, Kleine Zalze, Ken Forrester Wines and Stellenbosch Vineyards.

“It actually all began right here,” says Naretha, where we are sipping rooibos tea – the morning is still early – on L’Avenir Estate. “After matriculating in Pretoria, I came to study political science and French at Stellenbosch University, and as many students do, I got myself a part-time job working on a wine farm. For me, this was L’Avenir, at the time Francois Naudé was making those great wines here.”

Naretha Ricome

A two-year break during high school to be schooled on Reunion Island ensured Naretha was already fluent in French when she arrived in Stellenbosch. And upon graduating from university, her heart was set to continue studying economics and politics at the Sorbonne in Paris. The dream was, however, guillotined by the famed French bureaucracy.

“When I arrived to register at the Sorbonne, I had my file of completed forms checked by the registrar and was asked, ‘yes, but where is your pink form?'” she recalls. “My file contained a form for every colour in the rainbow, but no pink one. So, I was told not to worry, you can come back to register next year – just don’t forget the pink form. Au revoir.”

No pink form will get a girl from Pretoria down, so Naretha set-off for the French south and was accepted by the University of Nimes where she completed an honours degree in economy and politics.

“Of course, the south is big wine country, and with a cursory knowledge of wine gained while working at L’Avenir, I started doing internships at various wineries in the Languedoc,” she says. “But my aim was to work at some place in Châteauneuf-du-Pape.”

This is when things began happening for Naretha at the tempo of a Paris-Marseille TGV speed-train. She landed a job at Maison Ogier in Châteauneuf which was owned by the Advini group. When Advini bought-out Michel Laroche from Chablis her eyes lit-up. For Laroche had owned L’Avenir, where her foray into the wine world had begun. With the Stellenbosch estate now in the Advini fold, Naretha put-up her hand, requesting to take-charge of the French group’s new Stellenbosch interest.

“Advini was actually set on selling-up in Stellenbosch and getting-rid of L’Avenir,” she says. “But I asked them to take a look at the potential of Stellenbosch as a region, South Africa as a wine country and the potential of the wine industry back in my home country.”

Naretha was told, okay, then you take charge of L’Avenir and if you show a profit in a year, Advini keeps the farm and the brand.

As per the Advini strategy, the first priority at L’Avenir lay with the vineyards and the farm’s people. “Advini’s major shareholder is the Jeanjean family that has farmed in the Languedoc since 1872,” says Naretha. “These are people of the vine, the soil and the land. Wherever we get involved as a group, the land and people come first. And from day one the French were stunned at what they found at L’Avenir: terrifically unique terroir. Superb Chenin Blanc and Pinotage. And wonderful people, South Africans whose values, work ethic and love of the soil, vineyard and wine suits the Advini ethos like a baguette in a picnic basket.”

And before you could say “coq au vin”, Naretha’s French bosses agreed with her vision to look seriously at the South African picture and to invest in more farms and brands. L’Avenir was followed by Advini obtaining Le Bonheur, like L’Avenir set in Stellenbosch Simonsberg. Then came Stellenbosch Vineyards, followed by Ken Forrester Wines. And finally, Kleine Zalze.

Naretha underscores Advini’s philosophy of allowing each of its wineries to maintain its independence and unique identity. “Take your own story and your history, make the best wines from the varieties your terroir is suited to – back in France we will provide support, especially through sales and distribution.

And of course, as France’s third largest wine business, profitability is non-negotiable. “Today, Advini’s South African interests represent a substantial part of the group’s profitability, so yes, I am truly proud at the way this has turned out.”

A major reason for profitability is Advini’s access to international marketing channels. This has, for one, allowed Le Bonheur to become the largest South African white wine brand in Canada. Focus on Cape-specialities Pinotage and Chenin Blanc has seen L’Avenir enjoy formidable success. And Kleine Zalze and Ken Forrester are strong in the UK and Europe.

“The South African leg has been running well for Advini,” she says. “Plans to expand? Definitely.”

Yet, outside of our rooibos-sipping in L’Avenir’s guest-lodge, the wine picture is looking somewhat gloomy. Vineyards are being pulled-out, producers are leaving the industry. Cape wine exports tanked 18% over the past year.

“Concerning your last observation, remember the wine industry globally is under pressure,” says Naretha. “Inflation in Europe is throttling consumer-spend. Supermarkets are changing the way they manage working capital, which has decreased stock-holding habits, while shipping companies are implementing leaner, more focussed and streamlined business models. There’s no space for excess high-volume products or freight where margins are low and the business can’t turn cash quickly.”

And what about South Africa where, 33 years after sanctions ended, the wine industry is still largely seen as an international supplier of cheap, high-volume wine?

“The image and price of Cape wine has to rise so as to make it profitable for farmers to keep vines in the soil,” she says. “From Advini’s side we are working hard to position our South African farms as strong, recognisable brands, which is just as important as getting good wine into the bottle. Look, the quality of Cape wine is stunning, overwhelming actually – otherwise my French board and shareholders would not be here. So, for Advini a top priority is to expand the reach of our brands and further entrench them as desirable, premium wines throughout the world. So far so good – with more to come.”

As should by now be evident, Naretha’s heartbeat remains warmed by the African sun, and she visits the Cape every few weeks. Home is in Costieres de Nimes where she lives with husband Nicolas on his family farm Château de Valcombe.

“All the clichés about living in rural France are true, and the French just make it all look so easy,” says Naretha. “We’ll just plonk an old wooden table next to the vines, stick a few flowers in a vase, lay-out some bread and cheese while Nicolas brings a few bottles of his wine…. It’s a wonderful culture and lifestyle of which I am fortunate to be a part of.

“But each time I visit South Africa, I am reminded how warm the people are here. On this, we are truly unique. Working with them and the Cape wine industry, while living where I do in France makes me realise I truly have the best of both worlds.”

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