High Touch Wine Sales in South Africa

There are three principal wine drinking areas/provinces with significant populations in South Africa: Western Cape (Greater Cape Town environs), Gauteng (Johannesburg/Pretoria), and KwaZulu Natal/KZN (Durban/Pietermaritzburg environs). Since virtually all of the some 600 wineries are located in the Cape, if a winery wants to establish a new brand in the country, it needs to have a sales presence in the other two major regions as well. Further, while Black South Africans are chiefly beer and brandy drinkers, a growing Black middle class (the most successful oft referred to as “Black Diamonds”) in these areas is starting to buy and enjoy wine.


Regina Mundi Catholic Church

After 1886, as you may know, Black South Africans had been drawn to work on the gold mines that were established on the outskirts of Johannesburg and most tribes were housed in separate areas. In 1963, the name Soweto (South Western Townships) was officially adopted for the sprawling township incorporated in 2002 into the Jo’berg city limits. It has been estimated that 40% of Johannesburg’s residents live in Soweto, approximately 1.3 million people. In Soweto, there is a famous Memorial to the founding of the ANC (African National Congress) which is the political party of the late Nelson Mandela and has been the dominant party of the country since 1994.





Mr. Sipho Thoma
Mr. Sipho Thoma

Two years ago, I spent a day in Soweto as a guest of one of the four founders of the Soweto Wine Club to learn more about the area’s potential. Sipho Thomo was my guide and he opened my eyes to a very large, proud, well kept, and increasingly cohesive community. While all eleven of the country’s official languages are spoken in Soweto, historically the tribes did not get along. But since English has become the predominant language for all in the past few decades, a far greater degree of homogenization has occurred and English is the language of the wine trade. There are a number of fine wine shops with good selections in Soweto, chiefly for wineries who have taken the time to call upon them. (We visited one called Morara Emporium, owned by Mnikelo, the co-founder of the Soweto Wine Festival.) There are a few restaurants who carry superior wines and who periodically sponsor wine tastings, (such as Wandi’s Place, with it jovial proprietor in the pink sweater below,) and this year the 11th Annual Soweto Wine Festival will be held.

Clearly, wine drinking in Soweto is established but is still in its early days. Soweto represents a good potential market for SILKBUSH wines once we have a Gauteng distributor with people dedicated on a continuing basis to service the area. The Soweto Wine Club may yet prove to be our entry point to that vibrant community.


SILKBUSH has only had a direct sales rep in Gauteng for a few years and Anton has flown there for some of wine shows. We just started selling our wine in KZN this last year and nobody from SILKBUSH had yet made a physical appearance in Natal.

Accordingly, I decided that the first week of my March 2015 trip to the Beloved Country would be to these areas with our two sales ladies I had yet to meet.

Ms. Judith Lee
Ms. Judith Lee

Our representative for the Gauteng area is Judith Lee, who has represented several RSA wineries for many years. I spent two days with this delightful woman; arriving on a Sunday, our timing was awkward, but we were very successful with a large Portuguese restaurant that had just put us on the menu. Because a bottle never sells itself, it is very helpful when restaurant owners and service staff can put a face with a product and hear the vineyard’s story directly. With the key people, we often offer a couple of free nights at the Kingsbury Cottage; whether they will make it down to see SILKBUSH or not, the offer of hospitality is always appreciated.



Salt & Pepper Shakers

We also did an evening tasting as a well- at an established wine club in Pretoria where we and the wines were very well received. Incidentally, one of the pleasant surprises of travel is seeing new and creative art in the least expected places. Here are a few photos from our wine travels-  one is of a “pop top” emulation salt and pepper setting at a trendy RSA restaurant, and two are striking metal sculptures at an outside shopping center.






KwaZulu Natal (KZN)

Sugar Cane Fields

For all the years I have been coming to South Africa, I had returned to Durbin only once since my initial visit in 1994. The whole area is undergoing a great deal of change and growth including building a new airport approximately 35 km (22 mi) north of the city, something that virtually never happens in major urban areas of the world! King Shaka International Airport (KSIA) opened its doors to passengers in May of 2010, just over a month before the start of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. It evidently had been in the planning stages since the mid 1970’s, with construction beginning in 1973, but then things slowed down. While 8 international air carriers now serve KSIA, at present well over 90% of its traffic is still domestic. However, they are now ready for the largest jets from anywhere.

Much of KZN is still developed to sugar cane fields, and banana plantations, and benefits from strong on-shore winds from the warm sea. Accordingly, due to the recreational/agricultural ambiance, there is extensive “second home” and retirement housing being constructed; also many roads are being widened and more elegant living, including wine consumption, is increasing. Little Mozambique, a humble eatery in a small retail center, and the luxurious Prince’s Grant Golf Club, well north of Durban on the Indian Ocean, are both now featuring SILKBUSH wines due to the efforts of Suzanne Foster Aherin, our Gauteng sales representative, who I got to work with on this trip.

Ms. Suzanne Foster Aherin
Ms. Suzanne Foster Aherin

Suzanne had done all sorts of high level corporate work in prior years, in both Jo’berg and Cape Town. In more recent times, however, she was living in Gauteng and doing some wine promotions with her good friend, Judith Lee. Following her new husband who had taken a job as a plant manager in a small town in KZN, in 2014 Suzanne found herself with time on her hands and wanting to get back into wine. Tah Dah! She is now doing a bang up job for us with restaurants, wine shops, golf country clubs, and anywhere else people want higher quality wine for a reasonable price. She and I did an invitational wine tasting at a hotel where we are now on the menu, and then drove around together for three days. Suzanne is lots of fun, very talented and well organized, and has a very good wine palate. It was clear her retail customers really respect and love her.

Prince's Grant Golf Club
Prince’s Grant Golf Club

We entitled this posting as “High Touch” wine sales in South Africa for a reason: selling wine anywhere in the world is a “personal relationship” (High Touch) effort, at least for the first sale. The quality of the wine, and the selling price, clearly are the largest factors in obtaining on-going sales, but to build brands with consumer loyalty requires good marketing people and ongoing contact efforts. We are pleased that many enjoy our Silkbush Mountain Vineyards website, our Blog postings, and reading current reviews of subsequent vintages on the Internet. Certainly we will continue with these High Tech marketing efforts, but the High Touch of good personal sales relationships will never decline in importance… be it in Africa or anywhere else.

Asian Wine Judge, Sherwin Lao, Visits South Africa

South Africa (April 2013) 071I just returned from another trip to South Africa where I spent a few weeks touring and tasting with Sherwin Lao, a leading wine journalist, judge and consultant from the Philippines.  An expert on Asian wine markets, he has visited most of the famous wine regions of the world but this was his first trip to South Africa.  He wrote a four-part series of articles for Manila Standard Today about what he saw and learned in South Africa’s wine country.  Here’s his first impression…

My first trip to South Africa has been nothing short of astonishing, and I have just been here less than a week. From the time my plane was just about to land at the Cape Town International Airport, I was already captivated by the unparalleled aerial beauty I saw from my window seat. One thing that was so obvious from the onset was how much space there is in this country. South Africa is a huge country with a land mass area of over a million square kilometers, four times the size of Philippines. Yet the population is just 50 million, or half of our population.  Excerpt from “The South African Wine Road Trip Part 1” by Sherwin Lao.

Introducing Sherwin to the history and achievements of South African grape growers and winemakers was a highlight of my 30+ years in the wine business.  Sherwin’s articles and upcoming role as a judge at the annual Michelangelo International Wine Awards of South Africa will help wine enthusiasts from many Asian countries to discover great South African wines from the Western Cape.

The number of wines I tasted in my recently concluded Western Cape trip is more than that of all my previous total South African wines drunk in my entire wine drinking life. Since I have been drinking wines circa 1994, it seems like I have practically ignored South African wines for almost the last 20 years. And honestly, it may not be simple snobbery but more on South African wines’ availability and appeal in my little world here in the Philippines and the neighboring Asian countries I visit frequently. (The South African Wine Road Trip Part 2 by Sherwin Lao)

Our tour loosely followed the itinerary that I designed many years ago for visitors to the Cape and to Silkbush Mountain Vineyards.  We spent a few days at Silkbush where Sherwin stayed at our luxury guesthouse in the unsurpassed Breedekloof district. With his customary attention to detail and comprehensive coverage of each place we visited, Sherman summarizes some key facts about Silkbush:

Silkbush Mountain Vineyards – Silkbush is the English translation of the Sybasberg Mountain in Western Cape. Silkbush Mountain Vineyards has been supplying [the] majority of its grape juices to top South African wineries for over a decade now. The Breedekloof vineyards have been a favorite source for highly priced premium South African Pinotage, Shiraz, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. But now the company is gearing more towards forward-integration and building their own brand equity. The company has the right size (tonnage), excellent vineyards, and a gifted viticulturist in Anton Roos. Silkbush also has a luxury self-catering cottage in Kingsbury Cottage, where I stayed for a few nights, and was blown away by its scenic surroundings, backdrop of the Sybasberg Mountain, idyllic vineyards and indescribable sunset and sunrise views.

I am pleased to have had the opportunity to meet Sherwin and be his tasting buddy and guide. Sherwin’s genuine enthusiasm and appreciation for South Africa’s wine regions will help introduce South African wine to wine drinkers in Asian countries.  In fact, anyone with even a remote interest in South African wine should read his well-written four-part series of articles for Manila Standard Today where he writes eloquently about what he saw and learned in South Africa’s wine country.


Napa, Sonoma & the Western Cape

Dave Jefferson

While most who visit a South African vineyard/wine website will expect strictly “cheering for the home team,” we are a little different. This website is all about Silkbush which is 12 years old, however, you may not know we also have a larger and longer established operation in Napa and Sonoma Counties in Northern California (NorCal) . We have approximately 700 acres in NorCal, versus 215 under vine at Silkbush. Our annual harvested tonnage runs about 3,000 tons in NorCal, versus 1,200 metric tons at Silkbush, or 10% more, in comparable 1,320 English tons.  (We are constantly converting from hectares to acres; metric tons to English tons; liters to gallons.) If the measurements were not confusing enough, the seasons are reversed as well! In California, we usually begin harvest in early September, and it’s complete most years by late October/early November. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir used in sparkling wines are harvested slightly earlier. In the Western Cape, the earliest grapes usually start being picked in late January, with the harvest in full swing by February, continuing through March, and sputtering to a close in early/mid April. While February is quite hot (think July/August in the USA), by March the weather is usually glorious. March/April are wonderful times to visit the Cape

Returning to Kenwood, Sonoma County, CA, where this post is being written, the 2012 wine grape growing season was, quite honestly, as close to PERFECT as you get in farming. Compared to 2011, which had a chilly summer, and rain during the harvest, 2012 was deemed a “Classic” wine growing year. Frost was almost a non-issue for most growers and the summer was warm with very few heat spikes. Wine grapes, incidentally, are like people; they like warm, but not really hot days, and cool evenings. Photosynthesis (the real farmers tell me) starts shutting down in the low 90’s (Fahrenheit not Centigrade) so the plants then go into survival mode, and higher temps are not beneficial. High temps drive down grape acids, drive up sugar, and the grapes become unsuitable for high quality wine long before they are fully ripe. That’s why the best grape growing areas, worldwide, are usually influenced by a body of water or by a mountainside  location, where most nights are cool. Knowing this, we purchased former fruit orchards with these benefits in the Russian River Valley of Sonoma and Napa Counties in the 1970’s, and we did essentially the same in the year 2000 in South Africa.

In Sonoma, we farm exclusively in the “middle reach” of the Russian River appellation, largely with Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and just a bit of Sauvignon Blanc. Further west, the fog is too pervasive to get “cool weather” grapes matured; further inland, the fog burns off early and it’s too hot for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Many people find this hard to believe but it’s much like zip codes and property values. There’s a massive difference between property prices in Beverly Hills and Watts, despite there being relatively close together in Los Angeles. In Napa, we grow grapes in two valleys (Chiles and Wooden) both parallel to and just east of Napa Valley proper. Our principal production is Cabernet Sauvignon, with much smaller amounts of Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, and a few other blenders in the spice rack.  At Silkbush, we have 11 different cultivars (varieties), but predominantly Cabernet and Syrah. It is chiefly (93%) a red grape vineyard, but we are also getting quite high quality whites from Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Viognier in some protected area. Being in the mountains, and decidedly cooler, most of our reds take at least two weeks longer to mature. Frequently, our grapes are just about the last loads into the wineries before they close for the season.

Because farming is inherently risky and unpredictable, our basic stance in both countries is to lower risk since we can’t eliminate it. The first step is to grow top quality grapes that are desired by multiple wineries.  In California, we were growers for 24 years, and then became a principal partner in White Oak Winery.  Today, 85% of our grapes are still grown for approximately 20 other wineries.  In South Africa, about 50% of our grapes are delivered to some five branded wineries, and the other 50% go to a wholesale winery (Wabooms) where we are minority owners. As the acknowledged best vineyard among the Wabooms members, we are getting the best prices they can afford to pay and our wines are kept separate. We also can purchase our finished wine, further mature it with oak and time, and have it bottled at an independent bottling facility. This is how we produce our export Lions Drift and domestic Silkbush brands of Pinotage, Syrah and Viognier.


Labor Housing / Living Conditions

Workers Housing

Historically, agricultural labor families were housed in marginal conditions “rent free” on the farms and paid very poorly. The husbands had year-round salaries that the wives and teenagers supplemented by working for daily wages during pruning and harvest. The farmers owned the labor cottages and retirement of one generation often meant eviction of the elderly or construction of ever more farm housing. In the new South Africa, this is not an acceptable situation: more enlightened growers are working to provide higher wages and worker-owned housing not on the farm property. We are paying increased wages, have improved the on-site cottages, and arranged for daily transportation of additional labor from local communities to the vineyard. We presently employ seven full time laborers, four wives who work for daily rates on pruning and harvest details and substantially more temporary workers for pruning and harvest. Accordingly, we intend to help our best workers acquire or build their own homes in local communities once we have attained full crop maturity.

At present there are seven laborer units (in five cottages including a new triplex constructed in 2006) on the property that were electrified for the first time under our ownership. These improvements, not insignificant in cost, required the local electrical utility installing additional power poles and transformers at our expense. The power is also supplied free to the worker families. We trust being able to read at night will contribute to improved literacy of our staff and their children.

The present manager’s house is at the property’s entrance.

Farm Labor, Yesterday & Today

Working Harvest

Agricultural labor has been a controversial issue in South Africa for many years. In the Western Cape, the 75% “Brown” majority population, historically known as Cape Coloureds but without the pejorative implications of a similar US term for African Americans from an earlier period, provides over 90%+ of the vineyard labor force. The Browns are a small stature, mulatto people, proud descendents of indigenous San and Koi-Koi tribes coupling for 150 years with former Malay slaves, Dutch East Indies Company sailors and early European settlers and missionaries. They constitute the dominant majority population of the Western Cape, speak Afrikaans as their principal language, and often resent the Black tribes that compose the majority population of the other provinces of South Africa. Accordingly, most direct farm management must be accomplished in Afrikaans. Not surprisingly, virtually all European descent (white) grape farmers culturally choose to speak Afrikaans but most are reasonably proficient in English as well.

Historically Black South Africans have had a very small involvement in the Cape wine industry, constitute about 10% of the local Cape population, speak their tribal languages, but far prefer English to Afrikaans as a second language. Most Black involvement in the vineyard industry has been as day laborers during the intense harvest periods. Very few live on farms but rather at harvest are trucked in from urban informal settlements. That understood, our permanent crew is about 50% Black and 50% Brown, and Anton is pleased with the attitude and cooperation of all our workers.

The permanent farming crew Anton supervises is comprised of seven men, and four women, who reside in the seven worker units on Silkbush. We also have another 12-14 men who work for us on a “permanent part-time” basis who live in Wolseley, a rural village about 17 minutes away. We have a team of very motivated people who, including an annual bonus, are paid above average for the area, and some of whom are resident in farm housing in far better condition than anything in which they have lived before. Our people are salaried, work 45 hours a week on average, nine hours per day for five days, and receive three weeks of paid vacation per year, and numerous national holidays. Little things can also mean a lot: most farms issue their workers one new set of uniform coveralls per year but we give out a new set every six months. True, we are incurring modest labor costs by a US standard, but we are also paid far less for our grapes than in the US. We all are proud of our local labor practices. Silkbush is more than doing its part in the “new South Africa.”