A while back, in one of his weekly articles for Decanter, Andrew Jefford wrote about a co-operative in the Languedoc. Remarking on the movement as a whole, he noted that it is not just ‘commercial entities with a social dimension, but collections of individual entrepreneurs who have agreed to pool resources and efface individuality for the common good.’
Although South Africa’s co-operatives were substantially structured along the lines of the French model, a major point of difference prior to the country’s re-admission to the international market in 1994 was they had a regulatory overlord. The KWV set minimum prices for both distilling and ‘good wine’ as well as implementing the quota system. Nothing incentivised quality, nor marketing and, if there was overproduction (aka a ‘surplus’), the KWV would mop it up, albeit at lower prices. Wine was sold via the KWV (both player and regulator!) to wholesalers, where it landed on retailers shelves under their own brands. A small quantity was bottled for their members’ consumption, some available from the cellar door, but selling on the open market was frowned on; that would offer competition to the hand that fed them.
The advent of democracy and opening up of international markets brought a rude awakening to the co-operatives; their KWV lifeline was cut, quality (including better-selling varieties) rather than quantity was demanded and there was competition to be faced, both locally and internationally.
Statistics tell how the co-operative scene changed. According to the KWV issued SA Wine Industry Statistics booklet dated 1996, there were 4634 wine producers (ie grape farmers), 71 co-operative cellars and 78 estate wineries, 105 private cellars and 93 889ha of wine grapes. By 2016, SAWIS (SA Wine Industry Information & Systems) statistics listed 3145 primary grape producers, 48 producer cellars (the old co-operatives), 493 private wine cellars and 27 producing wholesalers with 95 775 ha under wine grape varieties.
Figures cannot tell the whole story; it’s as much about the producer cellars’ ability to adapt to change in circumstances: some disappeared, some combined with others, some have carried on solo under their original name, though now as a company, the growers being co-owners or shareholders.
Interested to learn a little about how an ex-co-op has gone about change, I contacted the team at Du Toitskloof, a winery noted for its positive and dynamic approach to the changing conditions and market place. I’m grateful to Chairman, Johan de Wet, GM, Marius Louw and Bernard Kotze (not a man for titles, but best described as Brand Manager), who combined to answer my questions.
One of Du Toitskloof’s major advantages is its location, the cellar complex being visible from the new N1 on the Worcester side of the Huguenot tunnel (apart from its own spectacular views); combine that with the name of the winery being the same as the brand gives consumers good reason to remember the name. The cellar is also recognised for consistency and value, further encouraging loyal fans. Visitors are greeted in a cheerfully decorated tasting area; a Melissa’s food shop is another attraction as are the summer picnics available. Rather than a workaday co-operative, the team believes winelovers’ impression is rather one of a large winery.
In fact, Du Toitskloof is of average size in terms of volume among local co-operatives; the annual production from the 22 members is around 15000 tons (or 12 million litres). Even then, the approach is on a smaller scale, similar to that of an estate. For example, site specific blocks are identified, appropriately managed and retained for the Select Vineyard range; regular awards have followed, a source of pride for everyone associated with the winery.
Pride was an issue raised in Jefford’s article; the director of the Languedoc co-operative was convinced of the value of co-operation but also noticed no one was proud of being in a co-operative; members didn’t want the word appearing on the labels.
In the old days, local co-ops had not much more to be proud of than big silver trophies on the Young Wine Shows, before the wine was swallowed up by wholesalers; now, pride and incentive for better quality comes from seeing their own brands on local and international wine shelves. Brand credibility also requires consistency; this is where working together pays dividends.
For instance, a Du Toitskloof grower receives a premium for grapes considered good enough to be packaged rather than sold in bulk – around 60% of production is sold in bulk, mainly due to British and European wholesalers’ demand for quality Fairtrade wine. The goal is to sell more packaged wine, but the team admit markets dictate to a large extent on this issue.
From the cellar side, a high-tech make over has ensured the grapes receive optimum treatment to allow for quality wine. A high-tech cellar still requires a skillful and understanding cellarmaster; this Du Toitskloof have in Shawn Thomson, whose long tenure at the winery – he’s been there since 1999, taking over as Cellarmaster in 2011 – brings its own benefits. More recently, he’s had the opportunity to test his skills on grapes grown way beyond the winery’s Breedekloof borders; but that and some discussion of the future are for Part two.