Visit Winelands

Lessons from my father – Visit Winelands

Agriculture and activities like the making of wine is often a family affair, as the stories of many of South Africa's winemakers reflect. Marking Father's Day this month, Maryke Roberts asked some of them to be re-told.

Father's Day is said to have its origins in America, where it has been celebrated for the past 108 years. The story goes that in May 1909, Sonora Smart Dodd of Spokane, Washington, attended a Mother’s Day sermon. She decided to designate a day for her dad, William Jackson. Sonora’s mother had died in childbirth, and her father, a Civil War veteran, had taken the responsibility of raising the newborn and his other five children.

The following year, she wanted to celebrate Father's Day on June 5, her father's birthday, and petitioned for the holiday to be recognized in her city. Needing more time to arrange the festivities, Spokane’s mayor pushed the date back by two weeks, and the first Father's Day was celebrated on June 19, 1910.

Today, it is celebrated all over the world.

In Russia, Father’s Day has its roots in the military, with celebrations taking place on February 23 - “Defender of the Fatherland Day”. Women buy gifts for the men in their lives on this day. In France, the idea of Father’s Day was adopted by companies that sold lighters. It was marketed as a day to buy a lighter for your father who smoked. Nowadays, a lighter is given as a gift on the day alongside other things. In Thailand, they celebrate fathers on the birthday of the king. The king gives a speech and women and children give their fathers the Canna flower, which is associated with masculinity.

In South Africa, the third Sunday in June is assigned for the occasion.

In the case of winemakers, there are many stories - whether they follow in their winemaker-father’s footsteps or just appreciate well-earned advice.

Alicia Rechner, Backsberg Estate Cellars

Alicia Rechner Family
Alicia Rechner from Backsberg (left at the back), with her family. Her father Wennie, is in the back row with her.

Alicia Rechner from Backsberg Estate Cellars says her most beautiful memory of wine and wine-drinking dates back to 1994 when she told her dad, Wennard (better known as "Wennie") she was switching courses at Stellenbosch University. Her parents have a farmstall near De Doorns.

“I originally enrolled for Animal Sciences, but after the first class realised it wasn't for me. I attended a few classes in winemaking and spoke to friends, which made up my mind," she says.

“When he heard my news, he was ecstatic. It was something very different to anything anyone in our family had ever done. He took me on an exploration day and my first visit to a wine farm. We started at Lievland and then down the road to Kanonkop, Muratie, Delheim, Morgenhof.

“They were all beautiful: the oak trees, maturation cellars with the oak barrels; it was all so impressive. This was my favourite wine day. I was excited to know that one day I would work in conditions like those. That day I knew I'd made the right choice.”

She says her dad raised her and her two sisters with the knowledge that they never had to stand back for men. “All career possibilities were open to us. He formed the concept in my mind that I am an equal to men in all ways. That is the characteristic I still admire most: that he has no domineering male ego and treats women as equals or even superiors.”

Alicia recalls the day she was a first-year winemaking student. She and her dad decided to make wine from the vine suspended over their veranda . They stomped the grapes in two buckets and worked on the preparation for two weeks.

“I had no idea that there was a difference between wine grapes and the grapes in our garden. After a few weeks, it looked like wine, but tasted awful. I took a sample to the university and asked Prof Jool Van Wyk why the wine tasted so bad. He laughed so much! It took me another two years to make proper wine.”
Alicia Rechner

For Father's Day this year, it's unlikely she'll see him because the farmstall gets extremely busy, "but, I'll certainly raise a glass to him," she says.

PJ Geyer, Aaldering Wine Estate

PJ Geyer, winemaker and viticulturist at Aaldering Wine Estate in the Devon Valley says his father, Etienne, inspires him. “I was never one of those ‘Spiderman, Batman, Superman’ kind of boys. My father has always been my hero. His calm advice will even cool an aggressive skunk. My mom, Jeannette, too is unaffected by other people’s moods and attitudes. I learnt so much from them. Their love for each other is such an inspiration. What better gift could you give a child than that?”

His dad is retired, but was the ATKV resort manager at Klein Kariba and later at Hartenbos. He always made time for his son, PJ. “When I came home from school - regardless of how busy he was in the office - he would put his pen down and ask about my day.”

PJ says life lessons his father raised his kids with, guides his own day, every day. For example: “your thoughts determine your deeds and your deeds determine what you will achieve” or “take three deep breaths, stop and smell the roses”.  

It wasn't all esoteric. PJ’s dad once made a laminated sign with the words “check the oil, water and tyres” and stuck it to the steering wheel of PJ’s first car. “I am 42 and he still asks me today. No wonder when I'm on the farm I walk around the tractor five times before I start it." 

Bertho van der Westhuizen, Alto Estate

Bertho And Schalk Eksteen Alto Cropped
Father and son, Schalk and Bertho van der Westhuizen from Alto Estate. Bertho took over the reigns from his father in 2015. They completed the 2015 harvest together.

Bertho van der Westhuizen, winemaker at Alto Estate outside Stellenbosch, took over the reins from his father, Schalk, who retired after 40 years as winemaker. Schalk was at Alto from 2000 to 2015. A highlight for Bertho was that 2015 vintage; his father’s last and his first on the farm. “It is heart-warming to see how well these wines fare and how special the collaboration between us, made these wines.”

He says the two things he admires most in his father are his thoroughness and simplicity. “He left me a business where everything was sorted. Everything I do daily, is basically done in the same way he did it.”

The two characteristics of his father he recognises in himself, are gratefulness and unselfishness.

His father’s approach to winemaking is that wine is made in the vineyard and the best compost for a vineyard is the winemaker’s footprints. Bertho works to that motto every day.

Charmaine Arendse, Esona Boutique Wines

Charmaine Arendse is the assistant winemaker-in-training at Esona Boutique Wines near Robertson. She says winemaking is in her blood, as her father, Manie, was an experimental winemaker at the former Stellenbosch Farmers Winery (Distell) for more than 27 years. He was also the white-wine maker at Graham Beck Wines for seven years. 

“My father was very passionate about his work. He would get up at night and go to the cellar to experiment, if he felt it wasn’t up to standard. In his second year at Graham Beck his wine was a Class winner at the SA Young Wine show. I admired his passion and perfectionism. Sadly, he passed away in March 2003.”
Charmaine Arendse

Her fondest memory of him was of Friday nights on the farm Madiba. Her father would open a bottle of his own wine, especially the Waterside White or Railroad Red, and the family would gather around the braai and talk about their week. Here the problems of the world were dissolved.

Her own wine journey started in 1994, not on the winemaking side, but in a goods store at Rooiberg Cellar near Worcester. Her childhood dream of becoming a policewoman faded as she grew older and admired her father more and more. Today, she is on her way to become a winemaker.

“My father taught me hard work and determination pays off. That’s why he became the first ‘winemaker of colour’ in 1992. He was also the first person in Robertson to harvest at night. She says she admired his passion and patience to create the perfect wine.”

Charmaine’s sister, Dorothy, is also in the wine industry – a field she's been in for 23 years. She currently works at Simonsig Wines.

Charmaine says her father was the one she turned to for advice. “In my teenage years I realized I’m different from other girls. In those years it was a big thing and I was afraid to climb out of the closet. After all, my dad was a pastor!  I eventually told my parents; my father said he knew all along and told me to be who I am.”

One of his life motto’s was his belief that workers should be educated. They should know and understand why they perform certain tasks. “An educated worker is a smarter worker, and then you get the best from people. Teamwork was his key to success.”

She would have loved to share her news of becoming an assistant winemaker, following in his footsteps. “I imagine relaxing with my sis and dad with a bottle of wine, discussing wine.”

Thys Louw, Diemersdal

Tienie Snr Tienie And Thys Louw From Diemersdal1
Grandpa Tienie senior, Thys and the next generation on Diemersdal, Tienie.

Thys Louw is the sixth-generation winemaker at Diemersdal in Durbanville. His father, Tienie snr has been making wine for more than 30 years. They work well together and are very close. Thys studied agriculture, not winemaking. “I reckoned I can be taught by nobody better than my father who had three decades of winemaking lessons behind him,” he says.

Thys says he knew from a young age his future lay on the farm. “My father spent many hours including me in everything concerning the farm and winemaking.” He now does the same with his young son, Tienie. He even makes his own “wine” every year.

Thys describes his father as being very straightforward. The basics are important, and he believes in doing things right. “There are no airs and flairs,” he says laughing.

As a winemaker, he admires his father’s temperament; he is cool, calm and thinks things through all important elements in a wine cellar. Thys says his father learnt from the Diemersdal heritage and previous generations. He is a “family first” man, building on the wisdoms accumulated over generations.

It was under Thys and Tienie that the farm moved away from bulk wine supply. "My father is a forward thinker. He realised back then that we could add value without a middle man.

“Today, I buy in just as many grapes as we produce, and it is all bottled. I drove with my dad as young boy to deliver our grapes. Now my young son rides with me when I collect grapes. My dad shared that vision years ago and we achieved our goal.”
​Thys Louw

Philip Jonker, Weltevrede Estate

Lourens And Philip Jonker
Lourens and Philip Jonker from Weltevrede.

Philip Jonker is the fourth-generation winemaker at Weltevrede Estate outside Bonnievale. His father, Lourens, completed his degree in viniculture and undertook extensive study tours of the winelands of Europe and California in 1962 before settling at Weltevrede. Lourens took over the 65ha farm after his father’s death and subsequently purchased neighbouring farms - now consolidated as a 160ha estate.

Lourens is a pioneer of the South African wine industry. He was chairman of the KWV and served on several industry bodies as well as the boards of companies outside the wine industry. In 1996, the SA Agricultural Writer’s association named him South African Farmer of the Year.

Philip joined his father in 1997 after his studies and a year abroad with his wife, studying and working during the harvest season in the Napa Valley, California, and later St Emilion, Bordeaux.

He says the wine world has changed much over the four generations of family winemaking. 

“With every generation there is always innovation. After a history of brandies, sherries and sweet wines my father pioneered quality white-wine making at Weltevrede. He has been brave to remain innovative. In his young days he pioneered many ‘firsts’ for the region and industry (for instance he was the first South African winemaker to ferment and mature white wine in French oak barrels), and today at age 78 he remains driven and interested and open to innovation. “I joined the family business just as we started making MCC and red wines and have the privilege to make wine with generations of experience in a very modern winery.”
Philip Jonker

Philip says family is everything to his father and he has a deep sense of care and has great intuition.

“During a time when it wasn’t going well with the industry he reminded me to keep on doing what we are good at and not to lose confidence, momentum or focus.” His father has also given him confidence.

He says if had to describe his father’s personality as a grape variety he’d nominate a Bordeaux-blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. “Cabernet for its firm structure and Merlot for its approachability.”

Ponk van Zyl, Fryer’s Cove

In 1985, Wynand Hamman, studying winemaking at the Elsenburg Agriculture College, was on holiday in Stranfontein with his now brother-in-law, Jan (Ponk) van Zyl and his now father-in-law, Jan. Around a camp fire, they dreamed of planting a vineyard so close to the sea that the vines would synthesise salt, giving new meaning to the wine term minerality. Jan’s father was very enthusiastic about the venture of utilising the cool climate of the West Coast for wines.

Not only did Wynand, the winemaking student, and Jan, the eager matriculant, and his father, Jan, have to contend with the unknown factors of wind and sea, but the area was prone to droughts. Fortunately, Jan was a wine farmer and could help with ideas. The existing groundwater’s salt content was too high, and desalinisation proved too expensive. They needed fresh water and a pipeline from Vredendal - 29,5km away - was the only solution. But they had to cross three adjacent farms to get there.

Ponk, farming on the family farm in Vredendal, approached the neighbours and after they agreed to the pipeline, he and his farm workers built it in 1999. In exchange for their co-operation, the neighbours received water from the pipeline.

He farms wine grapes for Namaqua Wines and supplies vegetables.

A buffer dam was also built on the Laubscher brothers’ farm. The Laubschers were given shares in exchange for their 10ha of land. These 10ha afforded Fryer's Cove its view of the ocean and the planting of the first three-hectare vineyard commenced in 1999.

Ponk is also a qualified winemaker and says without his father, this project would not have been possible. “Our farm is held in the Jan Ponk Trust which owns shares in Fryer's Cove and him and his dad are the trustees. My father backs someone who thinks out of the box and had full confidence in the venture as he realised the potential of cool climate wine growing.”

Ponk says although he is a qualified winemaker, he was never officially Fryer's Cove’s winemaker. “The idea was that Wynand would handle the winemaking and I, the vineyards as that is where our respective fortes lie.”

Although his dad at 82 does not have the same amount of energy he had back then, he is always keen to give advice. Ponk says he is a good soundboard as he offers an objective view. With Ponk and Wynand and the Laubschers, they make a good planning team.

Ponk says his dad was always "under everybody’s feet" in the tasting room, because he was so proud of the winemaking story and wanted to share it with everybody.

“My dad earned the title of oldest waiter at the Fryer’s Cove tasting room and wears that badge proudly on his chest every day," he adds. “The biggest lesson he taught me was to be conservative in your thoughts, but to keep in mind that money makes money. You have to offer something if you want returns. Hard work and diligence are the cornerstones of success. Take chances, but do proper calculations.”