We chat with one of our members each month about their business, what makes them lie awake at night and what gives them hope. Saronsberg’s cellar master Dewaldt Heyns tells how they survived Covid-19 by streamlining their processes, while still protecting their brand at all costs.
1. Tell us more about Saronsberg Cellar
Saronsberg Cellar consists of two farms, namely Waveren and Welgegund, which are located in the Tulbagh Valley. One is at the foot of the Saronsberg mountain, with eastern slopes and the other one stretches across the centre of the valley. It offers us a wide range of soil types and microclimates to choose from.
Nick van Huyssteen bought the property in 2002, the cellar was built in 2003 and our first wine was made in 2004. We produce about 550 tons of wine grapes per year. In addition to our own production, which is primarily intended for our premium wine ranges, we source grapes and wine to meet the demand for specific medium-priced brands.
Although we position Saronsberg as a winery offering high quality wines, we have a product range that consists of a variety of price ranges, from lifestyle wines to premium wines. About 50% of our vineyards are planted to Shiraz, which is also found in 65% of our bottled wines, either as a single cultivar or as part of a blend. But even though Shiraz is our focus, that’s not all we do. We cultivate 17 cultivars and believe in the diversity and complexity that various cultivars can offer as part of blends. The variety of wine styles and price ranges allows us to offer consumers high quality alternatives.
We have focused on the local market from the onset, so 70% of our sales are local and 30% exports. A loyal South African consumer who believes in your brand and trusts your product serves as a buffer against external volatility in the market. ŉ Strong local base and reputation also make you less susceptible to opportunistic foreign buyers.
In addition to wine production, we have 16 self-catering units, as well as conference and banqueting facilities. In addition, we have a herd of Nguni cattle in a cross-breeding program that delivers calves to the market. We are also currently investigating other development opportunities such as fruit cultivation.
Our vineyard and wine department employs 35 permanent workers and our tourism department 13. In the summer we also employ 15 seasonal workers to help with canopy management and in harvest time 45 people for the manual sorting of our grapes.
2. The past year has certainly been the most challenging yet for the SA wine industry. What do you believe carried you through during this time, and what lessons did you learn?
Our primary focus was to support our employees and clients, temporarily delay capital expansions and make carefully considered management decisions that would benefit us in the long run. We are privileged to be part of a strong national distribution network. Despite the respective lockdown restrictions that had an effect on wholesale trade (B2B), our private consumers (B2C) have shown incredible support to our new online store. We attribute this to 17 years of sustained marketing efforts and the constant delivery of a range of high quality products that not only instil confidence in the consumer, but also provide great value.
3. Tulbagh is sometimes considered a hidden gem. What makes the region special in terms of the wines produced here, as well as the tourism offer?
From an agricultural point of view, the valley offers a relatively constant water supply, a wide variety of soil types and microclimates, as well as a moderate climate that is not subject to many extremes. The winters are cold and wet, which ensures good winter rest for the vine, and the growing season is not exactly subjected to extreme droughts or rain. This allows us to deliver a high quality product year after year, even in the more difficult years.
For visitors we offer a beautiful rural setting, surrounded by mountains, historic buildings and a tourism experience that has not yet been commercialised to a large extent.
4. Any exciting plans underway?
We just completed our 18th harvest, with most of our vineyards currently in their prime. We are replacing underperforming vineyards and increasing our area under vines. This provides the perfect opportunity to further refine the two farms’ clone and rootstock selections. Vineyards that produce high quality grapes serve as a solid foundation for the high standard we have set for our wine brands, and enable us to keep the farm relevant in a highly competitive environment.
5. What is your message to other cellars and producers on the way forward?
Producers need to be positive, think like entrepreneurs and apply cost-effective management practices. Consumer behaviour has changed, and with it that of retailers and distributors. This means that cellars and producers have to rethink their existing business models from scratch. We do not yet know how long these changes will last and whether they will be permanent, so it would be advisable not to make drastic changes to your operations.
Also involve all your core staff in the search for solutions to our current challenges, as it is the joint contribution of our diverse staff that will often result in a break-through. Be mindful not to make any management, production or marketing decisions that do not strengthen your brand, because it is the power of your brand that will carry you through the difficult years and give you momentum in the good years.