We chat with one of our members each month about their business, what makes them lie awake at night and what gives them hope. Times have been hard, but, says Dr Edmund Oettlé of Upland Organic Wines, it’s important to keep adding value to everything you do, while diversifying your revenue streams.
1. Tell us more about Upland Organic Wines?
Upland is located on Blouvlei Road outside Wellington, against the backdrop of the Hawequa mountains. Upland is English for this area (Boland) and reflects the high lying position of the farm, with magnificent views over the town and surrounds.
The farm started in about 1795, and briefly housed the first school in Wellington before the principle at the time, Mr Stucki, was given a more suitable building on Blouvlei Road. My family and I came to the farm in 1990, and started the winery in 1996 and the distillery in 1998.
It’s an organic farm, in other words not a monoculture, so we farm wine grapes (20 tons) olives (10 tons) buchu (1 ton) nuts (half a ton) and a handful of sulphite-free dried fruits. Adding value is essential, therefore we use the grapes to make our wines, ports, rakia, grappa, brandy and liqueurs. Our olives are used for table olives and olive oil, the buchu is dried and the nuts are cracked. Everything to add value and to enhance shelf life.
Upland’s target market is mainly environmentally aware consumers, particularly those with discerning palates who enjoy top end products. We also cater specifically for sulphite-sensitive consumers, as all of our products are sulphite free, even the old reds. The majority of the cellar’s wines are sold locally, with only 10% being exported.
Upland has a few cottages available for visitors and we used to have a handmade card workshop, which unfortunately had to close due to the demise of tourism as a result of the pandemic. Apart from the family being involved in most of the farming operations, we have five persons in our permanent employment, including three employees who used to work in the card workshop but now help out with the farm work. Things have not been easy.
2. The past year has been extremely challenging for most wineries. How have you adapted your business, and what lessons have you learned?
Adapt or die is a cliché but true. We’ve learned some really hard lessons over the past year.
The multiple crops made it easier to keep the staff busy, as the harvest times don’t overlap. A dip in one market was also compensated by a rise in other markets, which all helped to get us through the tough times. We’ve seen a rise in online marketing, which was a necessary addition to our sales channels.
3. Upland is well-known for its organically produced products. What is your philosophy in terms of organic farming, and what does your Ecocert certification entail?
Organic farming should at its centre be concern for the health of the environment and the consumers of the products. It should not be just a marketing tool. My aim is to leave the farm in a sustainable state, one that can continue to be farmed ad infinitum without loss of soil, biodiversity, water quality, and wildlife corridors. Zero tillage and permanent leguminous cover crops are key elements in this equation, and I am confident that we’ve already met most of our ideals.
In the beginning the farm wasn’t certified, as I thought that the quality of our products should speak for itself. Although certification is expensive and time consuming, it is essential to gain access to certain export markets as it provides a third party guarantee. On the downside, the costs have to be recouped from higher prices, which in turn leads to lower sales, so it’s a difficult conundrum.
4. Any exciting developments under way in the next year?
We’re always busy with something new! This year we launch a fresh unwooded Ruby port, a balkan style white spirit (Rakia), and a herbal digestif (Jag Arend). We’re also refreshing the tasting room to reflect the teaching heritage, to be called the Brandewijn Skool.
5. Your message to other wineries on the way forward?
Stay small and focused, while diversifying your revenue streams and adding value to everything you do. Do what you do best, but try as many things as possible to see what works.