From the Napa Valley and Russian River to the hillsides of Breedekloof: Dave & Catherine Jefferson, Anton Roos and Silkbush Mountain Vineyards

Monday, 29 April, 2019
Dave March CWM
Dave Jefferson, a Californian wine grape grower, recently made his 40th visit to South Africa. He and wife Catherine (now on her eighth visit) are familiar to many in South Africa, and count a host of our top winemakers and wine industry leaders among their close friends.

Dave is CEO and owner of Burdell Properties, a Californian investment company, but this is not a tale of foreign investors looking to SA for real estate. This is a 25 year journey which, largely through fate and accident, has lead Dave since 1994, and Catherine since 2003, to become very involved in the wine scene here – though Dave says he has ‘only’ mastered some 500 words in Afrikaans, he speaks far more Spanish, an advantage in farming in Napa and Sonoma Counties since 1973.

After an MBA from Stanford Graduate School, Dave became, at age 30, CFO for Burdell, a business that just had planted 8 vineyards. After 10 years of lean times in the wine world, in the ‘70s and 80’s, their 800 acres of vineyards became profitable, having also become Robert Mondavi’s largest contract grower in Napa. But they were not making wine themselves.  “To succeed as a winery you either needed generations of background with an inherited estate or to have made a fortune in another industry. We were neither.”

Dave soon realized, however, he had best learn about all aspects of the wine business, “I learnt there were three types of wine consumers: those that knew wine was red, white or pink, those that enjoyed wine with modest knowledge and a few ‘expert jerks’ who wanted to show you up in public.”  When in social situations, if someone said: ‘he’s in the wine business, the crowd descended on me with countless wine questions for the rest of the evening.  I was terrified because I knew so little, so I became a good Wine Generalist!”

Partly as a 1994 African vacation and then by 1996 (representing the interests of the large and highly successful Beringer Wine Estate in Napa), Dave met leading industry figures throughout the South African winelands. When initially asked in Cape Town on his first trip by a winery MD what he knew of the South African wine industry, he replied, “I think Stellenbosch is due east”. People like Norma Ratcliffe, Phil Freese and Zelma Long got him going, unfortunately Beringer had abandoned plans to acquire a Cape cellar by 1998, but he had met an exceptional Vinpro consultant, Anton Roos, a young Stellenbosch grad in Viticulture and Viniculture. Having a local pro as a partner was the catalyst to investing in a tired, modest 30 Ha fruit farm in 2000. They have since tripled its size, replanted almost everything that was there originally, and now produce over 800 tons annually of grapes from what is now Silkbush Mountain Vineyards in Breedekloof.

“Anton is amazing; he is the genius farmer behind our great grapes.” Catherine agrees.  Dave adds, “A 99 score for a wine can still be a fail, since you need to hit every mark in the international wine business”. At Silkbush, Dave and Catherine are co-founders, and silent partners; Anton produces small production, natural acid, slow-ripening, cool-climate grapes on mountainside slopes; 90% of which go into the medal winning wines of Flagstone (especially all of Writer’s Block), Guardian Peak, Rickety Bridge, the KWV Mentor Range, and other top wineries.

Anton Roos, MD of Silkbush Vineyards

In Napa and Sonoma a similar 10% of their vineyard’s grapes become wine at their White Oak winery in Sonoma,while 90% is supplied to some 25 other wineries. “No matter how good the wines are that you make, selling wine is the hardest part of the business”.

Catherine is also a home winemaker working with between 2-5 tons of fruit, not bonded or sold in the USA, but for charitable events and friends, “I have lots more friends after my wine is bottled” she laughs.

The two knew that what Anton was doing mirrored their beliefs and philosophy, and the need was to first survive as a grape growing business before starting a label.

At Silkbush, the wine is also made off site and though most of the grapes are sold to other wineries there are plans to bottle more under its own label, and the wines are already in some 80 retail outlets. The elegant and lush ‘Altitude’ (a Shiraz, Pinotage, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Merlot blend depending on vintage), reflects its climate nicely. “We grow exclusively Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa, and Chardonnay and Pinot Noir in Sonoma” and Dave firmly states that they are not aiming to reproduce a Californian style here, but to create local terroir driven wines. Anton Roos, is now the company’s MD and General Manager, and Silkbush Viognier is a long way from anything overblown or wearing too much make-up.

Dave meets with many old friends on every visit who provide excellent guidance. This time he was with Johann Loubser, Hansie and Ingrid van Niekerk, Julian Johnsen, Wynand Grobler, Dave Hutton, Pietman Retief, and Kevin Kidson, just to name a few.He says he has learnt so much from them, for example, “Just talking to the amazing American Samantha O’Keefe at Lismore you learn how brief the window is for getting Viognier harvested right; she is a brilliant winemaker, recently honoured by the local guild”.  With many friends at the forefront of wine in SA, it was no surprise that, as we chatted, Giorgio Dalla Cia joined us, whom Dave met some 25 years ago.

“Virtually any American who visits South Africa will fall in love with the people and the wines. Unfortunately, not enough have made the trip, in striking contrast with the UK and the EU; as a result South African wine sales are mired at less than ¼% of the US wine market”, says Dave. “Accordingly, everyone down here has to work together to change this, and a program to share the email addresses of all foreign visitors would be a major step forward”.

“For wine”, adds Catherine, “so much is so similar with Napa, Sonoma and South Africa, the climate, the vineyards.Wine people here are so friendly and keen to help, yet they wrongly believe the competition is the wine farm down the road; it is not, the competition is Castle, Coca Cola, and spirits”.

Clearly few uitlanders are looking for more SA investment, especially in the current national climate. After 45 plus years in vineyard investment, however, he acknowledges he has “cheerfully failed retirement”. The love of this Country, their friends and wine will always bring them back again. “Sure, we started as wine besoekers,”but “we’ve paid our dues for 20 years and will continue to do so for years to come”. Teamwork in the Cape, nevertheless, will be the key to future collective success.

Catherine  Dave Jefferson - Silkbush Vineyards
Catherine Dave Jefferson - Silkbush Vineyards

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