40 Under 40: Dean Leppan

Wednesday, 11 October, 2017
Catea Lizabet Sinclair
So, I know I work with the guy, but Dean Leppan has an interesting work/life balance. By day, he grafts as the viticulturist at Newton Johnson Wines. And, in stark contrast to that, his side-hustle is as a yoga teacher. So, he is flexible and smart, wickedly funny and headstrong – traits that serve him well in the wine industry.

Dean started out as the viticulturist and supervisor at Newton Johnson seven years ago. Not formally trained as a viticulturist, he approached the learning curve with precision and focus and hasn’t looked back since. Now, I’m not going to pretend that Pinot noir is not all that because it is. And we all know that it is a finicky grape to work with, but Dean and his team seem to have a good understanding of their terroir and the vines. The notion that time well spent in the vineyard is crucial to producing Pinot noir with true varietal expression is taken to heart and Dean guides the vines to present the purest essence of each vineyard and vintage. When not in the vineyards or tasting wine, Dean is a yogi badass at Yoga Heart in Hermanus, a studio owned by his wife, Pauline. We talked lucky breaks and fine wine.

What vintage are you?


If you could bottle yourself, what would the tasting note be?

A bright, clear wine. Easily approachable although unconventional, it shows medium density with a very supple structure. Finally starting to show signs of maturity although not quite ready for polite company.

What sparked your love for food and the drink?

Growing up in Durban with parents who worked for Stellenbosch Farmers' Winery instilled a taste for good wine, but oddly enough I didn't appreciate it until I lived in Asia for 5 years and realised how much I missed good wine.

Aliens come down from space and you must explain to them in one bottle of wine what it is that you do – what bottle would you be?

2016 Newton Johnson Family Vineyards Chardonnay

What is still on your wine bucket list?

A harvest in Burgundy.

Tell us about your lucky break?

I got to know the Newton Johnson's through yoga. My wife, Pauline, and I were giving classes to Felicity and Ezanne. At the time there was a herd of Jersey cows on the farm and an excess of milk so we started a small business making cheese. After a few years, a position opened in the vineyards and I jumped at the chance to get involved, initially as a supervisor. That was 7 years ago and I haven't looked back. Growing up in Durban I never even thought of wine farming so I often say that this is the dream job that I never even dreamed of having.

What makes a wine fine?

A delicious wine that gives you reason to pause and think.

How do you measure success?

I measure success by gauging my peace of mind. I've always been struck by Maya Angelou's definition, "Success is liking yourself, liking what you do, and liking how you do it.".

What inspires you?

Getting to work in the beautiful Hemel en Aarde region, tasting great wines, seeing that light bulb moment when someone who says they don't normally like Pinot Noir finally "gets it" and working with my vineyard team, connecting with them and empowering them to make the crucial decisions that ultimately shape our wines and vines, barrel tastings with Gordon and Nadia.

It’s Wednesday night at 6:30. What’s for dinner?

I'd be in a yoga class thinking the same thing - probably brown rice and lentils, steamed veggies, tahini and olive oil.

If you weren’t a viticulturist, what would you be?

Teaching yoga.

What do you rate as your proudest achievement?

Marrying my wife - it took me 10 years to convince her!

What is a big no-no to you when it comes to making wine and looking after vineyards

Following recipes, trying to impose a predetermined protocol on the situation instead of reading it and acting accordingly. One needs to have an idea of what you want and how to get it, but also to be flexible enough to change and adapt those plans as needed.

You are the keeper of some of the finest vineyards in South Africa. What would you say is key to ensure sustainable wine growing in South Africa?

Valuing, uplifting and empowering the workforce which also relates to the public realising that, in order to do so, they need to pay more for their wine. Eradicating leafroll virus.

What would you like to achieve over the next 15 years?

To continue learning, to get rid of the last few remaining leafroll virus-infected vines; to make my own wine and to buy a house in Hermanus.

Who or what is your idea of oenological brilliance?

Aubert de Villaine

Where are you happiest?

Sunset picnic on the beach with my wife and dog after a good day harvesting.

Biggest vice?

That's easy - good wine.

Your cellar is underwater. You can save one bottle of wine from your collection – what do you choose?

That's tough. Hold on, wine bottles are waterproof! I'll come back with scuba gear and get the lot.

What is your favourite food and wine memory?

Meeting Aubert de Villaine and tasting through all the DRC vineyards, especially Montrachet, when we hosted him at the cellar.

What is the best and worst thing about working in the wine industry?

The best and worst are the same things: the Wine and the People - when they're good they are great and when they are bad they are terrible.

Looking back, what advice would you give your 21-year-old self?

Stay true to your values.

Dean Leppan
Dean Leppan

Dean Leppan
Dean Leppan

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