Elgin living legend: Andrew Gunn

Monday, 29 April, 2024
Christine Lundy
For our third article about Elgin's living legends, Christine Lundy interviewed Andrew Gunn of the iconic Iona Wines. His story is about purpose, passion, and perseverance.

"Passion is a consequence of applying oneself and taking action," says Andrew Gunn, the founder of the iconic brand, Iona Wines.

In his mid-40s, Andrew sold his medical suture business in Johannesburg and was looking for a new challenge, this time a long-term endeavour. Thirty years later, and at the tender age of 75, he is still excited and stimulated by his farm and business: IONA.

When I asked him why a farm and why Elgin, he said, “I’d always loved the idea of being a farmer. As a child, every year we would visit a guest farm, Sunnyside, in the eastern Free State, which I loved. When I sold my business in Johannesburg in the early 1990s, I took a year’s sabbatical and saw a farm for sale in Franschhoek. While it was beautiful, the day I visited was very hot, and I couldn’t see myself living there. What followed was three months of looking at farms all over the Western Cape until the agent finally showed me 'Geelbeksvlei' in Elgin. I fell in love with the remoteness, no neighbours, beautiful setting, house, cool climate, and it was laden with apples. Such bounty, I thought surely, I can make a living from it!"

Shortly after he bought the farm, he was given a book by Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine, as he was exploring the potential of planting a vineyard. His research, extracted from one of the best all-round reference books on wine, led him to find the following: “Under the heading ‘Climate and Wine Quality,’ a few comments caught my attention: 1) The best viticultural climates are anomalous and rare; 2) Summer heat is regularly moderated by afternoon sea breezes; 3) The world’s greatest table wines have traditionally come from the cool to mild temperature climes,” Andrew said.

Defying the odds and against the advice of professionals, he started planting vines, focusing on the areas where the soil was not suited for apples. Like this vineyard featured in this picture, where only a machine could extract the big boulders where Andrew is standing, and today, it is one of Iona’s best Sauvignon sites. He first planted 15 hectares of vines, and the rest was still focused on apples as a means to finance the business. “The apples were the unfashionable varieties Granny Smith, Golden Delicious, and Packham pears,” said Andrew. “And notwithstanding the apple industry was difficult, we needed them to bring in some income, as I had totally underestimated the amount of capital we needed. I planted the first vineyard in 1998 on a site that wasn’t suitable for apples, and over the next 18 years, removed all the fruit trees, the last orchard in 2016.”

So why did Andrew decide to plant vineyards?

“I studied Civil Engineering at university, and although I never practiced as an engineer, I do take a practical approach to solving problems. I didn’t have long-term climatic data for the farm, so I installed several temperature loggers on the farm and compared the daily results with a weather station in Elgin. I noticed we were consistently cooler, so I used the long-term data from Elgin to extrapolate our long-term data.

“My late uncle, Prof. Savigear, a geomorphologist at Reading University, was working with the European Commission and sourced long-term data for some of the wine-growing regions in France, notably Sancerre, Burgundy, and Bordeaux. We concluded the climate was somewhere between Sancerre and Burgundy.

“On presenting it to Prof. Eben Archer, he initially said, ‘It’s not possible, South Africa is a warm to hot wine-growing region,’ and on studying my analysis, he became very excited, and developed a master plan for the farm to pull out the apples and plant Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir grapevines. For the next four years, our viticultural consultant and great mentor trained us and our workers in the art of grape growing.”

Following his early success, during late 1999, Andrew was keen to share his thoughts with other farmers in the area, and together with Prof. Archer and Dawid Saayman, they presented their findings at Iona to interested farmers. The meeting was attended by, amongst others, Michael Fridjhon, Neil Ellis, Rosa Kruger, Paul Clüver, James Downes, and Anthony Rawbone-Viljoen. They decided to form an Elgin Wine Guild focusing on supporting the region with information and producing high-quality wines. The guild has since then been renamed Wines of Elgin and still bears the marsh rose part of the initial logo.

So how long did it eventually take to turn Iona into a successful wine farm? “Gyles Webb from Thelema, another wonderful man who was generous with support, said it would take at least 10 years to start generating some cash; he wasn’t wrong! We did, however, get early recognition and awards from many sources, including Jancis Robinson, Matthew Jukes, Tim Atkin, and Stephen Spurrier, which was very motivating and encouraged me to persevere,” said Andrew.

When I asked him what the secret behind Iona’s success was, he quoted an article written by the CEO of Louis Roederer in Champagne: “To produce a great wine and be successful, you need to have the right grapes in the right area and have control over your own marketing and distribution.”

Sales and marketing have always been Andrew’s strengths and skills he honed in his two previous businesses. He knew he had the right grapes in the right area, somehow thanks to pure luck, if there is such a thing.

The next focus was to create a unique, strong brand name that would be easily remembered and be pronounceable in any language. Iona, the name of his house in Johannesburg, and an island off the west coast of Scotland and the first recorded landing of the Vikings, testament to Andrew’s ancestry, hence the label. The brand's success grew thanks to the consistent quality of the Iona wines acknowledged year on year by several strong awards as he mentioned earlier.

Iona’s objective continues to aim to produce wines ranking with the best in the world, and even though Sauvignon Blanc is Iona’s cornerstone, Andrew is very confident that their Chardonnays will only grow from strength to strength. When I met Andrew for this interview, an Italian wine connoisseur was just leaving the Iona tasting room with starry eyes, completely blown away by what he just tasted and describing Elgin as the "Eden of wines."

So what is next for Iona? Andrew believes that it is time to infuse new energy, youth, and intellect to take Iona to the next step. His son-in-law, Rob Mac Donald, who studied geophysics, will join them from London in October as operations manager, and his grandson, Nik Siimes, finishing a PhD in Wine Science at Auckland University in New Zealand, will join them in December as assistant winemaker.

Nik has completed his WSET Level 4 Diploma before the age of 20 and has already completed five vintages, including one in Central Otago with Felton Road and one with Adi Badenhorst in the Swartland.

Photos: Christine Lundy

Christine Lundy

Christine Lundy is a French wine and lifestyle writer and marketer passionate about creative storytelling in writing and visual form. She came to South Africa 23 years ago with her South African husband. Her creative career started in luxury retail, advertising, and publishing. Fate led her back to the vineyards. Having grown up with Pinot Noir from her family estate in Burgundy, she had always had a passion for wine. She studied with the Cape Wine Academy and then completed her WSET 3. As she learned more, she wanted to share her knowledge and started writing for a number of magazines, including Classic Wine Magazine and Food & Home, where she wrote the wine column. A move to Johannesburg gave her the opportunity to return to high-end marketing with fine and rare wine importer Great Domaines. Back in Cape Town, she was given the opportunity to share the Wines of Elgin story and became their marketing manager.

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Andrew Gunn. Photo: Christine Lundy
Andrew Gunn. Photo: Christine Lundy

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