Cape scion starts Rootstock to net wine network

Tuesday, 11 May, 2004
Two Oceans News Service
We just tap into the energy generated by those who want to make the South African wine industry great
What does a young guy who’s studied for a diploma in Wine Business at the University of Adelaide do when he gets back to South Africa and doesn’t know anyone in the local wine industry?

All fired up with great ideas, but a network to nowhere, his first step is to rectify this situation by meeting some people. Obvious, isn’t it? But not a task for the faint-hearted.

But then Mike Ratcliffe, son of Norma and Stan, founders of Warwick Estate, thinks and acts bold.

On returning from Australia in 1999 he got busy. ‘I invited 14 wine people I’d heard of to come over. Winemakers, wine marketers, people like that. Just to talk, exchange ideas about winemaking, where to source the best corks. Stuff like that. And you know what? Not one of the 14 had ever met before. Here was this crazy scenario where all these guys were working in the same industry, in some cases as virtual neighbours, and they didn’t even know each other.’

And from this informal gathering was born the Organisation for Young People in the Wine Industry. Despite its portentous name, the grouping was an informal, ad hoc, laid-back event that was to set the tone for what has become one of the most influential networks in South Africa’s wine industry and the catalyst for some seismic shifts in thinking.

‘There we were, meeting every now and again, maintaining contact mostly by fax because, can you believe that not everyone was web wired by then. I’m talking 1999! I’d set the fax machine to mail out invitations at night when the rate was cheaper and wait for the replies along the same route,’ says Ratcliffe, now MD of the highly successful Warwick operation that boasts several wines with scores of over 90 awarded by Wine Spectator and Steve Tanzer and a trove of international awards, as well as a long list of discerning foreign and local customers. He is also a board member of Wines of South Africa (WOSA), the section 21 not-for-profit organisation that promotes South African wines generically in export markets and a board member of the SA Wine Industry Trust, mandated by Government to promote the transformation of the wine industry.

'Then some time in 2000, one of our members - I can’t remember who it was but someone very clever - decided we had to change our awful name and we became Rootstock. I wish I could take the credit, but I can’t. Initially, membership was supposed to be for anyone under 30 but,’ he adds very tongue-in-cheek, ‘now I’m 31 the restriction no longer holds.

‘Actually I learned something very important from my maternal grandfather who always used to say: ‘Never discourage enthusiasm.’ And no-one who’s interested in joining has ever been turned away. We even have members of 60-plus.’

Members, now contacted via e-mail, number ‘somewhere in the region of 400’. And they range from soil scientists to viticulturists, winemakers, wine marketers, package designers and wine journalists.

‘We are still very informal and don’t have a charter or any formal constitution or structures. That’s why it works. There’s no money, no bank account. You could say we are a virtual organisation. We just tap into this energy generated by the people who want to make the South African wine industry great. We aren’t defensive or parochial. We want to be a part of the global winemaking world and keep talking to each other about how to make better wine, how to improve our thinking, how to formulate winning strategies, how to benchmark ourselves.’

But this isn’t just a form of extended introspection. Part of the thrust lies in securing top speakers, who have included wine judges like Jancis Robinson and James Halliday, Australian winemaker Bill Hardy and domestic industry movers and shakers like WOSA CEO Su Birch and wine consultant and chairman of the SA Wine Trophy Show Michael Fridjhon.

Rootstockers meet all over the Cape winelands, finding wine venues, including restaurants, glad to host meetings free of charge despite the loss of revenue, because they see the point of Rootstock and figure they’re making an investment in goodwill and in the long-term future of the industry.

Ratcliffe would like to see Australian wine marketing guru Hazel Murphy, who put her country on the international wine map, address a Rootstock evening. ‘And Minister of Agriculture Thoko Didiza, British wine writer and auctioneer Michael Broadbent, flying winemaker Michel Roland, Robert Parker, also Georges Dutruc-Rosset, the chairman of Office International de la Vigne et du Vin (OIV) and Californian wine writer Andy Dyers-Blue.

‘You cannot believe the charge of energy set off by our meetings, the practical, philosophical and financial discussions they ignite.’

Ratcliffe says Rootstock has been approached by a number of corporates keen to sponsor the organisation. ‘But that’s not on the agenda. Our integrity lies in our independence.’

A plant onto which another variety is grafted, the rootstock is what saved the South African industry a century ago from the ravages of phylloxera. This newer Rootstock is proving an astonishingly successful resource for the cultivation of a formidable breed of young-minded, outward-looking but still self-analytical South Africans.

To join, register at

‘Everyone’s welcome,’ says Mike.