Antipodeans in Africa Part 1

Monday, 8 November, 2004
Jeanine Wardman
Linley Schultz is as brazen and opinionated as the archetypal Australian. He is also an internationally revered winemaker with a CV that instantly reveals why he was Distell’s first choice after the company concluded an international headhunting expedition for the position of Group Winemaker three years ago. Jeanine Wardman wanted to know what’s wrong with the South African wine industry, but also what’s right with it.

Linley Schultz came to South Africa in late 2001 - 'when most South Africans were heading the other way' - as Group Winemaker for Distell. Ex-BRL Hardy's and Southcorp, he has the brashness generally tolerated as an Aussie national trait, though Schultz is no stereotype. In fact, he is in many respects one of a kind. Beneath the Antipodean veneer exists a gentle, disciplined and highly approachable guy with an impressive knowledge of winemaking and a grasp on current affairs that makes me pity his dinner-party debating opponents.

I have been privy to your criticism of Veritas in the past. Could you share what irks you with our readers?

'As I understand it, close to 80% of wines were awarded medals, I have a problem with that for a start. And the fact that it's possible for wine that from a quality perspective should only sell at £ 4.99 to be awarded a double-gold medal. With that I am referring to commercial blends which are good sound wines but hardly worthy of double gold status.  Don't get me wrong, good luck to the winners, but I don't think we are doing ourselves any favours by handing out medals like candy.

'The competition's packaging and volume requirements I believe are restrictive and unproductive. For wines to be fully packaged and labelled before entering makes for endless logistical inefficiencies and limits the competition's commercial relevance as international markets often have different and very specific labelling requirements. Why is it that wine in tank, if proven to be from the same batch entered, cannot be bottled with Veritas medals?

'I would like to see the classes more defined. Veritas adjudicates boutique and commercial wines as if these are one and the same. I would propose the introduction of a commercial class of some kind, or at least a differentiation in the crushing capacity of entrants, as well as price point criteria, for example "Best Commercial Sauvignon Blanc below R50/bottle". The current requirement of 200 x 9-litre cases across the board makes for the production of "show wines" and offers the consumer very little in most instances as the wines are often not available.

'I also find it strange that submissions are tasted in flights of ten. In my experience, especially in large classes, it is imperative that a judge has the opportunity to go back down a flight and compare wines throughout the entire class of submissions.

'I believe Veritas can still achieve a lot more in terms of attracting international judges of calibre and integrity.

'The show system exists to impart credibility to wines and or endorse these on behalf of the consumer. I'm not sure that Veritas fulfils this role.

'What I'd most like to have answered is how it's possible for the category of South African Sauvignon Blanc not to have been awarded a single double-gold medal this year. Of all the varieties South Africa produces, surely our Sauvignon Blancs are as worthy as a Colombard blend?'

There are no cooperatives left in Australia as they've all been converted to commercial companies. What is your take on the South African version of the wine cooperative and its future existence?

'I am particularly concerned about the cooperative's ability to erode industry profitability across the board by selling wine at little margin or perhaps even at a loss in this time of surpluses. I subscribe to the philosophy of "it isn't marketing if you're not making money".'

But there are many examples of cooperatives that have successfully reinvented themselves. Surely this part of the industry is changing?

'Many entities are moving in the right direction - in my opinion by consolidation through amalgamation and or mergers. I am wary getting onto the consolidation bandwagon for the wrong reasons though. If consolidation doesn't imply fundamental, from-the-inside-out change, it's a lot like shuffling deck chairs on the Titanic. I'd like someone to answer me this: how is it possible that the Australians can undercut us on white wine when labour there costs about R75 an hour?'

What progress has our industry made in the time you've been here?

'I'm most encouraged by the fact that we're shedding our value-for-money image. It was a good way to earn our stripes, but now we need to lift our profile and make consumers believe our wines are worth a premium.'

What about big brands and our lack thereof?

'What astounds me is that brands such as Yellow Tail, Banrock Station and even Kumala appear to be surprised by their own success. I can't help but admire the work done for instance by Gallo and its Red Bicyclette brand. One gets the sense that Gallo conceived of Red Bicyclette because of a thorough understanding of its own strengths as a distributor rather than just a producer.  I'm sure there was a lot of thought put into that brand, how successful it will be remains to be seen.'

What are SA's national varietal assets?

'For me Sauvignon Blanc is South Africa's variety of choice. It is our niche because it can proudly compete with the best of the Loire, Bordeaux and New Zealand yet has a uniquely South African character. I think we've been so successful with Sauvignon because the cultivar has never been just a commodity - it has always sold at a premium.  A lot of that comes from the passion of the winemakers.  Every South African winemaker wants to make great Sauvignon Blanc.

'South African Shiraz, for me, is right up there with the Sauvignons. I'm very fond of SA Shiraz - they're smokier and more "bacony" than those that Australia produces.'

And Pinotage?

'Pinotage is a definite point of difference for South Africa and I'm certainly far more positive about the varietal than when I first arrived. What it needs is a higher proportion of the wines made to be outstanding wines.  There are plenty of terrible Cabernets made around the world, but it doesn't mean that all Cabernet is bad.  With an open-minded approach to viticultural and winemaking techniques, I think we can continue to improve the base standard for Pinotage. If we can get it right it will be a great bell to ring.'

Closing remarks?

'I'd like to state again that the current industry trend towards consolidation has to be sustained for the right reasons; making bigger companies isn't of any benefit if they aren't profitable.

'And since the States are on everybody's agenda, I'd like to say that I am wary of being overly optimistic when the guys we're up against are the likes of Hardy's, Jacob's Creek and Yellow Tail, and that's just the Aussies.  Even if we do get a major stake of the action, where will the volumes come from? Do we have enough Shiraz and Chardonnay to compete on Yellow Tail's scale?'

Linley Schultz
Linley Schultz

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