Reyneke's philosophy of wine

Johan Reyneke was on the brink of bankruptcy when his total commitment to sustainable winemaking began to reap rewards, writes Michelle Bouffard.

Johan Reyneke
Johan Reyneke

Sustainability is a concept often loosely used in wine production. While some producers reserve the term strictly for their vineyard practices and the environment, others extend it to social and economic responsibilities. In Stellenbosch, South Africa, Johan Reyneke, owner of Reyneke Wines, exemplifies the word in its totality. 

A disturbing disconnect

In 1993, at the age of 22, Reyneke went to Los Angeles to visit his girlfriend, now wife, Mila. When he came back home, the rugged look he sported, complete with a head covered in dreadlocks, left him with few options but field work to pay for his philosophy studies. He was the only white person he knew working in the vineyards. “Given the history of apartheid, land staff were people of colour by default and had been excluded from society. I was not comfortable with that,” he says. 

He fell in love with outdoor labour, although he found a disturbing disconnect between the harsh reality of his job and the works of the philosophers he read at night, such as Arne Dekke Eide Naess, Aldo Leopold and Armartya Sen, This led Reyneke to seriously question the role of workers in South Africa. “I always wondered about the relationship between people and nature. You just can’t forget everything you read the night before,” he says. 
From an ecological point of view, he was just as disturbed by the work he was doing. Even though everyone wore protective gear, the chemicals they sprayed in the vineyards found a way under their clothes. Although the workers received glowing health reports from their regular medical check-ups, their scratchy eyes and itchy skin told a different story. 

As the quote often attributed to Mahatma Gandhi says, you must be the change you want to see in the world, Reyneke decided. Exploiting people for financial gain simply did not feel like a life worth living. “I wanted a better life for myself, nature and everybody,” he explains. In 1994, his desire to empower not only himself but his fellow workers fuelled an ambition to make wine. His parents had a house with a small vineyard but no winery; the 11ha they owned was not financially sustainable, but by helping the owners of the neighbouring vineyards, he kept things afloat. 

Towards self-sufficiency

In the mid-1990s, organic viticulture was considered unsustainable. “In South Africa, you don’t have any government subsidies when you farm,” says Reyneke. “If you choose the organic route, you expose yourself and there is no-one to catch you if you fall.” Yet, against everyone’s advice, he decided to go organic, feeling it was the right thing to do. “The truth is, I failed miserably. I had every pest and disease that exist in the country in the first six months,” he admits. “I was loving Mother Nature and she was not loving me back. I was organic by neglect and not by design. If you take poison away, you go back to the wilderness and we don’t live in a hunt and gather [society]. Agriculture is somewhere in the middle.” 

But in 2001, he met Jeanne Malherbe, a pioneer of sustainable farming in South Africa, who was a doyenne of organic and biodynamic farming. “My vineyard was in a complete mess and she told me I had to learn to read again,” says Reyneke. “Every plant has a function. Some are useful and some are not. You need to learn what they do and understand alternative systems to implement instead of conventional.”

Biodynamic viticulture did not interest Reyneke, however. It seemed too esoteric, with too few factual proofs – plus a lot of extra work. Surfing in his spare time is what called him. But Malherbe did not give up on Reyneke. While he was out riding the waves, she was applying the biodynamic preparations to one part of his vineyard. The results were astonishing. “The rows where she applied it were so soft, like a mattress versus a floor!” says Reyneke. “The colour of the soil also changed, and I could see the life in the soil.” 

Today, he says he doesn’t know why biodynamics works, “but it does”. What further convinced Reyneke was the concept of full-circle sustainability and the inherent value of things. “The difference from organic is that biodynamic is about self-sufficiency. Everything is used, nothing is lost. You understand waste. We all respect each other; cows have names. Money is not the only currency.”

Recognising privilege

One day, while hand harvesting a block of Cabernet Sauvignon during a rainstorm, Reyneke reached for his dry suit. Then he noticed his employees stuffing newspapers in their pants and shoes to keep warm. “It made me feel horrible and privileged. I don’t want to be in a business where people have to be poor so I can be rich,” he says. His solution was to start a company, Reyneke, with his workers. “A banker came and said we were crazy. ‘Even super healthy or wealthy people that come into this industry lose a fortune,’ he told us. ‘And now you want to start a company with a degree in philosophy and a bunch of illiterate [people] and hope to be successful?’” 
Reyneke was young and rebellious, and the naysaying gave him the impetus to want to make his dream come true. His workers did not have the same ambitions, however. What they wanted was a house and education. “If you want to empower people, you must give the ability to choose,” he says. “They expressed their wishes and I said OK.” Reyneke found an estate agent and purchased four houses for the couples who worked at the estate. He also paid for their kids’ education. 

But it did not take complex mathematics to understand that selling 2,000-3,000 cases of wine in five different countries would not cover the cost of the ambitious undertaking. “I was on the verge of bankruptcy. I thought you only had to make wine, but you also have to sell it,” he says. “You need a brand and some traction. I had so much wine to sell that I was sending messages on my fax machine all over the world.” Pretty soon, Reyneke was in trouble. “I started to borrow from a second bank to pay the first bank, then I moved to the second bank to pay the third bank.” 

Not only that, but 50% of his team sold their houses and pocketed the money, thinking they were going to be rich for life; one actually reinvested and bought a nice property two hours from Stellenbosch and became an entrepreneur. Of the children whose education he paid for, Lizanne – who today runs the office at Reyneke – is the only one of 12 left.

Providence intervenes

Just when things were looking grim, providence arrived in the shape of Reyneke’s mother-in-law, who runs a B&B in Cape Town, who sent over one of her guests to visit Reyneke and taste the wines. It was 2002, and only one of the bottles actually had a name: The Cornerstone. Created in honour of the workers, the label was a reminder that something had to pay for the houses and education, and that the workers were the cornerstone of the business. The guest, who worked at CNN in Johannesburg, was taken aback by the quality of the wines. “During this, the last dying moment of my financial survival, she told me she was looking for a wine to serve at an event done by CNN called the Africa Journalist of the Year event,” Reyneke says.“She asked me to pour Cornerstone and tell the story. Mandela was invited and the event got some buzz.” Reyneke says he had his picture taken with Nelson Mandela and “people got curious about my wine. I moved stock.”

That wasn’t the only serendipitous event. In 2005, Tim Rands, the founder of Vinimark, stepped in. Rands’ father passed away when he was young and a friend’s dad paid for proper private tuition. He never forgot this, and many stories are told about the number of people he helped during his life. His company, Vinimark, is the largest independent wine specialist company in South Africa and Rands decided to invest in Reyneke’s brand, providing expertise, market reach and financial assistance as well as business acumen. The traction around the CNN story plus the help from Rands turned things around for Reyneke, growing the distribution to 30,000 cases in 35 countries. 

Reyneke Wines has been a sustainable business ever since. Today, it farms a total of 120ha with 70ha under vines. It’s a mixed farm so some space is reserved for pasture for cows, as well as the grains and other crops. The business employs eight people in the cellar and 25 in the vineyards, and after ten years with the company, each worker is entitled to a house. The house is put in the employee’s name and the company makes the payments over time. Education is also available for their kids and the Allan Gray Retirement Annuity plan is put in place to provide a comfortable retirement. All of the profits from The Cornerstone label go towards projects benefiting workers and their families. 

Sustainability is the only way forward for Reyneke, a word that encompasses not just the land but the people as well. “People want to support a brand with integrity,” he says. “It’s about commitment and if you do it for the right reasons, unforeseen things fall in place to make that dream come true. I would not have made it on my own. I got lucky.” 

Michelle Bouffard

This article first appeared in Issue 6, 2019 of Meininger's Wine Business International magazine, available by subscription online or in print.

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