Ask any connoisseur what South Africa’s best red wine producer is and they will put Meerlust at, or very close to, the top. Its iconic Rubicon is one of the best-known local blends and features on the wine lists of some of the leading restaurants in London and New York. But there is another brand linked to the Myburgh Family Trust, the owners of Meerlust. Compagniesdrift is the trading name for what its energetic young managing director, Ilse Ruthford, calls ‘the most successful black empowerment venture in the Winelands’.
Started with R15 million from the Myburgh Family Trust, a grant of R15 million from the Western Cape government and a loan from Standard Bank, the initiative for the project came from the Meerlust management. For years they had wanted to create a serious empowerment project to benefit the workers that would be viable and sustainable in the long term. They initially thought of a vineyard, but it would have taken 10 to 15 years to reach fruition. In 2009 they came up with an idea that would allow them to establish something profitable as well as realise their initial vision of making wine: building a wine storage facility that would not only store Meerlust wine but would offer a cost-effective solution to other wine producers who did not have their own storage facilities.
At that stage Meerlust, like many other vineyards, stored its wines off-site with one of the specialist storage companies in Cape Town. But it’s an expensive business for the vineyards, and a highly profitable one for the storage companies – and a perfect venture for an empowerment project. The site chosen for the new warehouse was a piece of land near the original Compagniesdrift, a 17th-century causeway across the Eerste River on the old wagon route to Stellenbosch. This land comprises 13 hectares of established vineyard and the bulk of the grapes used for the wine comes from here. It is sold by Meerlust to the empowerment venture MWT Investments, which is jointly owned by the Meerlust Workers’ Trust and the Myburgh Family Trust.
Chris Williams of Meerlust and The Foundry is overseeing the winemaking part of the venture and it has recently released its first vintage. The four wines, which sell at R50 to R70 a bottle, are marketed ‘easy-drinking, pocket-friendly wines’, a fair description. There is an unwooded Chardonnay, a Chardonnay Pinot Noir blend and a red wine that is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. A fourth wine, a Muscat, is only produced in limited quantities and not yet readily available. Presiding over the operation is the formidable but charming Ilse, the only non-local in the enterprise – she comes from Pniel on the other side of Stellenbosch – who talks enthusiastically about her vision for the future. ‘I see Compagniesdrift as the centre of a whole group of empowerment companies,’ she says. ‘And also as a major force for the education of the children here.’ There are 72 beneficiaries of the workers’ trust, all of them local farmworkers, 50 of them from Meerlust, and the others from the neighbouring Ken Forrester and Vriesenhof vineyards.
When it opened in 2011 it had just two outside clients, but now there are over 50, making it a profitable and thriving business. Already the bank has been repaid most of its money, and the workers’ trust is applying for further grants to build new racking which will treble the capacity. A project breeding Nguni cattle has also been established in the open pastures beyond the vineyard, on land partly earmarked for housing for farmworkers. There is even a vegetable plot, paid for by the proceeds of Ilse’s Female Entrepreneur of the Year award from the Department of Agriculture. About 40 people now work in the cool, state-of-the-art warehouse, stacking wine coming in from other vineyards, manning a labelling line which also caps the bottles, filling up cardboard boxes which get taken away on forklift trucks to be piled high on pallets and shrunk, ready to be shipped overseas. One large pallet is labelled for Marks & Spencer and others are headed for some of Europe’s largest retailers. It is all very efficient and orderly.
The big task now is to get the wine better known, and find a niche in a very competitive market. For that, Compagniesdrift is backed by the whole Meerlust team, including the beneficiaries of a very exciting undertaking. They deserve to succeed.
Fore more information and to support this worthy initiative, visit compagniesdrift.com.