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WINE: TIM HAMILTON RUSSELL’S LEGACY

26 Jul KWV Holdings

TIM Hamilton Russell, who died last week, was both a catalyst and a crucially needed agent of change for South African wine. He opened a way that others promptly followed, and in doing so drove a highway through the thickets of the repressive legislation that characterised the KWV’s management of our wine industry.

I first met him in the mid-1970s, when he was chairman of J Walter Thompson, the advertising agency controlled by his family in South Africa since the 1930s. He was an unusual wine enthusiast for that era in Joburg. The first sign of the intensity of this focus was a little vineyard, just a couple of rows, planted on his property near Morningside. If your long-term view is wine production, getting your hand in while running an ad agency in the Carlton Centre makes perfect sense.

The creation of his Hermanus wine estate was a logical next step, and it was in planning and executing this part of his game plan that he became an unlikely revolutionary. He owned property in Hermanus so he knew that land with vineyard potential was readily available in the nearby Hemel-en-Aarde Valley. As an Oxford geography graduate, he recognised the significance of the cooler Hermanus climate. To establish a successful premium vineyard there would require access to heat-sensitive varieties.

There were two obstacles to his plan but he assumed they could be easily disposed of — and this was how he became the unlikely flag bearer of the first modern Cape wine revolution. His first problem was the absence of suitable planting material. South Africa’s vine growers in the early 1970s could source only cultivars that met the broad requirements of the KWV (high-yielding, easily farmed bulk varieties) or the very small number of sophisticated consumers (low-yielding, high-value premium fruit.) The former included Cinsaut, Chenin Blanc and Clairette Blanche, while the latter was mainly Cabernet Sauvignon. None was really suitable for his Hemel-en-Aarde project.

Luckily, Sauvignon Blanc had just become available and there was also some inferior BK5 clone Pinot Noir. This meant, in theory, that planting could begin. The second — and as it turned out far bigger — impediment was that the KWV had the absolute authority to determine where vineyards intended for wine production could be established. The Broederbond-dominated KWV had no intention of allowing an Englishman based in Joburg to implement his bizarre plan.

It reckoned without Hamilton Russell’s persistence, access to capital and bloody-minded refusal to be intimidated by its bully tactics. First he bought another property, which did have the requisite planting quota. At the same time, he planted the farm where the cellar is sited, explaining to the inspectors that it didn’t need quota because he was growing the vines for experimental purposes: only the fruit from the nearby (authorised) property would be vinified in his cellar. Meanwhile, he lobbied for an extension of the quota system, simultaneously using his not inconsiderable media influence to ridicule the repressive nature of the KWV’s management of the industry. And while all this was happening, he indulged — with many other producers of that era — in a little low-key smuggling of planting material, so that he could have virus-free Chardonnay for his cool-climate Hemel-en-Aarde site.

In the end, it all came together: the old KWV edifice crumbled in the presence of the logic of the modern world of international wine commerce. Planting material became widely available — once it transpired that even leading Broederbonders were part of smuggling syndicates. By the time Nelson Mandela walked towards the gate of the Victor Verster prison near Paarl, the cutting edge of Cape wine had begun to reflect Hamilton Russell’s vision. In many respects, he turned out to be the father of the modern South African wine industry — which leaves us all, including the now fully modernised KWV — forever in his debt.

Source: Business Day – BDLive – Michael Fridjhon