Apologies to Lance Armstrong for somewhat contorting the title of his first book, but I thought it apt for this blog which is about Wellington winery, Diemersfontein celebrating its 10th anniversary.
Undoubtedly there are a few people who’ll automatically go: “So what? It’s a wine farm that turned 10. Big deal.” The fact of the matter is that it’s not “just another wine farm” celebrating a decade in business – and it is a big deal because it’s illustrative of a genuine sense of South African ubuntu. Owners David and Sue Sonnenberg have done so much more than just make wine for 10 years. Sonnenberg admits that they could have sat back and enjoyed the fruit of their 55 hectares of vines as the third generation on the land. They’d spent 20 years in the UK before returning, he as a clinical psychologist in London while Sue was involved in the arts and choral fraternity as a member of the London Philharmonic chorus. “We wanted to give back,” he said at their anniversary celebrations this past weekend.
Well, giving back entailed establishing a school for children whose parents either live or work on the estate, creating the Thokozani empowerment partnership, Excellence out of Africa – an arts trust and upliftment initiative as well as being a prime mover behind the growth of Wellington as a recognised quality wine area.
In less than 10 years Wellington Preparatory has grown from 20 children to 160. Sonnenberg recalls physically laying the bricks in what is now the school hall some 40 years ago. “It was built as a community hall for the farm workers.” The old labourer’s cottages have been transformed into classrooms for the children and the school is now at the point where it needs to consider whether to make the transition to offering secondary-level education. Around one quarter of all pupils can’t afford the fees (around R10 000 annually) so an educational trust was established to which the estate and private benefactors contribute. “No-one, other than the management committee, knows which children receive assistance,” said principal Mike Aubin. The next step is developing additional facilities – and the most tangible sign of that is the brand new soccer field. It would have cost R4 million to truck in the necessary earth and level it off but quite fortuitously developers were building a shopping centre nearby and Dimersfontein solved the problem of disposing of their backfill. “They even levelled it off beautifully for us,” said a delighted Sonnenberg. A great example of lateral thinking and one person’s problem becoming anothers’ solution!
The Thokozani empowerment initiative has a 100% buy in from all farm workers, along with external investors and the estate itself, and incorporates a range of wines which winemaker Brett Rightford says is not an afterthought. “Thokozani is made side-by-side with Diemersfontein. The wines must stand or fall on their own quality.” After just four years, Thokozani declared its first small dividend to shareholders this year. Again, it’s more than just wine… the conferencing and hospitality side of Diemersfontein – a highly sought-after wedding venue with four star accommodation – falls under Thokozani. Just one example of home-grown talent being identified and nurtured is in Jackie Pietbooi who started at Diemersfontein as a waitress and is now head of conferencing, the art and accommodation portfolio!
Music and art are obviously very close to Sue’s heart and her baby is the Excellence out of Africa programme supports rising South African operatic talent. At the 10th anniversary celebrations guests were treated to a performance by a few of the recipients of the programme’s support to date – Pretty Yende, Given Nkosi, July Zuma and Luthando Qave. Soprano Yende is a world-class talent who is wowing crowds and critics abroad, having already won the Montserrat Caballé international singing competition in Zaragoza, Spain, as well as sweeping the boards at a competition in Vienna last year, winning both the Opera and Operetta awards, the audience award and the critics prize too! She has spent the past season at La Scala in Milan while Baritone Luthando Qave is en route to the world-renowned Metropolitan Opera in New York.
And the Wellington wine route? Well, that wasn’t particularly highly regarded by consumers or critics alike. Nowadays it’s a different story with Wellington comfortably associated with good quality from innovative producers such as Diemersfontein, Schalk Burger & sons, Dunstone, Doolhof, Nabygelegen, Bosman Family Vineyards and more… As one guest pointed out, “Franschhoek and Stellenbosch producers can’t hide behind Wellington grapes anymore!”
After all that, there’s one more contribution which Diemersfontein has made to the South African vinous landscape – and probably the most significant of all. This is the winery which gave us coffee Pinotage! Consumers absolutely love it and there are any number of other producers which have jumped onto the bandwagon emulating its success…
Happy birthday Diemersfontein.