A dream of making wine from their own vineyards, marketing it to the local and international wine world, and sharing in the profits accrued from the sweat of their labour has come true for Kleine Zalze workers. The premium estate in Stellenbosch in the Western Cape has released its first range under the new Visio Vintners label.
Visio Vintners’ range of wines, comprising a sauvignon blanc, pinotage, cinsault rosé and ultra-premium red blend named Alliance, is the result of a collaboration between Kleine Zalze’s owners and the Kleine Zalze Empowerment Trust.
The latter is owned by the winery’s employees working in the vineyards, cellar, maintenance, logistical and marketing departments. Formed in 2018, the group Visio Vintners shareholders didn’t let groundcover grow under their feet. They planted and managed their own 15ha vineyards, oversaw the making of the wine and designed their own label.
“It has been a whirlwind of a project, but that is how things have always been here at Kleine Zalze,” says Gerald Snyman, trustee of the Kleine Zalze Empowerment Trust.
Snyman who, when not seeing that the Visio Vintner vineyards are being managed to his exacting standards, fulfils the role of Klein Zalze farm manager.
‘A serious project’
“When I saw which parcels of land had been set aside to plant the Visio Vintners vineyards, I knew this is a serious project. The land is to the right of the entrance to Klein Zalze. It covers 20ha leased long-term from the Stellenbosch Municipality and set on a site that is renowned for the quality of the red wines that have been made from vines formerly planted there.”
The focus is, therefore, on red varieties: cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and shiraz.
“The Visio Vintner first vineyards were actually planted there in 2017. Our first vintage – 2021 – was thus from vines of only four years old, and if this is the quality we are getting from such young wines, the future of Viso Vintners wine reputation looks particularly bright,” says Snyman.
He adds that this is red wine terroir. “Typical Stellenbosch Berg soils, with ancient, decomposed granite and a solid clay underbed for water retention. The row-direction is from north to south so sun exposure is direct throughout the day, meaning we don’t have to mess about with the canopies too much.
“Like any wine-brand, the success of Visio Vintners will be determined by the quality of what is in the bottle. Our whole team knows this, and I have been elated to see the motivation and pride my fellow Visio Vintner shareholders are taking in ensuring that, while the project is benefiting and creating opportunities for previously disadvantaged farmworkers, we produce a product that can stand alongside the country’s best.”
Blessed with opportunity
Visio Vintners director Norman Paulse, one of the key drivers of production at Kleine Zalze where he works as cellar manager alongside cellarmaster RJ Botha, says the existence of Visio Vintners is something he would never have dreamed of growing up on a grape farm in Lynedoch outside Stellenbosch four decades ago.
“I have always been blessed with opportunity at Klein Zalze,” he says. “I started as a general labourer before being given the opportunity to take on greater responsibilities and then progressing to where I am now, which is ensuring that all aspects of our cellar run efficiently and on time.
“Visio Vintners is the pinnacle of my career. There is nothing like looking out onto a vineyard and realising that you are part of a group of people fortunate enough to call it your own.”
Paulse adds, “To think that you are responsible for the vineyard, ensuring the grapes grow to the best quality and then seeing they are turned into wine good enough to be bottled under a label that carries our name, is amazing. When we got together and held those few bottles reading ‘Visio Vintners’, well, it’s one of those special moments in life that come your way.”
Under close watch
Visio Vintners wines are made in the Kleine Zalze cellar under the watchful eyes of Botha and Paulse.
“Due to my job, I know every pump, tank, barrel and pipe in the winery, so I am in the right position to check-up on RJ! We make a great team, and Visio Vintners could not have asked for a better man to advise us on what our wines must taste like for today’s competitive market and the palate of the discerning consumer.”
There is, however, a firm realisation of the responsibility of being masters of one’s own destiny. Brandon Uitlander, Visio Vintner director who is responsible to ensure that the wheels of Kleine Zalze’s operations keep turning in his position as the man in charge of general maintenance, says one of the factors Visio Vintners shareholders realised from the outset is the one of accountability.
“My previous professional experience has been in large-scale dairy operations, and it is true that the opportunities afforded to Kleine Zalze’s workers through their ownership in Visio Vintners is something I have never before seen in any workplace,” says Uitlander.
“But we are aware that it is no easy ride – this is not some sort of hand-out or window-dressing to make a business look good through ticking off the BEE boxes. The future of Visio Vintners lies in our hands. The vineyards must be worked, even if that means spending your weekend or putting hours in after-work pruning and suckering. We have to blend and bottle and ensure the product can stand proudly alongside all the other great wines South Africa sends into the market.”
Committed to making good wine
And, as is the nature of the wine industry, there is no instant turnaround.
“Initial profits will be ploughed into servicing loans and interest,” he says.
“This mindset is empowering in itself – one where you realise that work is not done for instant material compensation, but that as business-owners we have to be patient by re-investing and riding out the timeous early cycles of costs and effort before we can move into the black and show a profit.”
Alicia Alves, also a trustee of the Kleine Zalze Empowerment Trust, says the critical reception of Visio Vintners wines’ first vintages has, however, been quick to offer the team rewards for their work thus far.
“The flagship Visio Vintners Alliance 2020, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, pinotage, and shiraz, raked a commendable 92pt in the latest South Africa Report from Tim Atkin MW,” she says. “And at this year’s Michelangelo International Wine and Spirits Awards, the Visio Vintners Pinotage 2020 won a prized gold medal.
“This is a great start because the quality of your product is what lies at the root of any ambition – ambition that will without good wine get you nowhere. Our commitment to this, as well as rolling out the challenges of marketing these wines, will ensure we take up our rightful place as an exciting new player in the South African and international wine scene.”
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