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From au pair to master winemaker

2019-01-07 10:41

In this extract from Colour of Wine: Tasting Change, Berene Sauls takes us through her journey from a failed au pair to a master winemaker.

Mentorship, once but no longer a dirty word implying paternalism, is now widely accepted as indispensable in what is a modern, intricate, scientific business.

Meet Berene Sauls, the au pair who lost her way.

‘I think I was too militaristic with their daughters and I was sacked after a month,’ she says. ‘I actually wanted to join the army; I come from a strict family.’ She’s from an obscure village in the hills behind Hermanus, Tesselaarsdal, where in 1810 a white settler left his property to freed slaves – Berene’s forebears.

Berene Sauls has, with the help of a powerful mentor, carved her space in the world of wine Picture: Supplied

The daughters Berene had to care for were the Hamilton Russell children at Anthony Hamilton Russell’s vineyards in the Hemel-en-Aarde, long respected throughout the world of wine for their fine Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. ‘Berene was just too bright, so we offered her a job in the winery,’ Anthony clarifies.

Berene eventually took charge of the exports, managing the tediously legal hoops of excise and VAT, wine certifications, separate labelling requirements for different export regions, and marshalling shipping agents. But she’s an irrepressible, laughing, inquisitive woman, all hustle and bustle – and she wouldn’t keep her nose out of the winery.

Berene couldn’t use grapes for her own wine from the Hamilton Russell vineyards – they scarcely produced enough to meet their own demand – but Anthony accompanied her during her initial negotiations to buy in grapes from the Hemel-en-Aarde growers, and provided startup finance. A young coloured woman with no formal winemaking training and not much of a bank account would have been at a disadvantage. ‘With Anthony at the table, they listened,’ says Berene.

She rented space in the Hamilton Russell Vineyards cellar and Emul Ross, among South Africa’s most respected young winemakers, was as keen to share his skills as Berene was to learn them.

Now the failed au pair has her own Tesselaarsdal Pinot Noir, which sells for R400–R500 a bottle, with a useful quantity going to the US. Growing and making Pinot Noir is a particularly intricate, painstaking challenge in wine.

‘My wine,’ says Berene with pride, ‘is a bit fruitier than Anthony’s; the grapes come from farther up the valley, from La Vierge, so it’s good to have the distinction.’ But in so many other respects, from the classic feel of the label and the premium choice of bottle, to the careful wording of the marketing information and website, the Hamilton Russell Vineyards mentorship leaves its unmistakable mark.

‘On big occasions, when Anthony has important buyers and Masters of Wine here, he’ll interrupt his own presentation to introduce me. I can explain my Tesselaarsdal and taste it with them but he’s already pointed out the key people in the room whose names I must remember and who I need to make eye contact with,’ says Berene. ‘I’ve learned so much.’

Berene Sauls is on the lookout for land on which to plant her own vines to expand on an already strong brand Picture: Supplied

She still handles the Hamilton Russell Vineyards exports but her own modest operation in three vintages has sailed past R1,4-million-a-year turnover.

‘I do believe private enterprise can’t sit back. It needs to be an active force, and work with government,’ Anthony says. Education is key to transformation, he believes, which is why, in 1996, he founded a preschool on the farm, open to kids from neighbouring farms too.

The Tesselaarsdal ‘model’ of wine operation ticks six boxes: low setup costs, small exclusive quantities, brilliant wines, high prices, classy marketing, enthusiastic mentoring. Those who still wonder if this is a self-serving, paternalistic arrangement wouldn’t want to hear Berene’s colourful ripostes explaining she’s the net winner.

Berene is now headed for an Elsenburg college wine and viticulture course, paid for by government. She’s looking to buy a piece of land eventually, and perhaps plant her own vineyard at Tesselaarsdal.

  • The Colour of Wine Tasting Change, by Harriet Perlman, John Platter et al., photographs by Mark Lewis, R450, Orders: Booksite Afrika, email: orders@booksite-afrika.co.za

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May 19 2019