Cape Winemakers Guild hails 30th Auction of exceptional wines

The annual Nedbank Cape Winemakers Guild Auction, the South African wine industry showcase of rare, outstanding wines with creative flair and great diversity, celebrates its 30th milestone on Saturday, 4 October this year.

Benchmarking winemaking excellence with wines of remarkable lineage and enduring quality, crafted in small volumes exclusively for the auction by members of the Guild; this year’s auction will see the culmination of three decades of winemaking prowess.

Open to private buyers from the outset, the first Guild auction was held in Johannesburg on Saturday, 7 September 1985 just three years after the establishment of the Cape Independent Winemakers Guild as it was called then, by eight enthusiastic winemakers in the home of founding chairman Billy Hofmeyr, at Welgemeend in Paarl.

By 1985, membership had grown to 13 winemakers, whose very first auction wines constituted an impressive line-up of 18, all boasting the original Guild label.  The wines went under the gavel at the Rosebank Hotel at the hand of seasoned wine auctioneer and head of Sotheby’s wine department in London, UK Master of Wine David Molyneux-Berry. The most expensive wine, a 12-bottle case of Blaauwklippen Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 1982 by winemaker Walter Finlayson was sold for R180. Next up were Vriesenhof 1982 Cabernet Sauvignonby Jan Boland Coetzee, Kanonkop Cabernet Sauvignon 1981 by Beyers Truter, and Rustenburg Cabernet Sauvignon 1980 by Etienne le Riche all fetching the second highest price of R150 per case.

Today, in comparison, the Guild has 45 members representing the pinnacle of South African winemaking and the annual auction has grown in stature from a niche event to the quintessential showcase of the country’s wine achievement. From its humble beginnings, the auction now boasts a line-up of 59 wines with record sales of over R8,4 million in 2013 and the highest price of R6 200 for a 6-bottle case of Hartenberg Auction Reserve Shiraz 2010.

”Molyneux-Berry’s involvement lent great credibility to our first auctions. As a Master of Wine and renowned British wine Auctioneer, he was very knowledgeable, but also very formal,” recalls Johan Malan, whose first Guild Auction wine in 1985 was a 1982 Chardonnay, one of the country’s first from a small vineyard at Simonsig.  Molyneux-Berry would preside over the first seven Guild Auctions all held in Johannesburg.In 1988, renowned art auctioneer, Stephan Welz, teamed up with Sotheby’s to host the auction. Nedbank American Express sponsored the last two Johannesburg auctions in 1990 and 1991.

“We needed a platform to showcase the premium, top end wines which were produced by Guild members at a time when the big wine merchants had so much power and control over the market place making it difficult for small, independent wine producers to expose their ground breaking quality wines to a local and international audience,” adds Malan.

Peter Finlayson agrees: “There was serious concern at the extreme hold over private producers by the larger wine companies and members recognised the potential and marketing opportunity of a dedicated auction open to the public.”

For Etienne le Riche the early auctions were all about elevating the standing of the Guild and setting new standards of excellence for South African wines: “We wanted to make our mark in the industry and the auction would be our mouthpiece.”

Walter Finlayson, who managed the Guild’s first six auctions, recalls the nervous anticipation leading up to the first one and describes the bidding process as “very exciting”: “The demand for wines sold on the auction was much the same as today – mainly red varieties and blends such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinotage, Shiraz and Bordeaux-style blends. Wine selection was done by the members at a blind tasting and as auction convenor I tried to encourage members to offer a range of interesting wines from their cellars that were not available to the general public.”

Magnums in particular were very popular at the time and three of the first auction wines, Vriesenhof 1982, Hamilton Russell Vineyards Grand Vin Noir 1983 and Delheim Grand Reserve 1982 were all sold in magnums.

Back then the preceding auction week created a great sense of anticipation, with the golf day and Stephan Welz dinner drawing keen interest from local wine enthusiasts.

Jan Boland Coetzee remembers how initially all the pre-auction social activities could take place at Stephan Welz’s home in Johannesburg because there were so few members. Today still, the preceding auction week is a hive of activity with the Guild Sports Day where the public can join Guild members for a game of golf or boules, and gala dinners with the winemakers at various winery restaurants.

In 1992, the Guild Auction moved to Cape Town under the management of Robin Grier, late father of longstanding Guild member, Jeff Grier, with well-known South African wine personality, Dave Hughes, conducting the auction. For the next five years, the Michael James Organisation took charge of the auction before handing over the gavel in 1998 to the Guild’s current auctioneer, Henré Hablutzel of Hofmeyr Mills Auctioneers.

Keen to encourage exports and fill their empty containers, Safmarine became the Guild’s first sponsor, helping members to ship their wines to the United Kingdom through the London based marketing company, Southern Hemisphere Wines. Guild wines were even showcased at the London Wine Trade Fair during the early years. At the 1990 International Wine and Spirit Competition, eight Guild wines were awarded gold medals, the highest number attained by any one South African organisation participating in this prestigious competition at the time. In addition, the Guild brought home the Packaging Trophy for its Auction wine label.

1996 saw the start of a 19 year association with Nedbank, who became the official sponsor of the Cape Winemakers Guild and its auction. In 2000 the Guild changed its name from the Cape Independent Winemakers Guild to Cape Winemakers Guild, opening the door to prominent winemakers employed by the larger organisations to become Guild members.

During the 1990s, which heralded major transformation and the end of sanctions against South Africa, international buyers began showing an interest in the Guild Auction and by 1999, 50% of all the auction purchases came from overseas buyers.

Today the interest from local buyers exceeds the international contingent with over 80% of the total auction sales going to local bidders in 2013. Longstanding Auction supporter, Alan Pick of the Butcher Shop and Grill in Sandton, remains the auction’s top bidder with total purchases exceeding R12,1 million since buying his first Guild wines in 2000.

 In the early 90s, items representing the collective efforts of Guild members were introduced for the first time to raise funds for various community charities including schools, hospitals and social welfare NGO’s. After 1999, all charity auction proceeds were managed by the newly established Nedbank Cape Winemakers Guild Development Trust in support of social development through education in wineland communities.

In 2006 the ground breaking Cape Winemakers Guild Protégé Programme was established with the goal of bringing about transformation of the wine industry to ensure its long term health and sustainability by cultivating, nurturing and empowering promising individuals to become winemakers of excellence.

Under the auspices of the Nedbank Cape Winemakers Guild Development Trust, the Protégé Programme gives aspirant winemakers the rare opportunity of working side by side with members of the Guild, all masters of their craft, during a three-year internship.The Guild also offers Billy Hofmeyr Agri Seta bursaries to final year Viticulture and Oenology students at Stellenbosch University and Elsenburg Agricultural College.

 Since 1993, the Guild has raised over R8,8 million in aid of numerous development initiatives within the wine industry.