Before I went to Stellenbosch University to study winemaking at the age of 25, I told my then girlfriend (now wife) that one day I would love to make many small batches of wine in my own winery, bottling quality weird wines and designing my own labels, without the pressure of having a market for it.
Ten years later, this came to pass. But of course not remotely in the way I imagined it. So, if you want to see my own personal “Idiots Guide to Setting up a Cellar” with the bare-it-all-to-embarrassment details.
In my final year at varsity (January 2004), I rigged my own tiny winery in a single garage and embarked on my dream. But it very soon all came tumbling down a year later with the birth of our first child. I had to face the fact that my business model was not working and sold all my equipment to survive and provide for my then very little family. I started buying in wines from barrel, making up blends, bottling it and selling it under the BLANKbottle brand. Making marginal profits, we were just surviving. Bottom line: I was not making my own wines which frustrated me endlessly. In hindsight, I was learning heaps about different wines styles, what I like and dislike, which varieties work best in which area and most importantly: I met farmers who farm awesome grapes. And that was the missing link. So on the side (when cash-flow allowed), I once again started buying in little bits of grapes here and there – things I knew worked. I rented space in someone else’s winery and paid them per ton of grapes I processed in their winery (with their equipment) – quite a standard industry practice. To give you an idea: they charge roughly R3500 a ton for me to process the grapes in their cellar (from grape to wine) and on top of that you pay storage and extra costs for admin, bottling etc. My volumes at the time did not justify having my own cellar, even if I had the money, so it worked just fine. Every bit of profit I made after paying school and survival fees, I invested back into barrels and grapes. At a stage I was operating from 3 cellars in 3 different areas: Wellington, Stellenbosch and Somerset West. On top of that I had my office and warehouse at another premises in Somerset West. The more grapes I could afford, the less wine from barrel I bought in. And the more wines I made myself, the better relationship I had with them. This resulted in better names and stories and subsequently made the wines so much easier to sell. In 2012 I processed 20 tons of grapes. In 2013 I bumped it up to just under 50 tons. I also moved my operation to the closest winery to my office in Somerset West. But I was still renting cellar space, making use of the winery’s equipment. I was however using my own barrels.
At that stage I made just under 50 tons, so that worked out to R175 000 just for the 2 months of harvest. On top of that, storage for 23 000 liters of wine at 19 cents per liter per month works out to R52 400 per year. If you then add on the extras like bottling etc. it cost me about R250 000 per year to rent space in someone else’s cellar. But then again; to place it into perspective: to rig a 50 ton winery could cost anything between 1 – 10 million rand. Depending on how you do it of course.
In October 2013 I heard of a 1 ton wine press up for auction at Alf Duncan Auctioneers in Somerset West. New, it would cost about R200 000, but I bought that one (as well as 4 second hand wine tanks) at the auction for R10 000. But of course there was a catch! The press was actually a write-off – something I only realized once it was delivered. I asked some wine press specialists to quote on the repair and restoration of the press. Their quote was R60 000… So inspired by an ancient Schwäbisch (an area in Germany where my dad is from) saying translated into English: “I Work, I work, I build my house, sell my dog and rather bark myself”, I decided to rather pay myself to do the job. So I started taking it apart bit by bit. Once it was in pieces, I took all the individual broken parts to mechanical specialists who, in the space of 2 months, either fixed them or made new ones. I was fixing a write-off press with no cellar to put it in, but to me it felt right – almost as if my dream was dependent on that press – so I just went for it.
While that was going on, a client mentioned that a far-off family member of his wanted to sell some second hand winemaking equipment. I made contact and after a few e-mails backwards and forwards, I was on my way to Clanwilliam. For R8000 (paid in 2 installments), a tank of diesel and a case of wine, I was back at the office with a Destemmer, a Half ton manual basket press, a tank, a hand corker, a binliner, a plastic spade, jugs, sugar meters etc etc… Roughly R45 000 worth of equipment.
In November (a month after I purchased the press), I was surfing with super inspiring Mr. Positivity, biodynamic winemaker guru Johan Reyneke. He told me of 2 wine tanks which he started his business with that just became too small for him to use anymore. They were in the process of becoming worm farms and I could have them if I was interested. So, armed with 2 cases of wine and a huge trailer I headed to his farm on Polkadraai Road, Stellenbosch. He gave me two 2-ton wine fermentation tanks for free. As a thank you I gave him 12 bottles of wine. He then gave me 12 bottle of his wine in return??? Very difficult to out-give a true giver.
Soon thereafter followed a second hand filter I bought for R4 000 (worth R10 000 new) and 14 wooden old style barrel racks I bought for R150 each.
We then hit the December holidays and the wine industry came to an abrupt standstill in anticipation of the imminent harvesting season. At that stage the press was still in pieces and I still had no winery for all the equipment. Now, for many years I had had my eye on a warehouse situated right next to my office. It’s about 200 squares but had been in use by the owner of the farm to store barrels in. So when 3 January 2014 came (my first day back at the Hinterhofkabuff), I heard a rumour that the barrel room had opened up and that the owner was looking for someone to rent the building. So I went for it. Again it felt right, and even though harvest was upon us, I made a commitment to rent the room – all 4 walls and a roof of nothingness.
My job was set out: I had to rig a fully operational cellar in less than 3 weeks. But it was blending and bottling month for all my white wines – the most stressful time of the year in a winery. I made up the blends at the winery where I rented space and pumped it into tanks on top of a huge trailer.
I then drove the full tanks to my new winery. As I arrived there with the first tanks, I took the photo below.
I had 2 weeks to blend and bottle 13 new wines and then another week to rig a fully operational wine-cellar where I could process 50 tons of grapes in. At the moment I make 35 separate batches of wine from 25 different varietals growing in many different areas in South Africa. I therefore needed a winery where I can bring in 1.5 tons of grapes almost every day of harvest and process it in a way that I can still keep every batch separate. We are talking small scale equipment with many small fermentation vessels.
In terms of layout, I knew exactly what I wanted. I told my wife Aneen: “If you look this way it needs to look and feel like a fully operational winery, BUT if you look the other way, towards the corner, I want it to look like my grandmothers lounge”. So we spread the word and in streamed everything and anything that no one in the family wanted. From my grandmother’s baby pictures to my other grandmother’s music cupboard/box. I bought my wife a new table for the house and swopped it for a 3 meter table that me and my dad made a while back (which was always destined for the cellar!). I even swopped a case of wine for a second hand coffee machine from one of my clients. He drove it all the way down to the Cape in the boot of his car on route to his holiday.
My wife and dad (electical engineer) was in charge of lighting seeing that there were only 2 broken lights in the building. I finished bottling in the last week of January. The 2014 grape harvest was 1 week late and that saved me. I now had 2 weeks to rig the winery. I had never done any sort of plumbing work before but I needed a cooling system in the winery that could pump cool water through cooling plates inside fermenters to cool down my fermenting wines. I asked the owner of the farm if he would allow me to tap into his system (his big winery a fair distance from mine has a massive cooling plant). So I connected pipes from my cellar underground to his, drilled massive holes into my wall and extended it into my winery laying pipes all along the walls of the winery with valves every few meters to circulate water from. Obviously figuring it out as I went along.
Once that was done, it was time for the (still in pieces) press. I started receiving the new parts back and I needed to put it all together. In exactly one week from then we were about to pick our first grapes and I was not sure I had a press. No press, no winery. It’s at that point in time I realised that someone had stolen a key piece of the press to sell for scrap metal, so I had to change fundamental things in the way it operates. But is was extremely complicated. The parts fit together like a Swiss watch and everything needs to work together. So a great Stellenbosch engineer stepped in and we remade a new part for the machine. He was also the guy who totally reinvented the crucial sides of the press – the very things that made the press a write-off. We worked till late evenings and right through that weekend. Tried this and then the other. I was just too deep into it to give up. Besides, I had no plan B. Come Sunday evening, I had the whole thing back together but, I then needed the agents of the press to connect the motors and electricity to see if it works.
And then it started: HARVEST 2014! 4am Monday morning I left my home and set off with a trailer and borrowed grape crates to pick the first grapes (Chardonnay from Wellington). On my way back the agent’s engineer overtook me on his way to my cellar to test run my press. When I arrived at the cellar he was there and we connected the last few things. We started up the cooling plant next door and opened my pipes. It worked! But still no working press. It was only in the early hours of Tuesday morning that we got the press to work. Total bill: R13000 for the new parts and R11 000 for the electronics and motors (way better than the initial R60K quote and the R200K price tag for a new one) . Stress and pressure? Lets rather not put a price on that. I pressed my first Chardonnay into a stainless steel tank (worth R30K) I am borrowing in exchange for a case of wine per year.
My R10 000 (after a 5% negotiated “student” discount from Gey van Pittius) self-installed cooling system worked perfectly. I pumped the juice to barrel with a pump I borrowed with pipes I had to buy new (could not get my hands on second hand ones).
So the white wine system was up and running. But there were still many things I needed. At the point of not knowing where to turn to next, a very good friend told me of the truly sad misfortune of someone who started a winery setup and ended up in serious financial trouble. He wanted out a.s.a.p. I went to him and it was amazing. If I had to have made a list of everything I still needed before I went to him, every box would have been ticked. We sat down and made a deal. All his equipment was fairly new. He wanted me to pay him 50% of what he paid for it. And I bought: 180 grape harvest crates, a pallet jack, 13 stainless steel red wine cooling plates, fittings, jugs, industrial scale, batonage too, pisage tools, 11 fermentation tanks etc etc…. Basically, pretty much all I needed except for a wine pump. He had already sold that to someone else.
I arrived back at the winery feeling like a pirate who had just robbed the sinking Titanic. So, just in time to receive the grapes from vineyard nr. 2, I had tank space to put it in. That same weekend I delivered wine to a client/friend who runs a huge business in Cape Town. We walked through his warehouse and standing in the corner was one of those manual pallet jacks lifting up to 2 tons 3 meters high. He asked if I wanted it. And gave it to me. For free…
At that stage then, there were 3 huge things I still needed. A high-pressure cleaner, a barrel washer (R21 000) and a wine pump (anything from R10 000 – R25 000). So I phoned a company dealing with barrel washers and high-pressure stuff. After a brief chat we had a deal. I would buy a high pressure cleaner immediately, paying in 2 installments with a small discount. I can then use their demo barrel washer if they do not need it in exchange for…yes, a case of wine. This meant that instead of keeping the demo at the office I would hold onto it, use it and if they urgently needed it (which hardly happened), I needed to drop it at a location for them – deal!!!!
And the harvest pace picked up significantly. My friend who’s pump I borrowed started needing it more frequently and I was in trouble. I needed a pump desperately. I had no choice, I had to buy a new pump. At that very moment the guy who I bought the winemaking equipment from phoned and mentioned (by the way) that his pump deal didn’t come off and I could buy it. So I sped off and that same day I was pumping juice with my new pump.
Three quarter’s way through harvest I ran into more problems. SPACE for wine! In a cellar you never have enough of it. I needed at least 20 wine barrels. The 2014 harvest was huge and everyone needed space. Then one of the guys who sold me stuff also wanted to sell his wine barrels. They were full of wine and we agreed that if I empty them for him, I could buy all for a reasonable price. So I bought about 60 of them. Sold 40 off to friends for a minor profit. Just enough to pay for the 20 I held back for myself. So I had space again. Barrels for free in a sense.
I processed about 50 tons of grapes in my new winery, made many mistakes, but all in all it worked out just fine. Since harvest I’ve bought 8 almost new stainless steel wine tanks for next years harvest, had a barrel filler made up from a second hand one I bought, but my pet project I am working on right now is a barrel washer. A new barrel washer now costs R21 000. But I heard of a winery who had thrown out an old barrel washer system. I swopped some…yes…wine for crucial parts and I am now building my own barrel washer. I’m almost done and it works. So the journey continues.
See a picture of my winery as I took it today. You can sort of call it an after photo – but then again; will there ever be an after photo?
CLICK ON THE PHOTO TO ENLARGE.