Négociant (Neg-oh-cee-aunt) – French term for a wine merchant who carefully selects grapes and works with winemakers to produce wine under the négociant’s own independent label.
I met Wade Bales one late summer morning at his cellar on Groot Constantia. It was a beautiful morning, neighbouring Klein Constantia was still harvesting and Wade pointed out the tractors driving up into the mountain. We conducted the interview outside the double doors of his cellar, also enshrined in the Wade Bales Wine Co. logo. As we sat there, in the early morning (I love early mornings in a vineyard) people kept passing by on their morning walk, commenting on the wines Wade had brought out to show me, some stopping to tell anecdotes, and Wade would stop and greet them with enthusiasm, enjoying the process. It only struck me while re-listening the interview that THIS was the job of a Négociant, selling direct to the public, cultivating relationships, and relishing it. You know, historically, Négociants were a key feature of the wine industry, while winemakers and vineyard workers were engrossed in the business of growing grapes and making wine, négociants would go out and find the markets to SELL these wines. And it’s a hard sell. Any winemaker or estate owner would tell you that while making wine can be particularly laborious, the actual business of SELLING wine is the real Achilles heel of the industry. South African wine is a particularly good example of this, with a history of co-op wines and KWV dictated wines, we are only now starting to carve out a place for ourselves within the international premium wine market. While we’re MAKING the world-renowned wines, we now need to figure out HOW to establish its worth within an international context, and given the diversity of our industry, we’re doing it in a great many different ways.
Wade has been at the forefront of this evolution throughout his 25-year career. A Joburger by birth he always had a particular affinity for the Cape and moved here at the age of 26 when things were getting particularly heated up North. With a background in exports, he had to choose between fruit, wine, and tourism, with wine being the most attractive. He started an export business and soon joined up with Wine of the Month club, becoming a shareholder for four years, though he eventually realised that he would always be an outsider in this family-run business and started looking elsewhere to evolve. He ended up buying the rights to the Diner’s Club Wine Society and renamed it the Wade Bales Wine Society. Back in the day, this was a pure mail-order business, comprising a panel of respected industry leaders with the likes of Cape Wine Master Tony Mossop. Every two months they would curate a case of wine for their members and send it out. But without the correct processes and technology in place, this became a dated model, with customers becoming more and more individualistic in their preferences and this one-size-fits-all approach becoming less effective. As always, however, Wade understood the requirements of his customer and employed technology to assist. Today his wine club is run by a custom algorithm, allowing each customer to create his/her profile and to receive a tailor-made case of wine every month. Though it all SOUNDS very seamless, just IMAGINE the kind of work, investment, and sheer will that goes into an operation such as this. First, you need to ensure that you have a good selection of wines to offer your customer, you need to buy it and ensure it is kept up to date, YOU need to stay abreast of the covetable wines of the day, each individually generated box of wine needs to be packed and delivered in good time, you need to grow your database to ensure the stock you’ve purchased doesn’t go to waste, you need to warehouse the wines and you need to communicate with your customers regularly. At the time of this interview, Wade was having a cellar sale the next morning and was encouraging passers-by to drop in the next day. Selling is exhausting.
The Regional Series
But then I don’t think Wade has even seen it as such. As part of his wine club, he has also been making wine with an impressive selection of winemakers over the years. For his winemakers’ label series he’d annually approach 5 or more winemakers to make him a special wine from their current harvest – resulting in an array of incredible wines by some of the industry’s top winemakers. Though these days our young guns are doing this all by themselves, they’ve become both winemaker and négociant. Like me, I think Wade’s constant contact over the years with the incredible men and women of South African wine has sparked a deep-seated passion for the industry, its people, and most importantly, the wine. Making it almost a natural evolution of things for him to have created the Wade Bales Regional Series of wines. In the spirit of collaboration these wines are made by multiple winemakers from a specific region, the Stellenbosch Cabernet for example includes storied names such as Abrie Beeslaar of Kanonkop, Louis Strydom of Ernie Els, José Conde of Stark-Condé wines, Morne Vrey of Delaire Graff, Nico van der Merwe previously of Saxenburg and now his own label, AND Christo Le Riche of Le Riche scheduled to join in the next vintage. And the wine is GOOD, the first vintage of the Stellenbosch Cabernet was awarded a five-star rating from the Platter’s Guide, one of only six in that year. Fiona McDonald said: “Seamless, suave, elegant, complex, with confident structure…” and Greg Sherwood: “Fabulous dusty Cabernet Sauvignon typicity that is seamlessly blended to offer up a very fine example from multiple Stellenbosch terroirs.” So far the range includes three wines, from three key regions: Stellenbosch, Breedekloof, and Constantia. And each one represents a varietal or style true to that region, a distillation of all the BEST elements of that particular area and an exercise in simplifying the diversity of South African wine for a wider audience. Wade says his overarching goal is to have six wines and that he is still looking to include a Syrah from the Swartland, Pinotage from the Paarl and Chardonnay from Elgin.
A Broader Approach
While most of the winemakers I’ve spoken to are working toward hero-ing key terroirs within a wine region, with award-winning single vineyard wines and a more specialised proposition to communicate to premium wine lovers the world over, Wade is taking a broader approach. Neal Martin in his latest report also mentioned this phenomenon, that while winemakers are focussing on key sites and key wines, they’re making individual BRANDS famous, rather than South African wine as a whole. People are more prone to asking for a Sadie wine, or a Keermont wine, or a Hamilton Russell, than they are for a Swartland Syrah, or a Breedekloof Chenin – which is something our industry needs to become more relevant in the mass market, rather than just the premium market. Now, you KNOW I love Eben and Alex and Anthony, and there’s nothing wrong with the fame they have attained, they’ve earned it and it has put us on the map. But it is important to remember that there is a wider market out there, a market looking for good quality, PROVEN wines that can stand alongside any of its Old World counterparts as a natural alternative.
I also love the spirit of these wines, the sense of collaboration and our old grapevine at play – Wade says it’s the secret sauce. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Breedekloof Makers? A group of winemakers from the Breedekloof who have banded together in their love of Chenin blanc and just one look at their website confirms the old adage that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Together wineries such as Merwida, Deetlefs Wine Estate, Olifantsberg, Daschbosch, Badsberg Wine Cellar, Botha Kelder, Bergsig Estate, Slanghoek Cellar, Le Belle Rebelle, Du Toitskloof Wines, Jason’s Hill Private Cellar, Mountain Ridge Wines, Opstal Estate, and Stofberg Wine Estate have taken it upon themselves to establish this previously overlooked wine region in a serious way. The Chenin blanc they’ve created for Wade is made by five of these: Attie Louw of Opstal, Annamarie van Niekerk of Botha Kelder, Ferdi Visser of Deetlefs Wine Estate, Chris du Toit of Bergsig Estate and Elizma Visser of Olifantsberg. Fiona McDonald put it forward for a Platter’s Five Star: “Ripe, rich 2019 also a multi-winemaker effort…a very tidy, structured, well-made wine.” Once again proving the allure of the secret sauce.
A Constantia-Style Blend
The Constantia White Blend is made by a total of nine winemakers, including: Brad Paton of Buitenverwachting, Danna de Jongh of Constantia Uitsig, Boela Gerber of Groot Constantia, Matthew Day of Klein Constantia, Megan van der Merwe of Beau Constantia, Elunda Basson of Steenberg, Justin van Wyk of Constantia Glen, Gregory Brink Louw of Silvermist Wine Estate and Roger Burton of Nova Zonnestraal. Yes, it’s a mouthful, but this 84% Sauvignon, 16% Semillon blend is textbook Cape Wine – from the birthplace of Cape wine, the number of participants and terroirs merely adding to its layers of meaning. Wade says he gets annoyed when people talk about a Bordeaux-style white blend when it’s a Constantia-style white blend. He says this is about South Africa, and we need not look outside of it to find the great wines of the world. As a wine collector it’s interesting, he doesn’t reference any international wines, but rather the Garland Cabernet Sauvignon from Simonsig, he bought a lot of the 2009 vintage because they started harvest on his birthday on the 16th of March, he has great respect for the family and has worked with them extensively over the years. For him it is the ritual of drinking a 2009 vintage, harvested on his birthday, every year and sharing it with family and friends, having them sign the box it comes in and keeping it as the mark of yet another year. It just goes to show my theory on collectors, that it’s not always just the prestige or level of investment of a wine that attracts them, but a personal experience and memory that keeps them coming back to a specific brand.
Wade has learned a lot of things during his time as a South African Négociant, most importantly GRIT. He talks of Allan Mullins as one of his great mentors within the industry, the late Cape Master of Wine and the original Woolworths wine buyer who had been paralyzed since his early twenties, but who had made it to every event and tasting. Wade says even when he HIMSELF didn’t want to attend his own events at times, Allan always showed up, despite all the obvious added effort he had to put in to get there. Allan died late last year and the outpouring of grief from the industry was immense, Allan quite possibly having been a physical representation of our shared kanniedood spirit. Of his many efforts in the wine industry, Wade merely says this is our tribe, it’s who we are, and that it is important to do things that energize and excite you no matter what. When I ask him why South Africa, he says in his trademark contemplative way: “It’s Africa or something. I don’t know what it is, but I feel it.”
Written by Dalene Fourie from Port2Port : 15th April 2021