Stellenbosch is a bit of paradise. There just isn’t much that’s more stunning than a place devoted to growing grapes—it’s something about the terrain and climate grapes prefer that makes for relentless beauty. And wine itself is of the old world, so people drawn to making it seem to have a knack for living well, for thinking about the essential pleasures of good food, a peaceful garden, a sunny aspect, and a glass of wine dancing in its glass.
Stellenbosch is home to hundreds of wine farms that blanket the landscape to the horizon, making for a particularly arresting viewshed. Its singular beauty comes from a mix of natural blessings; outstanding among them is the relationship between the soft green of hills covered in vineyards and their massive, rocky cousins, the mountains of the Cape Fold range. Although not terribly high by mountain standards (3500 feet as compared to my home state of Colorado’s “fourteeners,”), these peaks are none-the-less dramatic. Rising straight up from the sea, they create a majestic backdrop to the panorama of grapevines angling neatly over the countryside.
While in Stellenbosch, I stayed at the Spier Wine Farm, a progressive mini-village with award-winning organic wines, the farm-to-table restaurant Eight, acres of contemplative gardens, a “conscious” conference center, sustainability practices including a biological effluent water system, and two conservation projects – one for raptors and one for cheetahs. Spier is a world unto itself, a kind of Disneyland for adults, whose motto is “getting the best out of every berry, with as little interference as possible.”
One of Spier’s most pleasing parts is its architecture. The hotel is made up of structures faced in brightly-colored plaster, nestled along little streets and clustered around quiet courtyards inlaid with turquoise pools. In fact, the architecture of the entire Western Cape area is distinctive, starting with the white-washed walls, reed thatch roof and raised stoop and gable typical of the early Cape Dutch style. These lovely buildings dot the region, imbuing it with a sense of the bucolic. Some of the wine farms are known for these historic buildings, two of which I visited: DeMorgenzon and Steenberg Wine Estate. In a perfect blend of the old and the new, state-of-the art winemaking facilities complete with French oak barrels and Italian stainless steel are behind the simple elegance of the Dutch Cape landmarks.
Although considered a “new world” wine region, Stellenbosch proudly traces its winemaking lineage back 350 years to Jan Van Riebeeck, an employee of the Dutch East India Company who wrote of pressing the first wine grapes in 1659. Some of the oldest estates are Steenberg (1682), Boschendal (1685), Spier (1692), and DeMorgenzon (early 1700s), each of which cater to an au courant tourist trade attracted, I suspect, as much by the area’s rich and diverse heritage as by the wine.
It’s characteristic of these established Stellenbosch wine farms that they combine winemaking with other complementary lines of business, and not just the usual eateries and tasting rooms. While Spier advances its conservation ethic, neighboring Steenberg pairs its wine business with a championship golf course and club, a high-end spa, and even Steenberg Property through which you can purchase a parcel. Other innovative ventures include art galleries, gift shops featuring crafts and art in addition to wine, concert venues, movie nights and more.
I was fortunate enough to spend an easy afternoon at DeMorgenzon with its gracious owners, Wendy and Hylton Appelbaum. Although transplants to the area, the Appelbaums fit perfectly the “old world meets new” milieu. Hylton is an avid gardener, so the vineyards are interspersed with constant blooms of every variety. He cultivates his sets in makeshift lean-tos at the back of the property, something like I imagine Darwin might’ve had. And the results are breath-taking, causing a deep quietude just from a simple gaze across the farm.
Wendy runs DeMorgenzon’s operation, overseeing marketing, wine-making, vine-keeping and the many other aspects of a major player in Stellenbosch wine country. As we sat chatting in her living room after the tour, Wendy spoke about their uncommon practice of playing Baroque music 24/7 over the vines. “There’s much evidence that plants respond to music,” she explained. “But in any case, I know it has a wonderful effect on all who work here. The vine keepers in particular work with less fatigue and strife than elsewhere.”
And I thought, this innovation seems perfectly in tune with a place that capitalizes on modern business practices while maintaining the old world values that make the wine and us flourish.
This piece is the eighth in a series on South Africa by leadership expert and consultant, Rebecca Reynolds. Reynolds works with leaders, explores leadership issues and contexts, and writes on leadership lessons. This series will explore leadership themes from her South Africa trip. Reynolds may be reached at RebeccaReynoldsConsulting.com. Previous posts: part I, part II, part III, part IV, part V, part VI, part VII