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By Andrew Gunn
A little history
2022 is the 25thand anniversary of my purchase of the Geelbeksvlei farm which I changed to Iona in a nod to my Scottish and Viking ancestry. The 2021 vintage marks the 21st of our first wine, the Iona 2001 Sauvignon Blanc.
I was brought up in Vereeniging and went to school in Potchefstroom, after which I studied for a civil engineering degree in Wits. In the mid 1980s, when international companies were fleeing South Africa in droves, I had the opportunity to buy a material handling company on favorable terms. After I built it I sold it to a publicly traded company and after a few years in the corporate world I bought a struggling medical suture company and then built it again and sold.
It was in 1996; I was inspired by Nelson Mandela’s vision of a new South Africa, where everyone would work together to make the country great. I decided to invest in something I could do for the rest of my life. I have always liked the idea of being a farmer and saw a lime farm for sale in Franschhoek in the Financial Mail which sparked my investigation.
I visited Franschhoek on a hot February day, nearly 40 degrees, this coupled with the fact that my vision of a farm is where you can’t see your neighbors, I started looking elsewhere.
The Elgin Valley was the last area I visited after visiting 20 Weird Cape Farms. Coming down the N2 from Cape Town, one has no idea of the extent of the Elgin Valley on the right hand side of the N2 which stretches fifteen kilometers to the Atlantic Ocean to the south and is quite beautiful.
When I visited the valley in March, the trees were laden with apples and pears, such an abundance I had never seen, and I was convinced that I could make a living growing fruit. The realtor finally showed what I thought was a viable apple farm, called Geelbeksvlei, surrounded by state forests and the Kogelberg Biosphere, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean to the south and the Elgin Valley to the north with the nearest neighbor 6 km away.
It was love at first sight, I made an offer, more than I should have, and moved to the farm with my partner at the time, Rosa Kruger. Apparently one of the most stressful things you can do in your life is getting divorced, starting a new relationship, changing jobs and moving house, I did all four in a year!
Little did I know the industry was approaching a serious downturn, interest rates were at 24%, the market deregulated and UK supermarkets were putting unrealistic quality pressure on sellers and farmers as a result. The farm was planted with the wrong varieties and the trees were old. I faced the prospect of losing everything I had worked for.
As an engineer, I have always had a pragmatic and analytical approach to business issues. I had read Jancis Robinson’s Oxford Companion to Wine which claimed that great wines are made in “cool to intermediate climatic conditions” and wondered if the farm was suitable for wine grapes.
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I installed temperature loggers on the farm and over a period of three months compared hourly temperatures with a weather station in Grabouw to find that we were consistently lower. I extrapolated this information to create what I thought were the long term climatic conditions of the farm. With the help of my uncle, a professor of geomorphology from England compared this to the great wine regions of the world. We concluded that our climate was somewhere between Burgundy and Sancerre in France where great Chardonnay; Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc are grown.
I visited Professor Archer, head of viticulture at the University of Stellenbosch, whose first reaction was “sorry to disappoint you, but South Africa is a hot to hot wine region“. After going through my reasoning he became very excited and offered to become our vineyard consultant, we planted our first vineyard in 1997 and for the next 4 years Eben was involved in the planning, execution of our plantings and training our staff, who up to this point had only been involved in apples.
Circumstance, luck and good fortune
My dad was a product of the Great Depression in the 1930s, with a doctorate in chemistry, he applied for 400 jobs and the only job he was offered was in South Africa with the Cullinan family in Olifantsfontein, which put me off. bred here in 1949 just as the Nat’s came to power. I am very aware of the privileges I enjoyed during that time and how they contributed to who I am now.
It invites introspection and acknowledgment of some people who have contributed to the success of Iona in so many ways, which on a personal level has been my only effort for the past 25 years and continues to be. to be.
The business consumed a lot more money than I expected and ran for a while at my overdraft limit. I solicited partners and potential investors in vain, at one point I was ready to sell 50% of the farm for R2m but there was no taker —— thank you all!
While researching the wine business, I visited the late Ross Gower in Klein Constantia to discuss cool climate winemaking. He became intrigued with Elgin and consequently bought a farm at auction. I attended the auction where I met Gyles Webb who at the time was involved with GT Ferreira in Tokara, he offered to make our wines in Tokara for 3 years and as a result I sold 35 ha to GT who provided me with the capital to build a cellar and finance the development of the activity.
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Niels Verburg our first winemaker in 2004 who had no winery and I had no winemaker, a nice 5 year relationship until he built his own winery and I employed Jean Smit. Jean had a problem with a 20,000 liter tank of Sauvignon Blanc and Sophie te’Blanche was born.
The extended Iona family which includes the 20 workers who live on the farm, our wonderful winemaking, farming, office and sales team, our customers without whom we have no business as well as the critics and reviewers , and of course my close family, I am deeply grateful to you all, thank you.
Meeting and marrying Rozy, my very intelligent, evolved, energetic and committed wife, raised on a sheep farm in the Karoo who studied for an MFA at the University of Cape Town, brought another dimension to my life.
She has a real affinity and connection with nature, this is expressed in everything she does, as a mother, wife, partner and farmer. She gave up a promising career as a sculptor to devote herself to our business. She continues to give me a balanced view and perspective of what is important in life. The way she approaches her farming business for the Solace and One-Man-Band from her Brocha property allows for a rigorous exchange of ideas, practices, and enthusiastic banter among the entire team.
Where are we going now?
I am very aware of my mortality and my dad always said that three twenty and ten are good innings, but I still have the energy and the desire to continue to be the caretaker of this special property for as long as I can. .
The wine industry is consumer-driven, dynamic and alluring, you can never say you’re on top. I believe, however, that as our vineyards age and we learn more about them, we walk more lightly with integrity and respect for the environment, the best is yet to come.
We have a wonderful young team in the vineyards, cellar, sales and administration, all very committed and knowledgeable and it’s unlikely I’ll be there to celebrate the 50th anniversary, but I suspect Rozy could.
Thank you and good wine.
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