Growing up did you have any interest at all in winemaking?
No way! I think people would have questioned the reasoning behind a child wanting to make wine at a young age if his father wasn't a winemaker! It might have been seen as early signs of alcohol abuse! Although I knew the concept existed, it seemed only for the fortunate and rich. So I headed into IT (Information Technology), which was in line with my subjects at school. I didn't like any part of it, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. That lasted almost a year, until I just pulled the plug on unhappiness.
What led you to try out being a deep-sea engineer?
Growing up Howard Booysen was taught that "It's a tough world out there, and you need to be responsible for your actions".
To be honest I went to sea as a trainee engineer to let the danger-pay assist in repaying my studies and I was selected for my aptitude for technical and logical thinking. Though I was desperate not to let my parents or myself down again, I did eight months later by escaping the sea after hating my job.
What challenges have you faced breaking into the industry?
The challenges start at tertiary level! The competition at college level to become one of the 20 cellar students in the final year is fierce. Once you complete this, finding a job or internship is even harder. My experience was not only to study the product, but also to study the industry and its people. How it works, who's who, and how did they achieve their success. On my first encounter with the CWG (Cape Winemakers Guild), I made sure I studied all their names, faces and their latest accolades off a brochure, and greeted everyone by name. Lesson: become memorable!
The wine industry is full of big brand names, how has that impacted you in your efforts to make a name for yourself?
The best brands are normally built via an excellent marketing team or campaign. My brand has been built via word-of-mouth and people acknowledging that I've worked my fingers to the bone to achieve what I have.
How have people embraced your brands?
A big part of a brand lies in its presentation, packaging and the story behind it. I really wanted a label that is simplistic yet catchy on the eye. A bottle that is different, but not new. A colour that is fresh, not offensive. I needed to think of a name that matches the face and a story, which is not fabricated. And with this all in mind and executed, the public embraced it with both arms.
What assistance did you get, if any, from individuals and corporates that helped you on your way?
I try to be as independent as possible, to try and show the youth out there that might be interested in starting their own thing one day, that there are ways and means without taking hand-outs. No, the government has not assisted me in my cause, but yes, I did have to get a silent investor to help with the start-up costs. In order for the business to grow generically, I work as a sommelier in the evenings to sustain myself, and have no fixed employees which makes my model quite dynamic.
What motivates you and what do you love most about what you do?
My motivation is definitely reflecting over the past 12 years, and realising how far I've come to make the impossible seem possible, and this is only the beginning of a long journey. I came to love the unpredictability of my lifestyle, as on any given day you never know what curve ball is going to be thrown at you. Every good thing or challenge is but an email or phone call away. I love that at the end of it all there's a product to show for all the blood, sweat and tears I've endured that everyone can enjoy and share with me. And that is magic!
You were involved in the TV programme “Exploring the Vine”, what did you learn from the whole process?
Exploring the Vine was one of the most interesting projects I have experienced. The most significant thing I learnt was how effective it can be to merge two completely separate but mainstream industries, which have a mutual goal. But there was a myriad of new things that opened up my world, like doing research on every topic for the weekend's shooting, covering the wines, winemakers, estates, history, dynamics and public opinion. The reward once again is to see the final product, and sharing it with everyone.
What do you want consumers to know about your wines?
My wines are an expression of where they come from. I use classic varietals, that are "almost extinct" to a certain extent. They were very popular 15 to 20 years ago, and now somehow forgotten. The wines are fresh, but have the ability to age. They are made for solo consumption or with food. The wines are expressive, but not flamboyant. There's a leanness that you can't ignore, layered with complexity and depth. I strive for lower alcohol levels, encouraging a better outcome the morning after. It’s a fun and aromatic journey for the novice and the connoisseur.
There have been problems with transformation in the wine industry, what in your opinion, is the reason for this?
Education is always the prime factor, but also money. It’s an expensive game. Everyone knows this. There is a lack of interest from the previously disadvantaged group, thinking that it is only meant for the elite, and they would not fit in. It is tough to find ways to transform the industry if there is a lack of candidates. But, don't force it too hard, it will happen. Be patient and wait till the right people come along and make that difference, otherwise we will degrade the value of what has been increasing in the past few years internationally – South African Wines.
How can it be rectified?
There are various ways, institutions, groups and people that have joined efforts to help the process of transformation, transition and integration. It starts at school level, University and postgraduates. But it takes years to develop a student’s career, follow their progress and encourage them to suffer a bit and hang in there before they see results. Most would fail if a support system does not accompany all the efforts. The best we can do is try as much as we possibly can, and trust that there'll be some success stories to inspire the ones that follow.
Why do you think most young black people shy away from the winemaking industry?
For the very simple reason that there's a lack of understanding how farming, business, and all of the above works. If you weren't born into the trade or on a farm, it's tough! Then there's also the factor that most can't see themselves being a farm worker for the rest of their lives. This could be a lack of ambition, or the fear of being suppressed.
What are your future plans? What is your big dream?
I need to find a home for my wine in the medium term. I also need to find ventures and expand to a point where I can focus and only make wine and retire from the restaurant business and find myself a companion. My brand needs to become a household name, and be readily available on shelves across the globe so that I can focus on building a future of my own and retire knowing that I lived my life to the fullest.