Spier, the mixed wine farm

Farmer Angus is a flurry of quick talk and rapid movements, as if he doesn’t have enough hours in the day to get everything done. But then, he’s got a lot to do, from producing top-end wine to saving the planet.

On his shed wall are blown-up photos of the industrial food system, which form one large poster of animal misery. Cows standing packed in feed lots. Chickens stacked on top of each other in boxes. Pigs on their side in tiny cages, unable to move. Farmer Angus gestures at the wall and says food produced this way is more expensive than it looks. He speaks with the authority of someone who’s worked in finance, although he’s now a long way from life as a broker at Goldman Sachs in London. “There’s no interest in true cost accounting,” he says. “If it existed, then the beef from there would be multiples more expensive than grass-fed beef. Because of all the health damage to a human being from eating too much Omega 6 that’s not in the cost.” Or the health damage caused to workers who breathe in faecal dust, or the “environmental damage that’s not in the price”.

It’s a sunny spring day in Stellenbosch, and in between unleashing a tirade against industrial farming, taking eggs from the cartons on the bench to hand to people who wander in, and juggling a phone that never stops ringing, Angus McIntosh is a ball of energy. A nearby glass cabinet is stacked with copies of Michael Pollan’s bestseller The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

Angus McIntosh/Spier

“That’s the book that got me farming,” says McIntosh. In 2004 he came to Spier with his wife Mariota Enthoven, whose family own the property, and they got stuck into the restoration of the property.

Pollan’s 2006 book looked at the American food chain from field to supermarket, excoriating industrial agriculture. The hero of the book, Joel Salatin – on whom Farmer Angus models himself – is a ‘polyculture’ farmer, who puts multiple crops and animals in the same space, so that each species aids the others. Although polyculture isn’t a biodynamic method, it fits perfectly with the biodynamic belief that the farm should be a self-sustaining system – a philosophy that McIntosh has fully embraced.

And part of his farming project began with ripping up vineyards.

Wine revival
“Angus is a fanatic about biodynamics,” says winemaker Frans Smit. He’s sitting in the expansive tasting room, next to Evelyn Jell who’s in charge of international sales. “We started our journey to make greener-style wines eight or nine years ago. The first thing was to find an organic vineyard, where the community is involved. It took us five years to do it.”

Spier has been a wine farm since 1692, with one of the oldest wine cellars in the country, dating back to 1767. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until 1971 that the first wine was bottled under the Spier name. Entrepreneur Richard Enthoven – insurance magnate and owner of Nando’s chicken chain – bought the 656 ha property in 1993 and set out to restore it. Today’s Spier Wine Farm is a destination, with a hotel, a restaurant, a convention centre, a craft market, and a farm complete with vineyards, plus another 100 ha of vineyards in the Paarl region. But that doesn’t begin to describe what Spier is all about. It’s also a rehabilitation centre, dedicated to resuscitating the environment, improving the lives of its people and helping South Africa’s arts and food scene flourish. There’s a profit-sharing olive oil business, a tree planting scheme and certifications in all directions.

“We have programs we have to attend on a regular basis,” says Jell. “Water was a theme one year. We had to spend time at the water plant and walk up and down the river clearing rubbish.”
Although the tasting room looks glamorous, every single table, beam and piece of chandelier is either second hand or recycled, with textiles made by local craftspeople.

There are stark reasons for all this effort. South Africa has a high unemployment rate, at more than 26%. The country also faces major environmental challenges, including a recent drought that was so severe, staff at Kruger National Park considered a cull of the hippopotamuses. If South Africa can’t offers its citizens health care, literacy and employment – not to mention housing and clean water – then it faces a bleak future. That puts a huge burden of responsibility on businesses like Spier, who need South Africa to flourish for the sake of their own future.

The wines on the table are from the Signature range, and include a Chardonnaz/Pinot Noir rosé , a Chenin Blanc, and a spicy Shiraz, among others. There is a crystalline purity to them, the Chenin Blanc in particular. “The wines have a freshness and minerality that other wines don’t have,” says Smit. “Conventional wines have upfront flavours from the yeasts. The flavours in these wines come from the grapes. They’re low sulphur.”

Smit says that if the grapes are properly balanced in the vineyard, they don’t need a lot of sulphur in the winery. “The other thing is that when you go sustainable, your yields drop dramatically for the first couple of years,” he says.

The big issue is water. “The soils are getting dryer and dryer,” says Smit. Although Spier has a very low water usage – it takes around 1.3 L of water to produce a bottle of wine, from vineyard to bottling – they still need to use supplemental irrigation. The challenge for the future will be finding the right vines and rootstocks to deal with the impact of climate change. “Our climate will force our decisions,” says Smit.

Building the soil

Image supplied by Spier

Out on the farm, water is very much on McIntosh’s mind. He says the Western Cape area of South Africa is finally facing the drought conditions that have blighted agriculture in the rest of the country. “There could be 5,000 farmers losing their water,” he says. McIntosh believes the only answer is to focus on the soil. “Very few farmers are focused on building soil fertility,” he says. “For every 1% organic matter, you increase the water-holding capacity by a millimetre a hectare.”

That the soil is the basis of all life was a key insight of the biodynamic movement, and whatever people think of the stranger aspects of the philosophy, on this point they have the full weight of science behind them. Generating just 3 cm of topsoil takes 1,000 years, and the UN has said that if soils continue to degrade at their current rate, the world’s topsoil will be gone in less than 60 years. The cause of that destruction is erosion, global warming, deforestation — and chemical-intensive farming. Biodynamic farmers are committed to rebuilding soil health, particularly through the application of compost. Animals can play a huge role in this project, because their dung not only fertilizes, but it also spreads seeds.

McIntosh gets into the back of his white four-wheel drive, which is being driven by Jell. She’s wryly humorous and able to navigate dusty corners with aplomb, even when tourists on Segways whizz out from nowhere. She steers expertly to a field near a herd of patient Limousin cattle, and McIntosh exits the car. “I also butcher my own meat,” says McIntosh in full hearing of the cows.
There had been a Chardonnay vineyard nearby. When McIntosh took over management of the farm in 2004, there were 55 ha of grapes. “I sat down with Frans and for a whole season we tasted everything and then we said, ‘Listen, this is horrible crap’,” says McIntosh. The vineyards were grubbed up, until there were only 21 ha left. “The wines have got better every year,” he says. And there are multiple major awards to prove it.

In the other direction is the Cabernet vineyard, and beyond that, the Shiraz. Here and there, dandelions sprout. These attract the mealybug, the insect that carries the leafroll virus in its saliva, which it injects into the vines it feasts on. “The dandelion is a home for the mealybug,” says McIntosh. “In conventional vineyards, everything is sprayed. The floor is sprayed with herbicide. The mealybug has no place to go, so what does it do? It goes straight up into the canopy, because it’s the only green thing.”

McIntosh isn’t totally biodynamic. He is prepared to use antibiotics on sick cattle, and he’s happy to bring in outside nutrients, such as fish hydrolase. “I need to bring micro-nutrients in because this farm was completely” – he drops an expletive – “by the people who owned it. They farmed tobacco. Do you know how you farm tobacco? Methyl bromide.” McIntosh’s speech speeds up as he details what the chemicals did. “If I can bring in stuff from outside to improve the fertility cycle, so much the better.”

McIntosh has introduced pigs, who are moved across the fields to remove the tough Eragrostis grass. After the pigs churn it up, in moves nitrogen-fixing clover. For their labours, the pigs get to eat all the non-meat food waste from the hotel and restaurant. There are also Dorper sheep, accompanied by a donkey who was appointed watchman after a predator called a caracal ate some sheep. And there are hens, living in what look like covered pioneer wagons. “Listen to the sound of their feet when they march,” says McIntosh. “Isn’t that beautiful?”

Eventually there will also be ducks, to cull the snails. And to provide variation on the menu. This farm possibly represents both the past and the future of wine. In the old days, many winemakers owned mixed farms, with multiple crops. But in an age of fertilisers and high yields, growing small amounts of anything wasn’t viable, and mono-cultures – including mono-culture vineyards – became the norm. Today, as viticulturists stare down the threat of drought, climate change and pestilence, mixed farming may need to return.

For McIntosh, the trick is to make the farm itself do all the work. “Of all forms of agriculture, viticulture is definitely the one you worry least about,” says McIntosh. “If you’re working more than four months a year as a viticulturist, you’re working a lot.”

The tour over, McIntosh jumps out of the car and back into the shed. There are so many more projects he needs to be getting on with.

Felicity Carter

This article first appeared in Issue 1, 2017 of Meininger’s Wine Business International

The art of wine storytelling

When Rebecca Hopkins worked at Australia’s Wirra Wirra winery, she used to tell tourists how Mrs Wigley – the black cat who sat by the fire – was first found sleeping in the open concrete fermenters. One day, Hopkins overheard a customer retelling the Mrs Wigley story, except Mrs Wigley was now a mythical black leopard of the vineyard, who only came out at night to hunt chickens and prey on foxes and small children. That day, says Hopkins, she sold more than the usual volume of Church Block, Wirra Wirra’s most famous wine.

Stories sell – which is why storytelling is marketing’s hottest new trend. Anyone who’s been to a wine conference lately will certainly have heard the cry go up for the wine trade to ‘tell its stories’. But what is ‘storytelling’, and how can the wine trade do it effectively? New research has uncovered some surprising answers.

Stories stick in the mind
This question of why humans tell stories has long preoccupied anthropologists. It’s been suggested that stories were a way for pre-literate peoples to remember important events; or that stories were used as maps, to help one another find food and avoid danger; or, as evolutionary psychologist Dr Robin Dunbar has argued, stories may have evolved from gossip, to help humans bond. Whatever the reason, Dr Jennifer Aaker from the Stanford Graduate School of Business, has said that “stories are up to 22 times more memorable than facts alone”.

Dr Paul J. Zak, a neuroscientist at Claremont Graduate University, has used brain imaging to understand how people react to stories. In one experiment, he showed a cartoon about a father coming to terms with his son’s terminal cancer. Those who watched the film described feeling both empathy with the characters, and distress. Zak also analysed blood taken before and after the film. It turned out that watching the story made the viewers produce two hormones: cortisol, which focuses attention, and oxytocin, the ‘bonding’ molecule; women produce it during pregnancy and while nursing. Zak’s research dovetailed nicely with other studies that suggest the brain treats imaginary experiences as if they’re real. It’s why people cry when a character dies, and why horror films make the heart pound.

These insights are already being exploited by major companies, who spend millions of dollars creating compelling brand stories. Take the 2017 Budweiser Super Bowl commercial; called “Born the Hard Way”, it tracks the story of co-founder Adolphus Busch, as he sets out to reach America and brew beer. Along the way he faces storms, rejection, ship fires and injury. The commercial went viral, racking up millions of views on YouTube less than a week after its first showing.

This suggests that storytelling should be an easy win for the wine industry. After all, wine comes out of risk-taking, farming, history and interesting people. But there are two catches. The first is that it’s not just the story that’s important, it’s the way it’s told. The second catch is that the wine trade is deeply averse to telling stories in the way that are most likely to attract attention.

Five keys to success
Sex doesn’t sell. That was one of the most surprising – and counterintuitive – findings of Keith A. Quesenberry from John Hopkins University, who analysed 108 Super Bowl commercials.

The Super Bowl is one of the US’s biggest events, with an estimated audience of 113m. Advertising during the game is expensive – a 30-second ad costs about $4m, so the aim is to create ads that go viral. Quesenberry and business professor Dr Michael K. Coolsen of Shippensburg University conducted a 2014 study on successful Super Bowl Ads. “People think it’s all about sex or humour or animals, but what we’ve found is that the underbelly of a great commercial is whether it tells a story or not,” Quesenberry said at the time.

He discovered that the key to a great ad, regardless of the product, was the story structure. The story must have five key elements: an inciting moment, a complication, a climax (or turning point), a reversal, and then a resounding finish. In fact, Quesenberry simply rediscovered what the 19th-century German playwright Gustav Freytag had laid out in 1863. Freytag analysed classic dramas and realised that they all had this five-act structure, now known as Freytag’s Pyramid.

But having the right underlying structure in place isn’t enough – plenty of five-act dramas have bombed. To make a story memorable and effective, it has to have two other elements as well. One of them is plot – something has to happen to someone.But the plot must also follow a strict pattern.

One writer who became intensely interested in story patterns was novelist Kurt Vonnegut, who would graph them out: the X-axis represented the passage of time, from beginning to end, while the Y-axis represented the events. “Somebody gets into trouble, gets out of it again,” said Vonnegut in 1995. “People love that story. They never get sick of it.”

Recently, Andrew Reagan from the University of Vermont decided to test whether stories really did have the patterns Vonnegut had suggested. Reagan took 1,700 stories and used data-mining to reveal the most common plots. He discovered that there were six basic story patterns, which can either be used alone or as sequential building blocks (see side bar). If you need evidence of how powerful these story arcs can be, consider Donald Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again”. Structurally it’s what’s called a rise-fall-rise, or Cinderella, story: America was great, then it declined, and Trump will make it great again. Biodynamic winegrowers often tell a similar tale: one day they realised their soil and/or vineyard was lifeless, so they converted to biodynamic methods, and now their vineyard flourishes and their wines are better. It’s the age-old rags-to-riches story – and it’s powerful.

Once structure and plot are in place, a memorable story needs one more element.

The rollercoaster
If sex doesn’t sell, why was 50 Shades of Grey the fastest-selling book in history? The novel is one long feast of kinky sex. It certainly didn’t become popular because of the writing – as novelist Salman Rushdie said, “I’ve never read anything so badly written that got published. It made Twilight look like War and Peace.” For some commentators, the fact that the book coincided with new ebook technology explained everything: the Kindle allowed women to read erotic fiction in public, without anybody realizing what they were up to. Others suggested it was the discreet grey cover that did the trick.

But two Stanford University scholars, Jodie Archer and Matthew L Jockers, have another explanation. Archer and Jockers fed 20,000 New York Times bestsellers into their computer, looking for what breakout books have in common. The computer spat out an answer: a book whose emotional journey was shaped like a rollercoaster was likely to be a bestseller, regardless of how well or how poorly written. Both 50 Shades of Grey and Dan Brown’s mega-selling The Da Vinci Code were identified by the computer as having a perfect rollercoaster shape.

A story must have emotional highs and lows – which confirms the work of Dr Zak. A good story needs poignant, frightening, or nail-biting elements if it’s to provoke cortisol, the hormone that focuses attention. If the story doesn’t have both light and shade, it’s doomed to be forgotten.

What does this mean for wine?
For the sake of the exercise, I took several family wine stories and graphed them. I did this several times, and every time I came up with a story that was all light and no shade. Typically, the founder recognises a perfect patch of ground and plants a wonderful vineyard, and the wines are soon being acclaimed:

But look at the timeline of the example. Several major events must have affected the winery: a devastating outbreak of phylloxera and two world wars. If the winery would mention how one or two of these impacted their history, it would give their story the rollercoaster shape. What would make the story even more memorable, is if the owners talked about some of the struggles their ancestors went through to make the winery successful.

And here’s the problem. New World wineries love telling their rags-to-riches stories. This magazine has profiled Susana Balbo, the Argentine pioneer who overcame bankruptcy and her country’s economic collapse to become one of the country’s most-successful winemakers. It’s a great and memorable story she’s proud to tell. The owners of Old World wineries, on the other hand, typically refuse to discuss anything that could be construed as negative – even if the true story is gripping.

When I gave a talk on this at wine2wine in Verona, several members of the audience asked how they could convince reluctant wine clients to tell their true stories. First, find a reversal that’s neutral – that time, for example, when the vineyard flooded but the heroic workers managed to save part of the harvest. If wineries are unwilling to discuss even bad weather, then storytelling is not the right marketing strategy for them.

There is another option: remember that storytelling began as a way to pass on gossip. Any good anecdote that has a ‘gossip’ factor can substitute as a story, such as the tale of how the owners met and fell in love, or the time the President came to visit. If all else fails, tell an animal story: The cat that slept in the fermenter is more of an anecdote than a story, but it has a quirky and memorable quality to it, that will keep customers talking about it every time they pull out your wine. And if the cat is magically transformed into a leopard in the minds of the people retelling the story, well, some of that magic may rub off onto your wine sales.

This article first appeared in Issue 1, 2017 of Meininger’s Wine Business International.