Carrie’s Corner: Vilafonte Vineyards – creating real brands in a world of a million labels

Anybody who knows about the SA wine industry knows Mike Ratcliffe. The son of Norma Ratcliffe – a pioneer of winemaking women in South Africa and founder of Warwick Wine Estate – Michael launched his own brand, Vilafonte, over twenty years ago. Fine wine critic Carrie Adams sits down with Ratcliffe, to discuss establishing a brand in a short period of time, ‘in a world where there are millions of labels and just a handful of brands’. – Jarryd Neves

Mike Ratcliffe on the upcoming harvest:

It’s a big, industry wide issue – especially in the bulk wine industry. You might actually be interested to know not just that there’s a problem, but where the problem started. The way the industry works is that grapes are harvested in January, February and March. Our biggest export markets are in the Northern hemisphere – Europe in general and the UK.

The timing of those shipments is that the grapes – that are harvested in January, February and March – are turned into wine and shipped in bulk in the months of April and May, in order to meet the timeline for the European summer – where they can be bottled, sold and consumed.

Of course, in 2020, we had locked down in April and May. Our government, in their wisdom, decided to ban exports. That is where the problem started, because the two biggest export months of the year were blocked by the government and the industry is now suffering as a result of that.

Mike Ratcliffe on taking the government to court:

It’s a real industry team effort. It started during the first lockdown, when we got a bunch of industry bodies [and] we banded together to take government to court. The day before judgment was due to be handed down, the ban on the sale of alcohol was lifted. So we don’t really know if we won it or not, but we’d like to at least give ourselves some credit that we put some pressure on government.

VinPro, which is the industry body [that] was taking government to court. We’ve been actively campaigning behind that to support them. In my capacity as chairperson of Stellenbosch Wine, we have the biggest representation of producers in VinPro. So we have been making a fair amount of noise. The wine industry supports the government’s effort to clamp down on the spread of Covid, we support it 100%.

But we simply don’t believe that a blanket ban is the answer. The industry has given government so many different techniques, methodologies and recommendations that we believe would have been more effective, without causing the pandemic of poverty and unemployment that it’s leaving behind.

Carrie Adams on the knock-on effects of the ban:

The wine industry is the single biggest employer in the agricultural sector. It also contributes massively to tourism, which is another big knock on effect – never mind the restaurant trade, hotels, bars and so on. It really is a house of cards. 

Mike Ratcliffe on Vilafonte:

Next year Vilafonte will be celebrating 25 years. Our first property was purchased in 1996 [and] the first vineyard planted in 1997 – the cabernet vineyards. A quarter century, going pretty strong. The nice thing [about it] is that it’s still the original team. There’s been very little change. We just do the same thing over and over.

Mike Ratcliffe on creating the Vilafonte brand:

When it comes to operating at the top of the market, short-term thinking just doesn’t cut it. The reality is you need to choose your site well. You simply can’t build great wines on the back of poor terroir. It just can’t be done. That’s the first thing. Perhaps we got lucky, but perhaps we didn’t.

But we have started with a piece of land that is quite remarkable, and our predominant soil type is called Vilafonte. So we planted our vineyards and built our brand on the name of our soil. And the answer is also long term – that soil has been around for a long time. What I’m really aiming for is a double century. This is already a two hundred year business plan.

True greatness is not often created in a single generation in the wine industry. There has got to be long-termism in the thinking. If I can be part of the team that laid the solid foundation for the future generations will, then that’s a great result.


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