The world is changing fast and to keep up you need local knowledge with global context.
Gerard Holden joins Carrie Adams in her wine corner. Together with his partner, Migo, the couple searched for something with ‘amazing, beautiful landscapes’ and settled in Franschhoek. Together they founded Holden Manz, an award-winning winery. He tells Carrie about the decade-long journey of the gorgeous winery and the battles the industry faced with Covid-19 restrictions. – Jarryd Neves
Gerard Holden on choosing South Africa to call home:
We wanted to be in a place which was at the same time zone where our families were. So in my case, the UK and Migo’s case, Germany. South Africa was already high-up the list. We were looking for somewhere with amazing and beautiful landscapes, with proximity to the sea and the ability to have great food, great wine and a lovely place to be. We’ve met lots of South Africans over the years and we’ve enjoyed our time with them all.
On choosing a farm to start Holden Manz:
We looked at close to 50 farms in South Africa. A whole variety of regions, and we kept coming back to Franschhoek – which has got a certain charm to it. It’s incredibly beautiful and it’s a true valley. in that it’s formed by mountains on three sides. I like authenticity and I like living in a place where there’s an authentic expression of nature. When we were in Franschhoek, it always gave us an extra lift and we always felt that this is really the place that we want to be. Then the farm came up for auction and it was about the time that Auction Alliance was having their fun.
We had an auction and it became quite clear that we were the only people who were seriously interested, because I’d ask lots of questions in the weeks before the auction. Every question that I asked took nearly a week to get answered. It was clear that nobody else was asking questions. It also became clear that the people who were selling had to sell and the bank was forcing them to do so.
To be quite honest, they’d done a great job of planting the right varietals in the right places on the farm. They built some great buildings, but they were too old and their heart wasn’t really in it. They’ve been there for 10 years and had created what was there. I think they just got to a point where they wanted to move on and probably retire.
About four weeks later, we were in Germany and my phone rang. It was this mysterious man who said, ‘I’m a lawyer and I’ve been asked to approach you to see whether you’d still be interested to buy the farm’. And I said, ‘well, it depends on the terms and conditions and on the price’. And he said, ‘I’ve got an offer I can put to you that you can have a look at and see whether it works’. We negotiated a bit over the weekend and got to a place we were comfortable with. I guess three weeks later, we were there and we were the owners of the wine farm.
On winemaker, Thierry Haberer:
You’ve ended up with Thierry Haberer, who I think is one of the best winemakers in the country. Thierry is making cracking stuff. He grew up in Corsica and his father was a rosé winemaker. He made his first rosé with his father when he was 14-years old. It’s in his blood.
On the effects of Covid-19:
In the middle of harvest for us last year, we were very lucky that our key staff all basically agreed to stay on the farm. We were basically isolated as a farm. That meant that we could carry on and complete the harvest – and it was a good harvest. So that was a big positive. We were obviously stunned – like everybody else was – when we had a restriction on both domestic sales and export sales.
Then the Cape Town Port was in a real mess for a few weeks, but it’s a lot better than it was. We’d get containers through there reasonably quickly these days. Maybe three, four or five days as opposed to one or two days historically. It’s acceptable. We were lucky because I think one of the markets that I’ve spent time building up is the export market. Really from the beginning, I’ve had a vision to have 50% – 60% of the sales into export markets.
For a product like Holden Manz – which is generally the more premium priced side of the range – it’s more important to have a wide variety of different buyers collectors and different parts of the Holden Manz family around the world who want to buy that wine. By having that diversity, it allowed us to get through a lot of hiccups that we had.
On changes in the wine industry and the advent of online sales:
One of the things that we’ve learned through the various lockdowns and the process of the last 12 months, has been that we have a big Holden Manz family out there which wants to support us – and has been very kind and very generous supporting us through the different lockdowns.
I think in the second lockdown, we were probably doing something like 15 times our normal volume sales. It’s probably more sales than we would normally do through distributors in Johannesburg. So it brought it home to us that people actually are confident in buying online. They were trustworthy enough to buy, knowing that they weren’t going to get delivered for another four to six weeks or sometimes an indefinite period. They showed their trust in us. They gave us the money first and then we delivered the wine afterwards and came through on our side of the bargain.
They’ve stayed as good customers. We’ve almost got sort of personal relationships with people. So, for example, with our lady who looks after our e-commerce site, she has regular WhatsApp conversations with people who’ve become friends. They ask, ‘what’s the next time you guys are going to run the special? I’m really interested in this wine. If there’s any chance of doing a deal, I’d like to buy 10 cases of this’.
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