Marco Ventrella – the man behind the KWV vines

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

There was great rejoicing at Team KWV when the producer was named winner of the Fairbairn Capital Trophy as Most Successful Producer Overall on this year’s Old Mutual Trophy Wine Show.

The array of trophies and medals – six trophies, one other gold plus an armful of silver and bronze medals – gives evidence of the major and ongoing improvements by chief winemaker Johann Fourie and his dedicated cellar team. And the cellar is about as far as most people would consider when handing around congratulations.

Sadly, and as is so often the case, anyone involved with the success that’s achieved in the vineyards is rarely mentioned, let alone included in the accolades. When last was a viticulturist present at a wine awards’ ceremony?

Marco Ventrella may not be a familiar name to many but he is, in chief, responsible for every step, from liaising with the growers about what variety should be planted where, depending on which label the fruit is destined for, through to ensuring the grapes come into the cellar in prime condition and ripeness. As someone active on Twitter (@vinebug) whom I follow, he not only gives out snippets of information about his travels to their growers around the Cape but also posts descriptive and beautiful photos from the vineyards.

What’s it like to work for a large producer such as KWV, how much travelling does it involve and how many different people does he have to deal with? These were some of the questions I asked Ventrella as we chatted over coffee, coincidentally just prior to the Trophy Show’s post-judging feedback session, although then neither of us knew how successful the team had been.

Coming from a family in the hospitality business Ventrella had a natural affinity with wine but before studying at Elsenburg he ran night clubs and restaurants for 10 years. Halfway through the winemaking course, he realised that his real interest lay outside the cellar: “The mysteries of climate and soil fascinate me,” he explained. “Why should cabernet grown in Darling differ from cabernet grown in Elgin? It’s things like these I’m curious about and want to try to understand.”

He worked for Graham Beck Wines for eight years before moving to KWV in 2011, where he heads up a three-member team responsible for procurement of grapes, wine and rebate/distilling wine. I wondered what attracted Ventrella to large producers, which both Beck and KWV are. “The opportunity to gain experience across different regions, soils, varieties and climates,” Ventrella summarised. “It might sound strange but with each vintage, I feel I know less rather than more.”

Well, there’s no shortage of experience on offer at his current cellar, as some of the figures he rolls off imply: across the Western Cape KWV has 71 growers with 425 vineyards, plus 17 wineries which supply wine; 30 different varieties are purchased as grapes, sourced from as far afield as Lutzville and Elim with all points in between. No surprise then that Ventrella covers around 3500 kilometres a month. “I’m the driver who does a little viticulture,” he quipped. More seriously he maintained there can be no management by remote control; walking the block is essential.

The grower/viticulturist relationship is a vital factor in the success of this enterprise: “We work very closely with our growers through every aspect of vine cultivation to ensure continuity of our style, quality and grower sustainability.” In practice this means growers plant according to KWV’s requirements with the specific label and quality in mind; it also sees Ventrella visiting each farm three or four times annually at different stages throughout the vine’s annual cycle. Many of the growers produce their own wine as well, which makes for interesting comparison with KWV’s interpretation.

It’s not all on the road; the year has its distinct pattern which includes admin, budgets and contracting among tasks other than in the vineyard during May; pruning in June – “There’s just one chance each year…”; and so on to November, when Ventrella’s on the road attending to “the meat and potatoes of canopy management”. If October through to December is the busiest time of year, Ventrella said the most stressful is harvest: “I never want to experience another harvest like 2014 again,” he sighed. “We took in fruit from the entire list of 30 varieties during one week; it was a nightmare for the cellar team too, finding space for it all.”

Ventrella stressed that consistency is the Holy Grail; he said the real challenge is not to make top wines in small volumes but to produce 80 000 cases selling at R40 per bottle of consistent style and quality.

That’s not to say the team isn’t on the lookout for new things – interesting areas or varieties, which was the original purpose of The Mentors range.

Petit verdot is a particular favourite: “It works better than many other Bordeaux varieties,” Ventrella enthused. “There’s no greenness and it retains acid in the heat.” He also sees potential in grenache blanc, “though it shouldn’t be planted close to the summer rainfall region as it rots easily. The yield too has to be kept under control but it’s a very food-friendly wine.” Thinking of varieties that aren’t yet planted here, he mentioned southern Italian fiano, aglianico and nero d’avola but acknowledged that the market for them would be small.

“Viticulture has to be a passion and you have to have a thick skin because it will beat you up,” said Ventrella, who continued on what it takes to be a viticulturist and what he loves about his job: “Being outside, the challenge, every day being different and it’s like having seven games of chess on the go at the same time.” It’s not surprising he claims to get bored easily.

Outside of his work, you’ll find Ventrella cooking, enjoying wine, reading, listening to music or watching films.

–  Angela Lloyd