Power to the people

It’s impossible to miss when driving towards Stellenbosch on Baden Powell Drive. There’s a large warehouse on the side of the road, just beyond Meerlust wine estate, surrounded by high stacks of shrink-wrapped wine bottles. But what lies behind those tan-coloured walls which house Compagniesdrift?

There are already a host of empowerment projects in the winelands, many of which involve wine brands: Thandi, Sizanani from Bellevue, Seven Sisters, De Bos from Bosman Wines, Fairvalley from Fairview, Thokozani of Diemersfontein, New Beginnings, Thembi & Co, Koopmanskloof, Papkuilsfontein, Place in the Sun and more. While those in the industry would agree that creating a wine brand is relatively simple, marketing and selling the resulting wine is a somewhat more difficult task. The Myburgh Family Trust, owners of Meerlust, wanted their empowerment project to impact workers’ lives in a ‘meaningful and economically viable’ manner, which is one of the reasons why they looked at the peripheral services sector. It’s a way of providing added value and retaining a link to the core business, that of wine.

Compagniesdrift is a bottling and warehousing venture, and the interesting thing about it is that the worker’s stake – 50% – is held by the 72 people ‘with longstanding relationships with the Meerlust, Vriesenhof and Ken Forrester farms in the area’, the press release states. So little wonder then that when this R45-million investment opened its doors for business in December 2010, its anchor clients were Meerlust, Vriesenhof and Ken Forrester, with Spier also taking up the opportunity of bottling its wine virtually next door.

Managing director Ilse Ruthford revealed on the media walk through a few weeks ago that there are now 53 clients serviced by this thriving little business. Currently, the temperature-controlled – and very secure – storage facility has capacity for three million bottles. There was something quite humbling and awe-inspiring about walking through its spotlessly clean interior as a forklift buzzed around, stacking pallets and shifting crates of wine.

Many of these pallets were already labelled and shrink-wrapped, pending dispatch to Canada, the United States, Britain and elsewhere, while others were naked bottles, awaiting labels before they too would be readied for customers.

Ruthford, who admitted to being quite happy with her office job handling exports for Meerlust, confessed to being daunted at the prospect of taking up the reins of this business. “But it’s been so fulfilling seeing what I am capable of, along with all my colleagues.” She’s risen to the challenge and not only realised what she – and others – can do, but has broadened their vision and goals to include other projects.

The worker trust now owns nine cottages – three of which were recently renovated and revamped – which are rented out, generating further income for the worker trust. Furthermore, Compagniesdrift owns a shade over 10 hectares of vineyard which is leased to Meerlust, along with a further 30 hectares which the parent wine farm is currently utilising as grazing land for its newly acquired herd of Nguni cattle.

And then Compagniesdrift is also entering the wine game, with three wines due for release in January 2016 – an unwooded Chardonnay 2015, Chardonnay-Pinot Noir 2015 and Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot 2014.

In 2005, the then wild child of the South African industry, André van Rensburg, earned the wrath of his colleagues when they complained about their drubbing at the hands of the Aussies in the once-off SAA Wine Shield test match. “If you can’t handle the competition, go and plant vegetables!” he famously said.

Ruthford casually mentions that they also have a vegetable garden – two 12-metre long polytunnels actually – in order to foster food security among the worker community. It’s planted with tomatoes, while additional outdoor beds have spinach, beetroot, cabbage and carrots planted. “In the near future we’d like to involve the children and introduce them to the world of vegetable growing and a healthy lifestyle,” she said.

In five years Compagniesdrift and its people have grown. All indications are that this is just the beginning, and its people and services will continue to grow.

– Fiona McDonald