SA Wine Legend: Bennie Howard

In the high-ceilinged interior of Neethlingshof Estate, Bennie Howard rises to greet me. A dusty magnum of the estate’s pinotage sits on a shelf, vintage circa 1986. “The 80s are great,” says Bennie referring to the wine. “They age well.  It was a good time; we drank a lot of wine!”

“I still drink a lot of wine,” he laughs. “But now I have three daughters [all in their 30s] who also love wine who help with the consumption!”

Cape Wine Pinotage tasting with Duimpie Bayly and Beyers Truter with the original Lanzerac Pinotage 1959 in Duimpie’s hands

Bennie was amongst one of the first groups to write the exams and qualify as a Cape Wine Master in 1983. But his life path wasn’t about wine, at first.

“I grew up on a farm in Indwe in the Eastern Cape,” he shares. “I could speak Xhosa better than I could English or Afrikaans!” His family farmed a variety of things, from cattle to wheat.

With Dave Hughes, Pietman Retief, Brandy Foundation, and Duimpie Bayly at a Cape Wine Masters Dinner

His early memories of wine revolve around family time. “In those days a barrel of muscadel came by train from Cape Town. My grandfather decanted it bit-by-bit into a smaller barrel that he kept in his study. I was sometimes allowed a teaspoon of it.”

It was a bucolic existence, tempered by harsh periods of drought that saw Bennie making up his mind to not follow in his dad’s agricultural footsteps. With a love for public speaking, a career in broadcast journalism was on the horizon. His engaging and charismatic persona quickly won him a bursary to go study at Potchefstroom University.

On a Wosa Visit to Sweden, With SA Ambassador to Sweden and Wosa representatives

A dynamic career in broadcasting followed. Bennie loved being amid all the events. His keen, curious mind lapped up stories, while he forged lifelong connections with everybody from statesmen to wine industry folk. It was in fact the latter that landed a ‘golden opportunity’ in his lap. Through various industry get-togethers he became good friends with fellow South African wine legend, Dave Hughes.

Much to his surprise, Dave put Bennie forward as a wine advisor for an ambitious ‘Wine Plan’ set out by Stellenbosch Farmers’ Winery Group (SFW). The famous company is now known as Distell.

Bennie started the SFW Wine Plan in Port Elizabeth as one of the regional wine advisors in 1979 (there were 12 of them across the country). SFW had invested approximately R1 million in The Wine Plan, a princely sum back in the ‘70s. “We were not a wine-drinking country then,” explains Bennie. “SFW had this vision, to kickstart a culture of wine.”

The approach was three-fold. The first arm was to install wine advisors into the regions, people with a passion for wine to host tastings and presentations. “It worked much like Tupperware parties did,” laughs Bennie. “A group of around 15 people would gather at someone’s home, where we would do a tasting.” There was also a wine centre in each region, which played host to tastings, lectures and get-togethers.

"One of the many roles in the industry that I have enjoyed over the last 40 years, has been as an MC at competitions and events." - Bennie Howard

The next part of the plan was getting the wines on the shelves, as after having got people interested in the product, they needed to be able to find it. And so entered the team of wine reps.

The last part of the plan that worked in tandem with the rest was the launch of the Cape Wine Academy (CWA). Headed then by Dave Hughes and Phyllis Hands. Since then the CWA has seen more than 200,000 students through its doors.

The highest qualification is the title of Cape Wine Master. Since the first graduation in 1983, 99 candidates (53 men and 46 women) have qualified to become Cape Wine Masters, and a further three (two men and one woman) were awarded the title of Honorary Cape Wine Masters, bringing the total number of Cape Wine Masters to 102.

Bennie was with the first group to qualify, he wrote (and sniffed and swirled) his exams alongside the late Tony Mossop, and Duimpie Bayly.

There was no escaping it. His life was now firmly about wine. In 1989 he took over the head office of SFW’s Public Relations and Group Corporate Affairs in Stellenbosch.

Season Of Sauvignon in Durbanville with cellarmaster Liza Goodwin of Meerendal

“SFW was a wonderful company, shares Bennie. “They had this culture – love of wine and love of people. One of the greatest wine people South Africa ever produced was Ronnie Melck [who was the MD of SFW as well as of Muratie Wine Estate].

“He knew every single person in the production facility by name. That culture was imbedded right through the company, as a leader he was an inspiration.”

Also in 1989, he took over as general manager of the Nederburg Auction for a tenure of 16 years, retiring his position in 2005. It was in this role that he met two more of his mentors. First was Nederburg’s legendary erstwhile winemaker, Günter Brözel.

With Hans Losch wine maker of Monis and Gunter Brozel on his 80th birthday

“The quality of that man,” says Bennie his eyes shining. “What he’s done for Nederburg, and for South Africa as a whole. I learnt a lot from him. Particularly in the way to present wine. Him and Dave Hughes—you could ask them anything at anytime about wine and they would have the answer.”

The auction had then been going since 1975, the brainchild of Lothar Barth (managing director of SFW) and Jurgen Burmeister (marketing director). It was already a big success even during the period of isolation. But Bennie knew he had to do something different, the eyes of the world were on South Africa, it was the dawning of the new era with Nelson Mandela poised to be freed from prison.

Enter the next major influence and great friend, the late Bill Gallagher, who is regarded as South Africa’s first celebrity chef. Bill was the Food and Beverage Director of Southern Suns and president of WACS. He was tasked with the culinary programme at the auction, and with Bennie they decided to do a sit-down multi-course dinner, for 1800 people rather than a buffet. It was a brave move, and one that put the auction on the map.

With famous Chef Bill Galagher at a Veritas Awards Tasting

“The Nederburg Auction lifted the image of South African wine. It was a tool for the industry to position itself globally.”

His work for SFW and the Nederburg Auction regularly put him in contact with the country’s parliamentarians, and he had the pleasure of an acquaintance with one great man in particular, the late Nelson Mandela. Bennie remembers fondly that at one private dinner at Nederburg, the beloved statesman enjoyed the Edelkeur Noble Late Harvest, and so, from then on Bennie sent him a case of the wine on his birthday every year.

Bennie is also the Vice Chairman of Veritas, the longest running and biggest wine and spirits competition in South Africa.

Currently he is the public relations officer for Meerendal Estate in Durbanville, and relishes the role, using his passion for wine education for the Meerendal Wine Academy.

International artist Dana Winner at Meerendal

Bennie has had—and still enjoys—a front row seat in the South African wine industry’s evolution. “It’s been amazing to watch the quality of wine increasing exponentially over the years—and to be a part of that, it’s like running a 5000 metre race, you just see it getting better and better.”

- Malu Lambert