SA Wine Legend: Charles Back

Charles Back has a smile in his voice when he talks. Good humour suffuses his being; it’s a lot like sitting in the morning sun having a conversation with him.

“I’ve spent my entire life on Fairview, my late mother birthed me on the farm. I was born in the house adjacent to the tasting room.

“I’m a born farmer. I never thought of doing anything else, ever.”

Charles is the third generation owner of wine and cheese producer Fairview in Paarl. He is also the owner of the neighbouring Spice Route, though the wines are all produced in the Swartland, the farm offers a platform for visitors to taste the wines, there are also a number of restaurants as well as a brewery located there.

In 2014 Charles received the International Wine Challenge Lifetime Achievement. And what a life it has been and continues to be.

His grandfather, an immigrant from Lithuania, Charles Back I came to South Africa in 1902, whereabout he set up a successful wine export business. Upon his death in 1955, he bequeathed a wine farm to each of his two sons. Charles’s father Cyril Back was granted Fairview, where he lived with his wife Beryl.

Soon Charles Back II made an appearance. “Farming was all I ever knew, all I ever wanted to do. A good example is that when I was a little kid my mom had to bring my lunch out to me on the tractor.”

After being schooled locally, “at the best school in South Africa, Paarl Gimnasium!” He went on to do military service for a year, before heading to Elsenberg to get his oenology degree.

“Part of our winemaking course was to do practical work. I ended up at Perdeberg, under winemaker Joseph Huskisson. After a day or two he left me running cellar by myself! It was quite a lot of responsibility. I worked hard, started early in the morning, and finished at one or two at night.

“Before this I didn’t consider becoming a winemaker, I thought I’d simply be a farmer. At Elsenberg, the bug bit me, and for the first time in my life I really applied myself to study.”

He joined his father on Fairview in 1978 (the estate bottled its first wine in 1974). “My dad, like my grandfather, was a naturally gifted winemaker. The big thing I learnt from my dad was to have integrity. His word was honour. It meant everything.

“He also instilled in me the practice of treating people fairly. My mother also had a very big influence on me – she taught me the value of customer service.

“She taught me to never be bigger than your product. I’m a servant of my product that’s how I look at life.”

In 1995, Charles took over the farm upon his father’s passing. And then the full force of his entrepreneurial spirit took hold. He started by introducing Mediterranean grape varieties such as Viognier, Tempranillo, Sangiovese and Petite Sirah, one of the first in the Western Cape to do so.

Every bit the farmer, he also started an artisanal cheese business under the same brand name as the Fairview wine, which has now become biggest speciality cheese in the country.

“I introduced white wine into the range when I took over, before that we didn’t have the technology to do cold fermentation.”

He was also one of the front-runners of whole bunch pressing. A logical leap, he said it simply fitted in with the technology he had at his disposal. “The stalks act as natural ducts for the juice to escape easily, common sense. And today it’s standard.

“I took risks.”

“My travels overseas only came a bit later, I had already worked quite a while, which made it better, I knew what I was looking for. I travelled extensively, a lot of it with my good friend, Jeff Grier—and we travelled to most parts of the wine-producing world.”

His travels informed more of his innovations. “I was one of the first people in South Africa to go for the more modern, upfront fruit-style. Making red wines more fruit-forward rather than dried out and tannic.” His travels to Rhône in particular inspired him.

Back in the 90s, He made the world’s first sulphur free wine as a project for Woolworths. “That’s where all my grey hairs come from today!

“I’ve always been very experimental with wine and that’s enabled me to increase my knowledge base and that gave me the ability to do things very quickly as well as to know what not to do.”

And not just in winemaking that he’s a risk-taker: he’s also well known for his humorous and non-mainstream marketing and branding of his products.

“The marketing, hasn’t been based on a contrived strategy. Because I live so closely to my products they’ve become a reflection of my personality.

“I’ve been doing this for 40 years – and the  product range reflects this. At least it’s authentic, some people like it and some people don’t.

“I’m an honest person with integrity. I’m humorous, at least I laugh at my jokes. I laugh most of the day. I see the lighter as well as the more mischievous side to life; that’s the style of wine I make.

“The wines become you. I see human endeavour as a part of terroir.

Speaking of, he says: “600 people work with me in my business. The challenge is we’re perceived to be rather large and commercial, but we’re actually just a big garagiste.

“We’re Fairtrade accredited and there have been many farm labourers who have become partners in business. I don’t believe in doing superficial stuff to make it look good, but I create opportunity for anyone with the willingness to take the gap and grow with the company. There are opportunities for everyone, and it’s my job is to facilitate this.

That’s what I believe empowerment and transformation is all about, taking a successful business and plugging people into it.”

The business is still growing. With Charles overseeing much of the innovation.

His next big thing? A range of organic, natural wines inspired by his trip to Georgia, Russia, the world’s oldest wine producing country. “Over the years I’ve managed to reduce the amount of sulphur in our wines, so for me the next natural step is to take it to the full conclusion with organically grown grapes vinified in earthenware pots.”

Along with the other offerings, like the true farmer he is, he’s now also going into the meat as well as wheat business.

“I believe in the holistic approach. Closing the whole circle of life: the spent grain from the brewery we feed to the free-range livestock, which will eventually land up in one of our restaurants.

“I’m the butcher, the baker, the cheese and winemaker.”

Charles still lives on Fairview and he has two grown-up children, Bridget and Jason.

- Malu Lambert