SA Wine Legend: Kevin Arnold

“We’re bringing in the old vine chenin now,” says managing partner and cellarmaster, Kevin Arnold of Waterford Estate. It’s harvest time in Stellenbosch. The low purr of tractors rumble in the distance; and the scent of fermenting grape juice hangs over the Helderberg region like a ubiquitous summer perfume. It was in fact this aroma that first drew Kevin to his vinous vocation back in his student days.

“I love the smell of yeast,” he says reclining back in an armchair in Waterford’s tasting room.  “The smell of fermenting grapes is what attracted me to study wine in the first place.”  

At 63-years-old silver-haired Kevin has this relaxed charm that immediately draws you in. Born in the Karoo on a horse farm, wine wasn’t initially on the cards for him. Schooled at St Andrews in Bloemfontein, his path led him to Stellenbosch to study agriculture. The plan was teaching initially, “but I fell in love with Stellenbosch and the idea of making wine here.”

To get into the winemaking programme wasn’t so simple however. “In those days they didn’t let people who weren’t from the Western Cape study wine; so we made a deal, I needed to get the top marks in my agricultural studies to be allowed in.”

He did just that and went on to achieve a Diploma in Cellar Technology at Elsenburg. To augment this he worked as a cellar hand at Stellenbosch Farmers Winery (now Distell) between 1978 and 1979.

Serendipity struck in his practical year when he was taken under the wing of the sparrow, Spatz Sperling of Delheim.

“I was lucky to get a position so quickly,” he says. “I learnt so much there.”

In the space of two years (at the tender age of 24) he went from assistant winemaker to winemaker.

In his memoirs Sperling wrote about Kevin: It took only a few vintages to show us that he was destined to become a brilliant red wine maker. He just had the touch, the magic, the gevoel when nursing his reds.

He was right. Kevin went on to create three of the most iconic super premium red wines in South Africa: the Delheim Grand Reserve, the Rust en Vrede Estate and the Waterford Jem.

But that all came later. First he went travelling to soak up wine knowledge from other countries, along with trips to regions such as Portugal, France, Italy and Chile. He also spent a three-month period in Germany, some of which he spent as a student at the famed Geisenheim Wine School.

When asked if his time there influenced him, he says: “From a technical and mechanical point, yes.” But it was a trip to California that cemented his vision for the future.

In 1981 he was the first winemaker to be invited from South Africa to the Robert Mondavi Winery in California. “My time there gave me great insight into everything outside of the bottle; as winemakers we’re only taught about what’s inside, but the business side is just as important.

“This winery is inspired by my time in California,” he says with a sweeping gesture. Waterford Estate is indeed reminiscent of something you’d find in the Napa Valley, a passage of citrus trees and lavender bushes lead you to the stone portico-style entrance; inside is the tasting area and at its centre a Cape-Tuscan designed courtyard, complete with a burbling fountain.

His time in California also drove home the idea of making a super premium red wine in South Africa. “I knew we could compete with the best of the world,” he says simply.

He released the highly lauded Bordeaux-blend, the Delheim Grand Reserve in 1981 to great acclaim (he won the Genl Smuts Trophy in 1986 for it).

He spent nine years at Delheim (1979-1987), and in 1987 he took up the position of winemaker-manager at Rust en Vrede Estate.

“I wanted to specialise in red wine,” he says about the move. A decade followed, one that included the Rust en Vrede Estate wine, which went on to rake in the awards. In 1998 Rust en Vrede was the first South African red wine to be named in Wine Spectator’s Top 100 wines in the world.

Then it was time for a new challenge. Kevin is frank, “I didn’t want to work for a salary anymore, I needed to create equity.”

That’s when he met Jeremy Ord of Dimension Data, Kevin wanted to build a winery, and Jeremy wanted to invest. In 1998 they bought the farm, and in April 2000, Waterford Estate opened officially.

 “We started from scratch,” says Kevin. “ We had no buildings, no vineyards, nothing. Not only did we develop the style of wine we wanted to make, but we had to create a market for it too.”

In a flash of brilliance they devised a clever way to get the ball rolling with Waterford Wines. The name Kevin Arnold was well respected at large, and as such they created the Kevin Arnold Shiraz with the stipulation to trade if they wanted to list it, they had to list another Waterford wine too. In a fitting legacy tribute, each vintage of this wine is dedicated to one of the children of the Ord and Arnold families.

Waterford Wines shot to worldwide recognition with the Jem in 2004, the estate’s ultra-premium red blend, named after owner Jeremy Ord, or “Jem”, as he is fondly known.

Did he ever wish he had done something else? “Nobody has to tell me to get out of bed in the morning,” Kevin says smiling. “I’ve enjoyed every minute of it.

“I do think it’s important to note the people behind the scenes—winemakers get all the coverage—none of this would have been possible without my wife Heather. We would never have been able to get this place up and running without her.”

Married in 1980, the pair were destined from the start. Unbeknownst to them, they had actually both attended the same junior school in the Karoo. But it wasn’t until years later in Stellenbosch they met on a blind date.

They have three children two boys and the youngest, a girl. “Born on all the bad vintages,” laughs Kevin, “In ‘83, ‘85 and ’88.” The family have lived their whole lives in Stellenbosch, and on Waterford since its inception.

With decades of experience Kevin says the biggest challenge we face as an industry is our pricing. “We’re one of the greatest wine growing regions in the world and we’re pulling up our vineyards because our farmers can’t afford to keep them going.”

“We need to stand together, the industry needs to make a paradigm shift. Our competitors, Australia and New Zealand, are charging sustainable prices, so why not us?

“We always struggled with understanding the international market, and that’s why we started the Cape Winemakers Guild,” says Kevin who is a founding member of the illustrious guild. “So that we could really start assessing our position in the world market.”

Any advice for young winemakers? “Taste. Taste good wine daily. A good palate will help you achieve what you set out to do.

“Then build a good brand; something for people to aspire to. “It’s not just about what’s in the bottle. Look after it like you would your own children.”

- Malu Lambert